Charlotte Hornets Player Power Rankings Part II

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Tier V: The Core Four – Our fans would mutiny if we traded these guys for anything short of an ALL-NBA player.

At last the crème-de-la-crème: the men who comprise the foundation of the Charlotte Hornets. I do not see a circumstance where any of these players are traded this season. Lance’s contract is simply too good to trade, Al is too important for the offense and Kemba represents the team’s heart and soul. Unless the Hornets go south quickly, I predict all three finish the season and hopefully return in 2015.

4. Lance Stephenson

Fresh off his (surprisingly decent) rap debut, Lance arrives in the fourth slot in these power rankings. No matter how you cut it, Lance was a huge signing for the Hornets. He will bring much-needed offensive creativity, perimeter shooting, defensive intensity and playoff experience. Lance is one of the few players in the NBA who wants to guard LeBron James during big moments, and does so effectively. Plus, his contract is incredibly team-friendly at 3 years, $27.4 million.

Of course, the signing could backfire should Lance’s reputation for selfishness and locker room drama come to fruition. My hunch is that Lance will fit in just fine. Charlotte has a very stable locker room with plenty of veteran leadership, and respected coaches. Lance has a lot to prove after his unsteady performance in the playoffs. If he lives up to his All-Star potential, watch out.

Nov 27, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson (1) passes the ball while being defended by Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson (25) during the fourth quarter at Time Warner Cable Arena. Pacers won 99-74. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

3. Al Jefferson

What else can be said about Big Al that has not already been said by every other Hornets fan? Al was justly rewarded for his monster season last year with Third Team All-NBA honors, and is expected to build keep it up this season. Although the Bobcat’s hope of stealing a playoff game against Miami were derailed when Al tore his plantar fascia, the injury appears fully healed heading into the season. In sum, with Al the Hornets can contend for a top-4 finish in the East. Without Al, the Hornets might contend for the eighth seed.

Why is Al not ranked first? It has 100% to do with his contract. The sneaky thing about Al Jefferson is that he can opt-out of his contract after this season, and he probably will. People scoffed at Charlotte when the Bobcats offered Al three-years, $41 million in the summer of 2013. Now, Al is worth far more than $14.5 million per season. Without getting too deep into the ramifications, Al opting out to demand a max contract puts Charlotte in a tricky place considering his age, injury risk and how many other young players will need contract extensions soon.

The best case scenario for Charlotte (short of Al picking up the $14.5 million player option) is to offer Al an extension this season in the $17 million per season range. But, if talks stall and Al appears set on earning max money, teams will absolutely begin calling to discuss his availability. Let’s hope Rich Cho continues his managerial brilliance and Al gets his extension.

2. Kemba Walker

Grantland’s Zach Lowe published a brilliant piece on Tuesday about Kemba Walker and his future in Charlotte. His argument, which I endorse, is that the NBA point guard market is so full of young talent, that signing Kemba to a $12+ million contract will render Kemba an unmovable asset in the future and may prevent the Hornets from spending their money more efficiently. Should Charlotte choose not to pony-up and pay Kemba before the October 31 deadline for such contract extensions, there will be plenty of other free agent options to choose from.

So, how much is Kemba worth?  A player’s worth is a relative topic, but it’s safe to say Kemba is worth more to Charlotte than he would be anywhere else. For one thing, Kemba embodies Charlotte’s rise out irrelevant ineptitude. He has been the face of the franchise since he arrived in 2011. If things go as planned this season, Kemba will lead the

Apr 28, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats guard Kemba Walker (15) shoots the ball during the second half against the Miami Heat in game four of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Heat defeated the Bobcats 109-98. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Hornets to back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2002. Simply put, Kemba, along with Big Al, are the faces of the franchise. While neither has Cam Newton-level importance to Charlotte, both are incredibly central to city’s sports identity. I just can’t envision a scenario where the Hornets brass considers Kemba as a movable asset this season.

1. Steve Clifford

Yes, Head Coach Steve Clifford is the most valuable asset in the Charlotte Hornets organization right now. Just think back for a moment to the days of Mike Dunlap and the Larry Brown-Paul Silas fiasco. Now think about how Clifford turned a team expected to compete for a top spot in the lottery into a playoff team. Think about how Clifford developed Big Al into a defensive anchor. Consider for a moment how Clifford brought in NBA greats Patrick Ewing and Mark Price to mentor young players.

Look at San Antonio, Miami, Dallas, Chicago, teams that win year-in and year-out. What do they all have in common? Elite players and elite coaches. When you find them, you don’t let them go. So long as Clifford is in Charlotte, the Hornets will be just fine.