Hornets

Hornets (Finally) Embracing New Direction

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Most of us definitely heard this at some point the last decade: the Charlotte Hornets tried and ultimately failed in its “race for the eighth seed.”

It’s a statement which rings true over and over… and over again. Charlotte will miss the NBA playoffs for the eighth straight season, the longest active postseason drought in the league. Since its 48-win campaign in 2015-16, the Hornets won between 23 and 43 games as the cycle of being stuck “in the middle” continued year after year.

Until now. With a 16-49 record after Monday’s loss to the even-lower Pistons, this looks (thank goodness) like the year the Hornets will embrace a new direction, avoid short-sighted decisions and push for a sustainable future. A couple of in-season trades offered a glimmer of hope that would be the case, and locking in Jeff Peterson as Charlotte’s new executive vice president of basketball operations is nothing short of refreshing.

“Our main goal is to have sustained success. We don’t want to make the playoffs one year and then we’re out for another three or four years,” Peterson, who was previously assistant general manager for the Brooklyn Nets, said during his introductory press conference last week. “We want this to be sustainable and turn this team into a consistent winner.”

With their season all but over, let’s discuss how the Hornets can continue this momentum of building for the future.

Cleaning house

Charlotte clearly remains at the bottom of the league barrel this year in particular. For the record, being bad serves as a good thing here given how long the franchise remained in NBA no man’s land.

The Hornets currently sit on pace for approximately 20 wins and the fourth-best lottery odds, according to Tankathon. Charlotte also possesses a minus-10.35 on Basketball-Reference’s simple rating system, over a full point ahead of second-worst Washington at minus-9.33. It could be the franchise’s worst 82-game record since going 21-61 over a decade ago (as the Bobcats).

That’s how long it’s been for a franchise stuck in a spiral of being both too bad to make the playoffs and too good to embrace that full rebuild. But, that philosophy definitely changed this time around particularly with the team’s near-total makeover this trade deadline.

Weeks before the deadline, Charlotte flipped veteran Terry Rozier to Miami for Kyle Lowry and a lottery-protected first-round pick from the Heat in 2027. Two hours before the deadline passed, Charlotte later shipped off P.J. Washington to Dallas and Gordon Hayward to Oklahoma City for picks and general flexibility.

Going out: Rozier, Washington, Hayward and own second-round picks in 2024 and 2028

Coming in: Lowry (waived), Seth Curry, Grant Williams, Davis Bertans, Tre Mann, Vasilije Micic, Oklahoma City’s second-round picks in 2024 and 2025, Miami’s lottery protected first-round pick in 2027 and Dallas’ top-two protected first round pick in 2027

It’s a start, and a great one at that. Realistically, Charlotte needed to trade the likes of Rozier and others much earlier. However, this is a clear shift in tone and direction for what the franchise’s priorities are.

Figuring out the core

The in-season moves helped to build the foundation. What comes next?

It’s safe to say Charlotte remains content to build the roster around LaMelo Ball, a gifted offensive hub who is still 22 years old. Drafted third overall in 2020, Ball won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team in his second year while his scoring and playmaking stats improved the past two seasons. He’s averaging a career-high 23.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game this year.

Ball also remains under contract for a while— he signed a five-year deal worth up to $260 million last summer. Ball won’t be an unrestricted free agent until 2029, which would be the end of his age-27 season.

Let’s be clear: concern is still present, particular with Ball’s health. He’s played 58 games combined the last two years and remains out and hasn’t stepped on the court since January 26. He did bounce back from a poor start this season, but the lack of availability is troubling.

The real questions Charlotte needs to answer are the following: what role does Ball serve on a legit playoff team and what do you need to properly build around him?

Youngsters Brandon Miller and Mark Williams also feel like part of the new core for Charlotte. Miller, the second pick in the 2023 draft, is currently averaging nearly 17 PPG and fits the mold as the do-it-all, multi-position wing. Williams is up to nearly 13 PPG and 9.7 RPG, but has also played just 19 games this year.

Along with Ball, Williams is also 22. Miller is 21. That’s a trio Charlotte can clearly build around.

Trending in the right direction… for now

The Hornets certainly will have a lot of flexibility and tools to work with as a means of rebuilding the roster. Charlotte remains on pace for its second consecutive top-four pick. The franchise also projects to have roughly $40 million in cap space for the upcoming offseason (seventh-most in the league).

Obviously, there’s a lot to address. Starting with the roster itself, here’s the main questions Charlotte needs to start thinking about:

  1. What’s the verdict on re-signing Miles Bridges?
  2. Is the newly-acquired Grant Williams a long-term piece or not?
  3. In a not-so-amazing free agent class, which players does Charlotte identify as good fits?

The other elephant in the room: Steve Clifford, who is in his seventh year as head coach (across two different stints). If this is a full reset, is moving on from Clifford part of the equation?

Charlotte fell into bad habits repeatedly throughout the 2010s. That doesn’t appear to be the case based on this season.

And yes, there is still a lot to sort out. Fortunately for the Hornets, their current game plan is way better than anything else over the past near-decade.

Lots of work remains, but shifting strategy is always a great start.

About Dominic Chiappone

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