Under Steve Clifford, the Charlotte Hornets have shown a trend: big improvement and a playoff berth, followed by a drop off and missing the playoffs. A year after making the postseason with 48 wins, Charlotte stumbled in an injury-plagued year and won just 36 games. While the improvement part of the trend is good to see, the overall inconsistency is far from what Michael Jordan wants to see.
The 2016 offseason started with the Hornets adding Marco Belinelli in exchange for Charlotte’s first round pick. He was seen as the answer to Courtney Lee’s inevitable departure. Belinelli added offense off the bench and was solid all year for the Hornets. He should continue in that role for at least one more year with Charlotte before becoming a free agent.
As free agency started, the Hornets lost Lee, as well as two productive reserves in Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin. All three had solid years for Charlotte, especially Lin, who had rehabbed his value back to his breakout season several years prior. Jefferson, due to injury, had lost his starting spot, but found his niche as a reserve big. All three were major losses for the Hornets.
With Belinelli in the fold already, Charlotte’s next order of business was to re-sign Nic Batum and Marvin Williams. Batum had come in trade the previous offseason and proved the be the ideal backcourt mate for Kemba Walker, as his size and all-around game matched well with the smaller Walker’s offense-minded game. Williams had developed into stretch 4, hitting over 40 percent from behind the arc. Both continued to have positive impacts in 2016-17 and are signed to relatively fair, if large, contracts going forward.
To replace Lin and Jefferson, the Hornets signed Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert. Neither of these deals really worked out, but both came with minimal risk. Hibbert didn’t even make it until the end of the season, as he was traded to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, and Sessions ended up on the shelf for most of the second half. Charlotte also brought back Brian Roberts, who proved once again that he is no more than a third point guard, at best. And the last addition was Christian Wood, a young big man with potential who had previously been with Philadelphia. He spent most of the year in the D-League, and saw several 10 Day Contract players play over him as the year went along. Charlotte has already indicated that they will not exercise their team option on Wood this summer.
The last big move of the offseason was to sign starting center Cody Zeller to a four-year extension worth $56 million. Zeller had proven to be a great match for Walker in the pick and roll game and as post scorer, but suffered through several injuries and missed 20 games. While extending Zeller seemed to be the right move at the time, the Hornets made an in-season trade that surprised many.
With the team battling for a playoff spot and Zeller injured, Charlotte swung a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hornets sent Hibbert and Spencer Hawes to the Bucks for Miles Plumlee. In terms of on-court impact, Plumlee is an upgrade over either Hibbert or Hawes. The challenge comes in terms of the salary cap. Plumlee is signed for the next three years at $12.5 million per season. At best, he’s a third big behind Zeller and Frank Kaminsky and an expensive one at that. The addition of Plumlee also removed any shot Charlotte had at cap space this summer. He, in effect, becomes the Hornets' primary 2017 offseason addition. Plumlee also bumps Walker, the team’s best player, to the sixth highest paid player on the roster. While Walker has made no noise about it, it bears watching as the season plays out.
In free agency, it is likely to be “what you see, is what you get.” Treveon Graham, Johnny O’Bryant and Briante Weber are all likely to be back, as they are all on non-guaranteed contracts. All have shown enough that they are solid deep bench options as developmental prospects. Weber, in particular, could eventually become the backup point guard the team lacks behind Walker.
And that leads to the team’s biggest weakness. The rotation is stocked with bigs and wings, both in terms of starters and reserves, but the backup to Walker remains a major question mark. Sessions and Roberts are both likely to be gone, and if they do return, the team would still like to upgrade that position. With the Non-Taxpayer exception having raised to $8.4 million, the Hornets should be able to find a quality addition to take the backup minutes. The draft is also deep in options, and Charlotte could find a backup to Walker there as well.
With almost every rotation spot spoken for with veterans, the Hornets main goal for next season is better health. Charlotte was 33-29 when Zeller played, a pace that would have had them in the playoffs. Without him, the team lacked any semblance of an inside scoring option. Kaminsky has improved, but remains far more comfortable on the perimeter. Plumlee was injured for most of his time in Charlotte and is more of a finisher off rolls and dives to the basket versus creating for himself. Zeller’s health is almost as big of a key for the Hornets as Walker’s is.
Beyond better health, the future of the cap is a bit murky for the Hornets. The team projects to hit the summer of 2018 with over $103 million committed to nine players in Batum, Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Plumlee, Walker, Williams, Zeller and their 2017 draft pick. That is also the final year that Kaminsky, Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb, Walker and Williams are signed for, as several have options or are expiring.
All of that makes this season critical for Charlotte. If they fail to rebound and get back to the playoffs, Jordan could look to make changes up and down the entire organization. He’s not the most patient person and desperately wants to win. In many ways, this could be the last go around for this group of players together. That means the Hornets should be focused on smart additions to add depth this summer and getting back to the postseason. If trends hold, Charlotte should win 40 plus games and be playing once again in late April. If not, don’t expect this team to look anything like it does at this time next year.
Guaranteed Contracts (9): Nicolas Batum, Marco Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Miles Plumlee, Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (3): Treveon Graham, Johnny O’Bryant, Briante Weber
Potential Free Agents (3): Brian Roberts (UFA), Ramon Sessions (UFA – Team Option), Christian Wood (RFA – Team Option)
“Dead” Money on Cap (0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #11
Maximum Cap Space: None. $3,588,308 over
Projected Cap Space: None. $17,567,005 over