2018-19 Charlotte Hornets
Projected Record: 34-48 (10th in East)
2016: 36-46 (10th in East)
- Tony Parker (Free Agency)
- Bismack Biyombo (Trade)
- Miles Bridges (Pick #12)
- Devonte’ Graham (Pick #34)
- Arnoldas Kulboka (Pick #55)
- Dwight Howard
- Timofey Mozgov
- Michael Carter-Williams
- Julyan Stone
- Better roster balance
- Decent upside on both ends of the floor
- Still no proven #2 option
- Kemba can’t do it all by himself
It’s inching ever closer to decision time for Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets. Viewed in full, the Hornets’ offseason was not a bad one — they freed themselves of Dwight Howard, landed a solid upgrade at backup point guard in Tony Parker, and drafted pretty well — but it’s one that seemingly doesn’t move the needle for a franchise that has been stuck in the mud for two consecutive seasons. They didn’t fully commit to winning right now behind Kemba Walker, but they didn’t kickstart a rebuild, either. They just… did things, and where those things may lead them remains unclear.
The Hornets’ hand may be forced, and soon. Walker is arguably the greatest player in franchise history, about to put together his fourth consecutive elite season since his emergence in 2015, but despite his efforts, the franchise has managed only one playoff appearance — a first-round exit — in that span of time. Now, with Walker staring down unrestricted free agency in the final year of his bargain contract, you wonder how things have reached this point.
James Borrego, a branch of the coveted San Antonio coaching tree, seems promising, but he has his work cut out for him in his rookie season. It’s hard to tab exactly who Charlotte’s second-best player is; it’s likely not Nicolas Batum, who has struggled to live up to expectations in his three seasons in Carolina, but if not him, then who? Cody Zeller, the efficient post technician who appeared in only 33 games last season? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who once appeared to have Defensive Player of the Year upside but was hamstrung by injuries? The aging Tony Parker? Ever-reliable role player Marvin Williams? Perhaps it could even be Miles Bridges, the rookie from Michigan State?
It’s a common refrain for these middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference teams — Charlotte has enough talent to be average, but not quite enough to be good. They can cobble together 11 or 12 mostly useful guys around Walker, squeak out some wins, and perhaps challenge for the eight seed. Higher, even, if their competitors struggle with injuries. But it’s hard to paint a picture where they end up with a higher ceiling than that.
I’ll be honest — the record I’ve projected here is this low because I think Walker finally, mercifully gets moved at the deadline. I know he’s said he wants to remain in Charlotte, and I believe him, but I don’t think there’s a timeline where he fits this team anymore. They’ve had years to find that second piece to push them to the next level, and they haven’t done it. The makings of a decent young core are there, though — Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte’ Graham and Willy Hernangomez are not nothing, and maybe there’s still hope for Kidd-Gilchrist too. It might just be time to move on, and let the youth movement take the reins.
Most Valuable Player: Kemba Walker
One thing I have made sure to flaunt at every conceivable opportunity over the past few years is the fact that I have been all-in on Kemba Walker since his final year at UConn. He is great, and I will make a complete ass of myself reminding everybody about how right I was until the end of time.
Seriously, though, it is fairly absurd how good Kemba Walker has become… and how little the Hornets have to show for it. Since the start of his breakthrough 2015-16 season, they have one playoff appearance, a first-round exit featuring a 73-point performance in an elimination game. The second star Walker has so desperately needed has never materialized, and for the fourth straight year, he’ll carry an immense offensive burden. It’s still not likely to result in a playoff appearance.
My favorite potential fit for a Walker trade is the same as it was last deadline: the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers have some interesting young pieces that could appeal to Charlotte in a rebuild — think a package like Domantas Sabonis, Aaron Holiday, Darren Collison (for salary) and a pick. In exchange, they get a dynamic star pairing in Walker and Victor Oladipo, who would ease each other’s workloads and raise the team’s overall ceiling in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But I digress. Such is Kemba Walker’s status in Charlotte right now is that I spent a full paragraph in his “Most Valuable Player” spotlight talking about a trade package that would send the guy to a team with better help. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
X Factor: Miles Bridges
On a much more positive note, the Hornets drafted Future 2018 Slam Dunk Contest Champion Miles Bridges with the 12th overall pick in his summer’s draft.
Bridges is the rare prospect who stayed in college for a second year and didn’t end up substantially hurting his draft stock. He’s a 6’7″, 230 pound beast of a combo forward who feels tailor-made for the “positionless” NBA. Bridges is a good shooter and capable isolation scorer, and it’s not hard to imagine him being able to guard two through five at the NBA level with his combination of strength and athleticism. I’m a particularly big fan of how Bridges improved as a shooter in his second season with Michigan State. While he shot a hair worse from behind the three-point line, his free throw percentage jumped nearly 20 points to 85%, which bodes very well for his ability to hit threes at the NBA level.
He can also dunk on anyone and everyone, and who doesn’t love that?
The Hornets are inching ever closer to finally modernizing their roster and their offense. They’ve come a very long way from the days of Al Jefferson. Miles Bridges is going to be key to completing that process — who knows, if Kemba stays around, maybe Bridges can finally be that second star he’s been looking for.
Don’t Forget About: Malik Monk
Hey, remember Malik Monk? Went to Kentucky, shot a whole bunch, had that 47-point game against UNC? The 11th pick in the 2017 Draft? Yeah, him! He’s still around!
Though he didn’t play particularly well in his limited minutes, Monk’s absence from the Hornets’ rotation last season was still a little puzzling. The opportunity seemed to be there — the primary backup to Walker was the ever-underwhelming Michael Carter-Williams, who was terrible even by his lowly standards, and there was plenty of room for another ball handler capable of creating his own offense.
Steve Clifford never quite bought in, and Monk saw basically the same workload as second-round rookie Dwayne Bacon. I don’t imagine it will be the same under Borrego. Monk’s path to minutes is a little less clear with the veteran Parker likely to soak up backup minutes at the point, but the only other established guard in the rotation is Jeremy Lamb, and he’s plenty capable of beating out the likes of Bacon or Devonte’ Graham.
Most importantly, Monk can flat-out shoot, which is a skill the new-look Hornets still lack to an extent. At Kentucky, he piled up 20 points per game on 45%/40%/82% shooting splits with a usage rate of 27%. He can pull up from anywhere on the court and attack off the dribble, and Charlotte could definitely use his brand of instant offense, especially when Walker sits. It won’t always be pretty — his shot selection can be rough, and he’s certainly not defending anybody — but it’s time for the 20 year old to get his chance.
Russell Varner (@rvarner)
What’s New? The most in a long time. Gone is stalwart head coach Steve Clifford, in is former San Antonio assistant James Borrego. Out is Dwight Howard – who missed the playoffs for the first time in his career, in is a familiar face in Charlotte – Bismack Biyombo. Out is Michael Carter-Williams, in is an actual competent backup point guard with Hall of Fame credentials in Tony Parker and rookie Devonte’ Graham. Lost in all this is fellow rookie Miles Bridges, who is already doing all he can to make the dunk contest. In his first offseason in charge, new GM Mitch Kupchak stayed quite busy.
What’s the Same? As much as the team has changed and added, the Hornets will go as far as Kemba Walker can take them. The team’s recent struggles cannot be blamed on the point guard. Per NBA.com, when Walker was on the floor last season, Charlotte outscored opponents by 3.5 points per 100 possessions, “a comparable margin to that of the 55-27 Celtics.” The rest of the roster remains the same muddled mess – an oft-injured Nic Batum and Marvin Williams with gigantic contracts attached to them. Former high draft picks in Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who have not lived up to their drafted positions (as unfair as that is to them). Frank Kaminsky, for whatever he is to become in the NBA, will forever be judged against the reported godfather trade offer the Celtics offered that night. On the bright side, Jeremy Lamb was one of the best sixth men in the league last year.
What to Expect? For the Hornets this season, fans can expect plenty of nostalgia from the team’s 30th anniversary and more of Kemba Walker doing…well, more of this. Other than that, plenty remains in flux. Can Borrego give a team stuck in mediocrity since the franchise returned to Charlotte a spark to make a push in the new LeBron James-less East? Will Malik Monk be given more playing time under a new head coach? Will he join with Bridges, Graham and Willy Hernangomez to give the Hornets a new core to build around moving forward? Should the team struggle, will they finally trade away Walker despite his repeated pleas to stay with the franchise? It should not be forgotten that Charlotte is hosting the NBA All-Star Game this season and will want to leave a good impression on the league.
The upcoming season could be a make-or-break one for this current iteration of the team. If they fail to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year, what more can owner Michael Jordan do? Will it be time to blow it up and start over? The good news is the 30th anniversary jerseys and court designs look beautiful and will be a sight for sore eyes for NBA fans. Walker is sure to delight once again, and hopefully break from the ranks of the underrated to the properly-rated. Other than that though, much is unclear with the team, both in the short- and long-term
Tucker Warner (@twarner50)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Hornets have created an unenvious decision for themselves. They have enough talent to make the playoffs, but limited ceilings and bad luck have kept them from achieving much success, and it’s unclear whether or not their young talent will develop into the stars they need to be for this team to make the leap to the next level, as their group of prospects and draft assets isn’t particularly promising.
So…same as it’s been for the last five years, essentially? More or less. The core is largely unchanged, but for the first time in a while, the future is up in the air. What will be on every Hornets fan’s mind all season is Kemba Walker’s contract status, as his bargain deal runs out after the year; one way or another, Charlotte’s best player since rejoining the league will be the most important part of the rebuild. Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky, both on their fourth year with the team, also have their contracts expiring after this season, and Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist only have option years left after the season. What happens after this season will be the primary focus of the front office all year, and it’s very uncertain.
Less uncertain is how the team will play this season. Stylistically, they’ll see a bit of a change under new coach James Borrego, even though Steve Clifford started to go away from his typical pack-it-in emphasis in the last year. We’ve always known that the traditional starting lineup—Kemba, Nicolas Batum, MKG, Marvin, and Cody Zeller—meshes well together, and Kaminsky’s improvement has allowed for some lineup flexibility. Unfortunately, the lineup meshes really well together. As in, the team is significantly worse anytime even one player is out with an injury, which, as it turns out, has been pretty frequently over the past three years.
Enter the youth movement, or whatever passes for it in Charlotte, as Malik Monk (still only 20 years old) figures to get important minutes for the first time in his career, Miles Bridges (also 20) will make an impact in the rotation, and Charlotte’s development projects are no longer veterans unlikely to make any improvements, they’re players like Bismack Biyombo (26), Willy Hernangomez (24), Dwayne Bacon (23), and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (who’s somehow still 24?). In classic Horncats fashion, they of course picked up a name-brand veteran in Tony Parker, who can provide the stabilizing backcourt presence the bench unit has desperately needed for years.
Hornets devotees have reason to stay invested this year. The team will be competitive, there’s optimism for the future, at least one of the prospects will develop into a genuinely good player, and there’s still a bonafide All-Star on the team for now. Maybe they’re not the most interesting team for league-wide fans to regularly check in on, but the Hornets should at least be able to shed their reputation for being boring as their roster and coaching begins to fit modern basketball a little bit more.