Our Longest Summer series will look at the eight teams whose seasons are now officially over, and will have to wait until mid-October to make decisions on what’s next and how to proceed after falling short of the cut-off for a continued 2019-20 campaign.
The Charlotte Hornets entered the 2019-20 season with exceptionally low expectations. Many, including a handful of Las Vegas oddsmakers, projected the Hornets to finish dead-last in the NBA after the loss of Kemba Walker and, at the very least, a playoff push wasn’t expected to be in the cards. Along the way, however, Charlotte overachieved significantly, posting a 23-42 record that nearly saw the team eclipse its 82-game over/under win total in only 65 games.
It would be fair to note that the Hornets’ point differential was substantially worse than the team’s record but, even when accounting for that, Charlotte was simply better than they were “supposed” to be this season. Much of that can be attributed to the rise of Devonte’ Graham, but, with James Borrego drawing encouraging reviews on the bench and a respectable overall defense, the Hornets might have a little bit of momentum with a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. With that as the backdrop, the offseason arrives early for Charlotte and a number of intriguing outcomes are in play.
2020 Free Agents
Nic Batum (player option), Bismack Biyombo (UFA), Dwayne Bacon (RFA), Willy Hernangomez (UFA)
2020 Projected salary cap space (assuming $115 million salary cap)
$25.1 million, per Early Bird Rights
Areas of Strength
Even with the relatively positive overall performance this season, the Hornets aren’t overflowing with talent. The team’s backcourt was highly productive this season, though, and the duo of Graham and Terry Rozier did a lot to carry Charlotte’s offense. Though Graham cooled off during the campaign, he produced 18.2 points per game and knocked down 37 percent from three-point range on substantial volume. As for Rozier, the jokes about his (highly) lucrative contract were quieted to some degree, as he put together the best offensive season of his career by a comfortable margin. In addition to the backcourt, the Hornets may have a gem in 2019 lottery pick P.J. Washington, and 2018 lottery pick Miles Bridges put together a few flashes along the way.
Areas of Need
With apologies to Graham (or even Rozier), the Hornets still don’t have a No. 1 option on the offensive end of the floor. Every rebuilding team is in search of “the guy” and Charlotte simply doesn’t have that player right now. As a result, the team ranked near the bottom of the league in virtually every offensive category (sans three-point shooting) and the lack of offensive talent is stark when examining the roster. From there, it wasn’t as if the team was incredible defensively, failing to overcome its small backcourt without anything approaching a dominant rim-protecting force on the roster. To put it bluntly, this is a roster that needs a lot.
With the widespread assumption that Batum will opt in to his $27.1 million player option, the Hornets still project to have more than $25 million in salary cap room, at least under the pre-pandemic projections. On one hand, it is a bad year to have substantial cap space, simply because there is a lack of top-end talent hitting the market. On the other, Charlotte isn’t usually mentioned on the list of teams ready to land max-level players in free agency, so they could use the space to acquire draft picks in exchange for toxic assets on other rosters. It will be crucial that the Hornets use their salary cap flexibility wisely and, from a draft perspective, Charlotte is in position to use a lottery pick to bolster its stockpile.
Overall Offseason Focus
The Hornets are still in asset collection mode, or at least they should be. There isn’t a single “untouchable” piece on the roster, and while everyone knew a rebuild had to arrive when Walker exited, Charlotte isn’t in the kind of advanced position of teams like Atlanta or Minnesota that already have some star power on the roster. Prudence is the order of the day, and the Hornets can improve their long-term standing while keeping their eye on the ball when it comes to not pushing too hard for the short term.