The Charlotte Hornets have been a perennial lesson in what frugality in a small market under a stubborn owner will produce over the decade owner Michael Jordan has been at the helm, and despite some promising moves ahead of the 2018-19 season, the collective weight of that decade of mediocrity crushed any hopes of growth for the franchise.
To adapt a tired old adage, Jordan has given a master class on why individual excellence in sports often doesn’t translate to ownership any more than success in business does. Recent coaching and management changes with James Borrego and Mitch Kupchak may prove helpful to righting that trend longer-term, but it will take time to erase the impact of past mistakes.
After a near-decade of mediocrity driven by a meddling owner and a front office unwilling to push back, offseason moves ranging from the hiring of Kupchak and Borrego to signing long-time San Antonio Spurs stalwart Tony Parker to back up Kemba Walker rekindled a sliver of hope in Hornets fans. While Kupchak might not be a top general manager, it was hoped he might still be capable of pushing back against Jordan’s caprices, and Borrego, while untested as a head coach, represented yet another potential branch of the thus-far successful Gregg Popovich coaching tree that might take root in Charlotte.
But it didn’t last long. By the draft, they began with their usual shenanigans, sending Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Clippers for Miles Bridges and two second-round picks. Jordan and company would then attempt to execute a low-rent interpretation of Danny Ainge in collecting second-round picks for burning cap space to take on nearly-useless big men like Timofei Mozgov and Bismack Biyombo. Then, despite an All-Star, All-NBA season from point guard Kemba Walker, the team not only missed the playoffs, but failed to re-sign their sole star player out of concerns for the mess they’d made of their cap.
That they clogged to get some second round picks.
While the argument that signing Walker to a Supermax contract being a bad move was probably sound, the UConn product had made it clear he was willing to work with the franchise to arrive at a more palatable deal. A deal they never arrived at after lowballing the famously-loyal player so badly it sent him right into the arms of the Celtics. They did manage a sign-and-trade for Rozier (one of the principle sources of Boston’s 2018-19 headaches), by throwing in one of those hard-earned second rounders for the privilege, telling you everything you need to know about the death of hope this franchise seems to revisit in Groundhog Day fashion.
Expectations are justifiably low, with Walker gone and Rozier largely untested as a leader in the regular season. While there should be plenty of minutes for Charlotte’s younger players to develop, and plenty of stomach to boost the lottery odds, the new format of odds for the lottery should prevent the team from having to outright cut the legs off of the team to make a rebuild happen, which coincides nicely with the need to fill seats in such a small market. Even still, it’s not out of the question to see Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller dealt to a new team by the deadline should they be able to squeeze an asset out of the exchange, as neither of the two veterans will make much sense for the Hornets near-term future.
The start of the season will be brutal, with a pair of home games against improved Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves rosters, followed by a brutal early West Coast road trip to face the revamped Los Angeles Lakers and early-odds title favorite Los Angeles Clippers, then on to a burgeoning Sacramento Kings and a tilt with the injured-bear Golden State Warriors. They’ll then face their former floor general and the Boston Celtics for Walker’s return to Charlotte November 7th, while also having the honor of getting disassembled by the Milwaukee Bucks in Paris on January 21st.
So, while there may not be much to hope for in terms of imminent development or success, the right perspective and a little luck could make next season a tolerable affair, especially if Jordan can finally learn to get out of his own way.
With a clogged cap and little in the way of sexy draft assets or prospects, this team needs to do a lot with what they have on hand. While former Spurs assistant and current head coach comes from a coaching lineage known for doing exactly that and then some, it remains to be seen whether he can make that a portable skill in his new home.
2. Leveraging remaining veteran players for assets
As noted above, they don’t have much to work with here. But for the right team in a league with more parity than perhaps more than a decade, they might be able to move Williams, Zeller, and maybe even Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for a modest return.
3. Front office growth
For any of the above to succeed, Jordan will have to become comfortable delegating for the first time in his post-player career. Seemingly a minor issue, it’s been the anchor weighing down this franchise for the entire time he’s owned it, and if he can’t get to of the way, he ought to consider letting go of the team entirely.
Terry Rozier | 9.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg
Which version of Scary Terry will Charlotte be getting? The version who led the Boston Celtics on an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals is worth every penny of the near-$20 million the Hornets will pay him next season. But fans of his former team might be reticent to have him back for half that figure given how he performed when things weren’t going his way.
PJ Washington | 15.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.8 apg
While no one is expecting a superstar out of the Kentucky product, he was widely seen as one of the safest bets in a somewhat shaky draft. If there’s anything this team needs, it’s a few rocks to build around. With so many missed swings in the last decade’s drafts, Charlotte just needs Washington to become a starter in the league, and with the team poised to rebuild for the next several seasons, he ought to get some run towards that end.
Malik Monk | 8.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.6 apg
To date, Monk has underwhelmed since joining the NBA, not quite a wash, but also far from the hoped-for prospect taken with the 11th overall pick two summers prior. He’ll have a shot at a starting role on next season’s team — but will it matter?
Willy Hernangomez | 7.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.0 apg
While far from a complete player, particularly on the defensive end, Hernangomez should be able to get the run he needs to start taking steps on both ends of the floor. He’ll have no trouble filling up the box score — particularly if he can cement the three as part of his arsenal — but his future value will be determined by boosting his defensive buy-in.
Nic Batum | 9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.3 apg
After Batum’s worst season since his rookie year, things will probably get better for the French wing, And with his salary eating up nearly a quarter of the team’s payroll, you’d like to rehabilitate his value enough to deal him for players on an age curve that fits the team. Even though that’s unlikely, the alternative ought to help the team’s draft stock, if nothing else.