Two years ago, the Charlotte Hornets were on the rise. The team had just won 48 games, earned a playoff berth and had a group of intriguing prospects to go with solid, prime-age vets flanking the always improving (and eventual All-Star) Kemba Walker. But after a forgettable 16-17 campaign and slow start to open this season, the Hornets are now facing a tough choice between the comfort of a franchise star or a walk down the unforgiving rebuild road.
Before seeing how Walker became the focal point of Charlotte’s future, it’s important to take a look at how this franchise fell instead of flew. And it pretty much comes down to three major roster building flaws that have combined to put the Hornets in this situation.
The first issue is how the club has failed to fill out the fringes of their rotation since key role players left during the summer of 2016. Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson aren’t world beating stars on their own, but they played a huge role in providing depth and productive minutes for a team that damn near won 50 games. In an effort to replace them, the Hornets banked on bargain free agent pickups Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions while trading for Marco Belinelli. It, umm, didn’t work out.
Sessions was a disaster in the 50 games he played. Belinelli posted pedestrian numbers in a limited role. Hibbert’s offensive shortcomings outweighed any defensive value he brought to the table and was eventually traded. Throw in some bad luck in close games -- Charlotte went 22-29 in games decided by five points or less in the last five minutes, per NBA.com -- and you get part of the reason why this franchise lost 12 wins in a single year.
This year it’s been a similar story so far. Michael Carter-Williams was brought in to solve the backup point guard problem. His numbers state he’s likely playing for his last NBA team. Johnny O’Bryant and Julyan Stone were brought in to provide depth at the end of the bench. Stone has failed to stick with two other teams before this while spending the past three years out of the NBA. Neither has made a positive impact on the team so far this year.
The next problem for Charlotte has been their insistence on tying themselves to veterans they overpaid to maintain. The team stuck with Jeremy Lamb as a restricted free agent, signing him to an extension in 2015 banking that an inefficient, mid-range heavy scorer would find another gear. Now playing a bigger role than ever before, Lamb is still…..an inefficient mid-range heavy scorer. He’s just playing more minutes and will be paid roughly $15 million in total through the end of next season.
Marvin Williams sparked the Hornets' surge in 2016 by being a mobile stretch big that matched the modern NBA. Unfortunately for Charlotte, they bought Williams’ stock at the highest point. Now the franchise will be paying $42 million through 2020 to a player currently posting a 0.8 VORP (Value over replacement player) rating this season, per Basketball Reference.
The biggest mistake, however, may have been with Nicolas Batum. Batum’s arrival played a large role in Charlotte securing those 48 wins in 2016. But as a free agent the following summer, Batum presented a major problem for the Hornets. Despite posting a career high in assists and meshing well with the jitterbug scoring act of Kemba Walker, Batum’s game and surrounding numbers didn’t exactly scream “franchise player” money.
Yet for Charlotte, letting Batum walk the summer after finally gaining some momentum would have been a tough sell to everyone in and around the franchise. The Hornets went ahead anyway and now owe Batum, whose numbers declined last season and gotten worse to start this one, roughly $80 million through 2021. That type of money going to essentially a nice rotation player (during his good years) is difficult for a small-market team like Charlotte.
But perhaps all this could have been mitigated by one of the most glaring issues for Charlotte: the development of their younger players. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, despite being a defensive ace, still has not found find the right tweaks to his shooting form. One a team loaded with shooting, Kidd-Gilchrist could still be a hugely impactful player. The problem for him is, the Hornets are not that team. He’s still a productive youngster, but will always be one that’s tricky to build around.
Though it’s too early to make calls on Malik Monk (who has struggled so far this season) and Dwayne Bacon, it’s getting to the point in another lottery pick's career that warning bells can be sounded. Frank Kaminsky -- the player Charlotte turned down four draft picks to select -- took a major step backward during his sophomore campaign when the team was banking on him to help fill Jefferson’s void. Couple that with a so-so start to this season, and a player the Hornets needed to ascend to at least starter-level, is now engaged in a fight for a place in the league.
All of this has put a tremendous amount of pressure on Walker. The Hornets post a +5.9 per 48 rating when Walker is on the floor. When he’s not, that number plummets to -18.5. It’s quite the swing. That massive reversal makes two things very clear:
- Walker is quite a valuable player both in general and to the Hornets.
- Your franchise is not in a good place if a player is doing that and you’re still only 10-17.
This why Charlotte needs to think long and hard about whether now -- before Walker enters the last year of his contract -- is the time to think about taking a step back.
The appeal for the Hornets to keep going with status quo is easy. The investments in Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Williams and Dwight Howard have them pretty much, well, screwed. It’s impossible to see those players jettisoned for anything other than deals that are equally cumbersome.
On top of that, the Hornets have played one of the league’s toughest schedules to this point (per ESPN.com). A few close games go there way, some players return to health and a softening schedule could be a recipe for enough wins to sneak into the playoffs around .500. And for a franchise like Charlotte that has to watch their bottom line, playoff money -- even if it’s just for two home games -- is a massive incentive.
Yet the downside is a lot worse. Howard, Batum, Williams, et al, are not going to suddenly reach their peaks as the years drone on. Kaminsky turning into a franchise-altering player is pretty much a pipe dream. So unless one of their picks from this summer blows up into a star, it’s hard to see Charlotte touch 45 wins, much less 50.
Teams like the Pacers have seen the benefits of shedding an impending free agent star. Trade one really good player for multiple young ones, some picks and maybe you end up exceeding expectations. But the team that really is the model for the Hornets should be the Deron Williams-era Jazz.
When Utah shocked the league and traded Williams to Brooklyn it netted quite a haul. Derrick Favors has turned out to be a solid big man. A draft pick turned into Enes Kanter who netted a draft pick that led to Donovan Mitchell -- a player looking more and more like on the NBA’s next stars. And those are decent returns when you consider the Jazz whiffed on Trey Burke and Tibor Pleiss -- two players they had a chance at as a result of dealing Williams.
For the Hornets, a deal like that along with this year’s resulting lottery pick could put them in a position to slowly rebuild while letting the onerous contracts of Batum, Williams, et al, run out. A handful of teams competing for a playoff spot in the West could definitely use Walker (Hi San Antonio) and because he’s not a half-year rental, Walker could fetch plenty of nice assets.
Charlotte could continue living out the comforts of the status quo but given their past mistakes, it’s just lost time. Though there’s always a risk to trading an established star, it may be time for Hornets to move Kemba Walker out of the hive.