The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft during the tail end of the Kemba Walker era and hired the right coach, meaning they could compete in the Eastern Conference soon.
While Kemba Walker thrives in Boston, the team that let him go for nothing has charted a course forward. The Charlotte Hornets, subjected to the worst team-building position the NBA has to offer, have a path out of the dreaded middle.
It’s been said before that the worst place to be is just outside the playoff race. Charlotte lived there for years. Operating under a mandate from owner Michael Jordan to be competitive every year but cursed with botched draft picks and miserable player development, the Hornets stagnated.
Though Walker left for nothing in the offseason and was replaced by one of the NBA’s biggest overpays, Charlotte has found a coach and a young nucleus that presents real hope for the first time in years.
The kids are all great
Charlotte may not be at the top of the rankings of your favorite NBA Draft Nerd’s favorite teams, but they’re right near No. 1. That doesn’t even tell the whole tale though, because the Hornets accumulated a half-dozen super interesting young players despite drafting in the middle of the lottery every season.
Infamously, Charlotte used the No. 9 pick to draft Frank Kaminsky despite an exploding offer from Boston to give up four first-round picks to get to that spot and take Justise Winslow, whom the Miami Heat ultimately took a few picks later. That was years ago, under a different regime, and since that time, the Hornets quietly have collected a bunch of good prospects that fit together nicely.
No one in Charlotte is going to brag about having the 23rd offense in the NBA (per Cleaning the Glass), but second-year players Devonte’ Graham and Miles Bridges are showing shot creation ability that will go a long way.
The offense is 15 points better per 100 possessions when Graham is on the floor, and the sophomore is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. His glow-up only makes Charlotte’s summer acquisition of Terry Rozier even uglier (more on that later), but there’s no arguing Graham has been the Hornets’ best player.
By taking Walker’s place as an efficient, high-usage creator who can play on or off the ball, Graham has made it so that none of the other youngsters have had to absorb a bigger role than they can handle. Bridges is improved from 3, Malik Monk is attacking the rim like a madman and rookie PJ Washington has seamlessly flipped from a fulcrum at Kentucky to a great role player in the NBA.
The man tasked with orchestrating the deep young roster into a team is second-year head coach James Borrego, who brought to Charlotte an emphasis on pace-and-space as well as a passion for culture-building and development that sticks with anyone who comes through the San Antonio Spurs.
Borrego lets the young players be free and make mistakes, but his imprint on scheme is unmistakable. The Hornets under Borrego let it fly from 3 (they’re top 10 in 3-point rate again after finishing 24th in Steve Clifford’s last season) and get to the rim. They push the pace and play well off the guards.
Mixing small guards like Graham and Monk with big, long wings in Bridges and Washington makes for an interesting combination, but the forwards do a great job attacking mismatches. Defenses are tempted into switching because everyone is young and not respected yet (scouting reports will come soon for Graham), but everyone in Charlotte’s rotation can punish switches. The guards are too quick and shoot too well to be bothered by big men, while Bridges and Washington each flash fledgling post games that result in good, quick shots.
Functional strength continues to be a severely underrated skill in the age of skill ball, and Bridges is big and physical enough to decimate smaller guys inside.
Charlotte is the rare team that needs to post up more. Going inside-out through their young forward tandem is an area where they can find out more about their team. Per Synergy Sports, the Hornets post up on just 4.5 percent of possessions but are the most efficient team when they do so.
In many ways, Graham looks like the type of player we imagined Monk to be coming out of Kentucky. The Kansas product is a dynamite pull-up shooter (just check out his game-winner over the New York Knicks) with a dizzying first step and a silky floater that makes him impossible to guard. As he showed when he led the Jayhawks to the national championship game, Graham is also a willing passer, with the patience to wait until the last second to flip a pass to a shooter from under the rim.
This version of Monk, however, is merely a second-side playmaker who can get to the rim and finish at will but doesn’t draw many fouls or make teammates better. The Hornets didn’t extend him this fall and still will want to see more.
Add in backup combo guard Cody Martin and wing scorer Dwayne Bacon and the Hornets have a full rotation of young players who look capable of playing off one another. The piece Charlotte should look to add is a defensive center who can become a lob partner for Graham and a turnover-creating anchor at the rim. Look for them to target players like James Wiseman or Oscar Tshiebwe in this year’s draft.
Flexibility in 2020
You can’t separate a discussion about what the Hornets could do in 2020 from how much they hurt themselves with the Rozier contract. It looks even uglier now because Graham is playing out of his mind, but paying Rozier $57 million over three years was a gigantic overpay in the moment as well. The Phoenix Suns targeted Rozier but balked at the price tag and moved on from him to give Ricky Rubio $51 million on a cheaper contract that was also called an overpay.
That’s not to say Rozier has been bad. The 25-year-old is posting a career-high true shooting percentage and has assisted on nearly 23 percent of Charlotte’s shots while he’s on the floor this season, but it’s hard to pinpoint what he does that isn’t replicable. The drive-and-kick game feels no better than replacement level, he turns the ball over a lot, and he hurts the Hornets’ team defense routinely. His net rating is the worst of the regular rotation outside of Bridges, who is four years younger.
Case in point: Graham is doing all of what Rozier is doing, but better. While Charlotte, long unattractive to free agents, will be happy to have Rozier on their team, he limits their flexibility until 2022.
None of that is changing any time soon, so the Hornets will worry about how to add to their team now.
The albatross contracts of Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo will finally end after this season, meaning the Hornets have some spending money. Assuming Nicolas Batum picks up his $27.1 million player option (about the surest decision in the NBA), Charlotte can use about $24 million in cap space next summer.
With most of the league in the red, that money could go a long way. The summer of 2020 lacks in the way of star-level free agent talent, meaning an overpay from the Hornets could actually be desirable for a good player. Being a highly paid top player on a growing young team is good work if you can get it.
Considering for a moment only players Charlotte has the money to sign outright, Aron Baynes catches my attention. The standout for the Suns this year could be cut loose to make way for Deandre Ayton, especially if a team like the Hornets reaches for a high-dollar deal to make Baynes their starter. Veteran wings such as Maurice Harkless or Jae Crowder could reinforce Charlotte’s identity next to Bridges and Washington.
If the Hornets really want to reach for their next star (Danilo Gallinari, for instance), they could clear room by shopping Cody Zeller. He is a useful player who probably has neutral trade value after this season, at which point he will be on an expiring contract. But Zeller, long underrated and having begun to modernize his game under Borrego, fits well with how the Hornets play.
They most likely keep Zeller on his value contract and stick with the cash at hand.
While one can quibble with the Hornets’ mandate to always compete, they should by no means be in the business of selling off picks to make a run at someone like Gallinari. That’s the way to damage your future. Charlotte’s young core is exciting, but by no means complete. They can keep adding through the draft and use free agency to supplement their young stars.
The future is bright when you draft as well as the Hornets and hire the right coach. Any front office led by Mitch Kupchak that is willing to shell out big money for Rozier will be looked at with a side-eye, but it will be hard to ruin this situation. The Hornets are already on the fringes of the playoff hunt this year, and could build toward a top-four seed in the next year or two if they continue to nail the draft and spend more wisely from now on.
Money shouldn’t burn a hole in their pocket, but with Graham playing like an All-Star and the front office designing a roster that is cohesive and deep, Charlotte could become an appealing place for second-tier free agents to play, as well as a winning team, sooner than expected when they were left for dead after Walker’s departure.