The Charlotte Hornets were thoroughly outplayed in their season-ending 144-117 loss to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Play-In game but hope endures for this young squad in Buzz City. The only obituary being written about this team concerns the pre-Lamelo Ball era of mediocrity at best. That’s over now. Water under the bridge. The 7-59 (Bobcats) team from a decade ago is nothing more than salved scar tissue.
This team is driving forward powered by the best player in the rookie class, an array of hyper-athletes with cannons, and a young, impressive coach and cannot even see those past failures in the rearview mirror. They are speeding ahead to a future of contention with not a care in the world.
Ball has four more years left on his rookie deal. Michael Jordan will pay to keep him in the playoffs. The Hornets finished the year as the tenth seed (33-39) but the core of the roster showed top-six potential. Their season peaked with a dogged win over the Bucks on April 9, vaulting them to 27-24. It was also at this time they lost Gordon Hayward for the season. Their near-term success may be tethered to Hayward’s health and any Boston fan will warn you that is a precarious place to be.
By signing the right mix of veterans on prove-it deals to alleviate the team’s dependence on the off-injured star wing, the Hornets are primed to rise from the dead and actually be a relevant NBA franchise for the first time since Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues graced a Queen City court.
It all starts with LaMelo Ball. Obviously. LaMelo has almost seven million Instagram followers. Almost one million check out his Facebook page. Same for Twitter. The Charlotte Hornets accounts barely add up to two million combined. Forget Kwame Brown, Michael Jordan’s first real run at an NBA championship as an owner starts and ends with LaMelo Ball. Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, and P.J. Washington all look ahead of their developmental growth curves, showing they are the foundations of a great supporting cast.
LaMelo is first in assists (6.1) and steals (1.6) among rookies. He is second in both points (15.7) and rebounds (5.9), the traditional markers of a decent and promising player. Ball also is at the top of all of the advanced analytical charts. LaMelo deserves to be mentioned in the same category as a young LeBron and perhaps even above and before the one-named generational talents of the previous year, Zion and Ja.
Ball improved throughout the season, even through injury, and excelled using pure athleticism and instinct. He has four more years on a rookie deal before he even touches his prime but he is already on the NBA Eastern Conference All-Star ballot for next year. And he has help coming.
The only other big expense on the salary cap next year is Terry Rozier. Rozier played through a wrist injury to help lead this team to the finish line. The Hornets will need to extend or trade Rozier in the coming months before he becomes a free agent. Should the Hornets stand pat, they will still have over $30 million to play with in the free agency markets plus their exceptions.
Still, Hayward ($30M) and Rozier ($18M) are the only players that will cost more than $10 million next season. Cody Zeller’s $15 million cap hit comes off the books, allowing Charlotte to find a more adaptable big man to pair with Ball. Devonte’ Graham is a firecracker PG who could play alongside or come off the bench to back up Ball. Graham shot 37% from three on a gaudy 8.7 attempts this season.
P.J Washington and Miles Bridges have shown great potential and their rookie contracts make them great trade assets should the Hornets wants to chase a top seed sooner rather than later. Malik Monk wants to come back and Charlotte should be able to fit him into the Mid-Level Exception and have change left over to find a veteran rotation player.
Hayward is the best player, Ball is the best long-term asset. General Manager Mitch Kupchak expects Hayward to be 100% for the start of training camp coming off his season-ending ankle injury. Kupchak has some work to do but he has the framework of a perennial contender. In a season-ending media session, he acknowledged that the hole at the center position will need to be addressed, probably with more than one new signing. I would target free agents Serge Ibaka, Kelly Olynyk, or perhaps aim to pry Myles Turner away from a discombobulated Pacers team.
The encouraging signs run throughout this team, from the front office to the end of the bench. Head coach James Borrego acquitted himself well in guiding a young team with a generational talent. The worst-case scenario is being stuck in the same mediocrity cycle as the Mike B Atlanta Hawks of the past decade.
This is just the second year of a rebuild and the Hornets were sitting in 4th place before injuries started to decimate their rotation. Charlotte can feel way better about this year’s 10th place finish than they did with their 9th place standing in the last years of Kemba Walker’s tenure. The Walker-led Hornets had reached their ceiling. This Charlotte squad just set their floor. The Hornets are set up to be a top-six seed for years to come.