Did any NBA team have a more depressing offseason than the Charlotte Hornets?
Sure, the New York Knicks struck out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but that was always a pipe dream. And yes, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost both Paul George and Russell Westbrook in the span of a week, but they now have an arsenal of draft picks with which they can wipe their sorrows away.
The Hornets, meanwhile, lost their two best players—All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker and swingman Jeremy Lamb—while handing out the worst contract of the summer.
In doing so, they condemned themselves to a fate worse than the treadmill of mediocrity: a rebuild with no easy way out.
Unlike the Thunder, who now have a boatload of extra first-rounders to help expedite their rebuild, the Hornets have nothing to show for Walker other than Terry Rozier on a bloated three-year, $56.7 million contract. (They essentially traded Walker for Rozier straight-up, something no one in their right mind would do.) They also lost Lamb to the Indiana Pacers on a reasonable three-year, $31.5 million deal, which adds insult to injury.
To be honest, and to some extent, the Hornets’ approach with Walker makes sense.
When he became eligible for a supermax contract by virtue of being named to the All-NBA third team, it exemplified the flaws of the supermax system. As talented as Walker is, he has no business taking up 35 percent of a team’s salary-cap space.
Had the Hornets given him a full five-year, $221.6 million deal, they would have had no realistic pathway toward constructing a championship contender over the next half-decade. Granted, a large part of that reality has nothing to do with Walker but everything to do with previous “don’t-look-so-good-now” deals to guys we’ll discuss more below.
That apparently gave team owner Michael Jordan pause. (Of all the times to get thrifty after all of the above… but I digress.)
Rather than offering Walker a full supermax—or even the full five-year, $189.9 million max that players with his amount of NBA experience can receive—the Hornets topped out at a five-year deal worth around $160 million, according to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith (via NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman).
Walker rightfully turned that down to sign a four-year, $140.8 million max with the Boston Celtics. In exchange, Boston agreed to sign-and-trade Rozier to Charlotte to ensure the Hornets weren’t left completely empty-handed for Walker.
“Charlotte was uncomfortable paying Kemba the number he wanted based on where the team was,” Walker’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, told Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes. “They didn’t think they were a significant playoff team, so they were only prepared to go so far. For Kemba, that was not enough for him to stay there.”
There are two problems with that approach, though.
First, if the Hornets knew they weren’t going to offer Walker the full max—much less a supermax—why not offload him at the trade deadline? Did they think loyalty would convince him to re-sign at a significantly below-max rate rather than go to a team with legitimate playoff aspirations?
Additionally, they were only in this position because they wildly overpaid their supporting cast during the spendthrift summer of 2016. Handing bloated, long-term deals to Nicolas Batum (five years, $120 million) and Marvin Williams (four years, $54.5 million) prevented them from finding Walker a star sidekick, particularly when 2012 No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 2013 No. 4 pick Cody Zeller and now-departed 2015 No. 9 pick Frank Kaminsky didn’t pan out as expected.
Pivoting to Rozier is understandable in the sense that the Hornets were otherwise capped out, so they otherwise only had the mid-level exception to find a point guard. However, giving him nearly $19 million annually is an eyebrow-raiser, particularly since he has yet to shoot above 40 percent from the field in any of his four NBA seasons.
General manager Mitch Kupchak’s praise for Rozier wound up being a self-own, too.
“We feel like if he was in the draft this year, Terry Rozier would have been a lottery pick.” – Mitch Kupchak
— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) July 7, 2019
A 25-year-old who just landed a fat contract would have been a lottery pick in a top-heavy draft? Well, hot damn. That changes everything.
Perhaps Rozier will recapture the form he displayed throughout the 2018 playoffs when he guided the Celtics to within one game of the NBA Finals. Fully unleashed as a starter, he averaged 16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds across that 19-game stint, albeit on mediocre efficiency (40.6 percent shooting overall; 34.7 percent from deep).
But he came crashing back to earth this past season, which hardly inspires confidence.
Barring a major star turn from youngsters like Rozier, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges or PJ Washington, the Hornets appear to have zero cornerstones on their roster. Their young players could develop into nice complementary pieces in due time, but none seem to have All-NBA upside.
In fact, with the exception of Walker, that seems to have been the Hornets’ entire roster over the past few years. From their free agents to their draft picks: Just a bunch of decent players whose highest ceiling was a first-round exit.
This can be seen on both sides of the ball. Rozier and Monk can initiate some looks, while Bridges, Williams, Batum, etc. can finish them, but who is doing any of that efficiently against top-line talent? Kidd-Gilchrist, Biyombo, Zeller and Batum all have some defensive value, but who is actually the lead stopper every night against the league’s best?
That’s only going to lengthen the scope of their rebuild.
With the new flattened-out draft-lottery odds, finishing with a horrendous record no longer guarantees the chance at a top-tier prospect. If the ping pong balls don’t smile upon the Hornets, they could be stuck in the mid-lottery for the foreseeable future, narrowing their chances of landing a superstar in the draft.
The Hornets also owe their 2020 and 2021 second-round picks to the New York Knicks, although they’ll receive second-rounders from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2020, along with both the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers in 2021.
Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo are all entering the final year of their respective contracts, so the Hornets will have some degree of salary-cap flexibility beginning in 2020-21. But if Batum picks up his $27.1 million player option, they’ll already have $76.4 million in salary on their books. Throw in next year’s first-round pick and a few incomplete cap holds, and that figure will only increase.
The cap is projected to come in at $117 million in 2020-21, so either way, the Hornets should have a bit of cap room next summer. However, next year’s free-agent class appears lackluster, so they might be better off leveraging that space to accept salary-dumps in exchange for draft picks and/or young prospects.
Once Batum and Zeller come off their books in the summer of 2021, the Hornets will have only Rozier and their young players remaining, although Monk will be a restricted free agent (with a $16.0 million cap hold). That year’s free-agent class could feature the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Blake Griffin and Bradley Beal.
But none of those players would have any reason to choose Charlotte over a team closer to title contention.
Realistically, the Hornets figure to be one of the NBA’s worst teams in 2019-20. Walker and Lamb combined for 12.7 win shares this past season, while Zeller was third on the team at 3.9. Even if Rozier becomes a quintessential good-stats, bad-team guy, Charlotte’s lack of go-to options doesn’t bode well for maintaining an efficient offense.
From there, this rebuild will come down to one or more of Rozier, Bridges, Monk or Washington popping or good fortune during the draft lottery. Either way, Hornets fans should brace themselves for a return to the irrelevance this franchise endured during the early 2010s.
Things are gonna get a lot worse before they get better.