After failing to offer Kemba Walker a satisfying contract in free agency, the Charlotte Hornets are without their best player in franchise history, and have launched themselves into full-scale rebuild mode. On top of losing Walker, the Hornets also lost key contributors in Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky as well. Combined, the trio made up nearly 45% of the team’s total offense. Also gone is Walker’s leadership and competitive spirit, two things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. The upcoming season is almost sure to be a painful one for Hornets fans, however, below is what you can expect from the organization this season and beyond.
Opportunity For The Youngsters
Perhaps the most immediate consequence of the free agency departures is that now the younger players will be forced to step up. Miles Bridges showed flashes during his rookie season, but scored less than 10 points in 56 games, as well as struggling from the three-point line. Bridges will have a chance to hone his skills during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, however, we won’t really know how much he has improved until the regular season begins in October. No matter what though, Bridges is sure to see an uptick in minutes, and should become a regular in the starting lineup.
One of the more interesting pieces for Charlotte is Dwayne Bacon. The third-year pro dramatically improved his shooting percentage between his first and second seasons, and is also a solid defender. After shooting 38% in his rookie year, Bacon shot 48% this past season, including 44% from beyond the arc. Bacon will likely be a regular in James Borrego’s rotation this season, something that he’s yet to experience in his young career. If Bacon can continue to play well as he did in limited action last season, he could possibly find himself in Charlotte’s long-term plans down the road.
Another returning player with a chance to prove himself in Year 2 is Devonte’ Graham. Graham played in 46 games last year, bouncing between the Hornets and their G-League affiliate. Towards the end of the season he tended to see more minutes, however, he shot only 34% on the year. Despite his struggles shooting, Graham actually had a good assist-to-turnover ratio, collecting nearly four times as many assists as turnovers on the year. Graham will have an opportunity this season to earn a full-time role in the Hornets’ rotation, although he’ll be playing behind the newly-acquired Terry Rozier.
Former Kentucky players, PJ Washington and Malik Monk will also have an opportunity to shine in the upcoming seasons. Washington was taken in the first-round of this year’s draft by Charlotte, and is known for his willingness to play physical, as well as his toughness on the defensive end. Monk, unlike Washington, is known for being a sharpshooter. Monk has impressed at times over his first two seasons in the NBA, however, he hasn’t been able to be a consistent offensive option for Charlotte. He will also need to improve his defense as he enters his third season. As for the two former Kentucky standouts, they’ll both have an opportunity to make an impact on this club for at least the next few years.
Expiration of Bad Contracts
Most every NBA team has to deal with one or two “bad” contracts. The Hornets on the other hand have a roster full of them, and it cost them valuable cap space which could have been used to re-sign Walker. Players such as Bismack Biyombo and Marvin Williams are slated to make over $15 million this season. Even Rozier’s contract, with an average annual salary of over $19 million, seems far too much for his level of talent. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is making $13 million this season, and Cody Zeller is in line for $14.5 million. Luckily for Charlotte, all of those contracts (except for Zeller’s) are set to expire after the 2019-2020 season.
By far the worst contract for the Hornets though is that of Nic Batum. Prior to the start of the 2016-2017 season, Charlotte awarded Batum a 5-year, $120 million deal that keeps him with the team through the end of next season. The problem with Batum’s contract is that he has vastly underperformed the dollar amount, and he will make almost $53 million over the next two seasons. Trading Batum or any of the other above players seems like a good idea, however, the massive dollar amounts seem to scare potential suitors away. Because of that, they’ll likely just have to wait out those bad contracts in order to free up cap space for the future.
Stockpile Draft Capital
“Tanking” has become a newfound strategy in the NBA, and despite the league’s efforts to eliminate it, tanking is exactly what the Hornets could be doing over the next year or two. Charlotte has been a lottery pick almost exclusively the past several years, however, only Walker has seemed to pan out as hoped. Kidd-Gilchrist was taken at second-overall back in 2012, but his offense hasn’t yet developed as planned. Zeller was taken at fourth-over the following year, and although he’s been a solid player, he has never been anything close to a star.
The Hornets have a poor track record of drafting and developing talent, however, if they hope to turn the franchise around, they’ll have to improve not only their draft positioning, but also their drafting success. That means tanking may be necessary to “earn” a good draft pick, but the team also needs to do a better job of drafting and retaining All-Star caliber players. Unfortunately for the Hornets, they have few, if any, appealing trade options they could use in order to gain more picks, especially with Walker gone.
The immediate future for the Hornets is obviously pretty bleak. Tanking is going to be an ever-present option, and there’s no real star to lead the team to any sort of contention. Charlotte’s best bet for the future is to get rid of over-priced, binding contracts, and then to draft players who have the potential to make a legitimate NBA impact. The face of the franchise is gone, but this rebuild hopefully will lead to new days of stardom and playoff basketball in Charlotte.
*All Stats From Basketball Reference