The Charlotte Hornets had an understated offseason from a volume perspective, but there were still headlines as the club could not come to an agreement with Kemba Walker and eventually settled on point guard Terry Rozier in a double sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics.
Walker was eligible for the $221 million supermax deal to remain in Charlotte for most of the remainder of his career, but rather than drop as much money as had ever been spent on an individual contract, the Hornets pivoted away.
For the most part, the Hornets’ business stopped there.
They’ll bring in a trio of draft picks in PJ Washington, Jalen McDaniels and Cody Martin but have otherwise been quiet in free agency. Frank Kaminsky (Phoenix Suns), Tony Parker (retirement) and Jeremy Lamb (Indiana Pacers) also left, leaving the team with a younger core but a relatively unclear short- and long-term future.
Martin, Josh Perkins and Joe Chealey have all signed, plus Robert Franks on a Two-Way deal, and McDaniels will presumably do so before the season starts. Second-year forward Miles Bridges will move down a spot to the 4 after mostly playing on the wing last year, while Dwayne Bacon and Malik Monk have both shown inconsistent flashes enough to keep the experiment going.
It’s possible those latter three form a nice nucleus with Rozier and whoever they eventually draft to play center, though that increasingly seems like a best-case scenario. There will be plenty of young fliers to investigate, even as the true star upside of any of these players is questionable right now.
With more than $11.3 million separating them from the luxury tax threshold, which has served as something of a hard cap on team salary throughout Michael Jordan’s ownership tenure, Charlotte can use the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign a player for up to $9.258 million, though there are precious few left on the market who would command that sort of salary.
The more likely outcome is that the Hornets will fill out their roster with minimum players and save their remaining financial flexibility for an in-season trade, should the right deal present itself. As things stand, they’re thin at the point guard and center positions.
Devonte’ Graham is the sole proven backup to Rozier as the team’s lead creator, which could present some issues if either goes down with an injury or Graham is unable to earn a full-time backup role in his second season. Then again, there are plenty of questions about Rozier handling a lead gig as well.
Shelvin Mack, who completed last season with the Hornets after being traded from Memphis to Atlanta and waived by the Hawks, was a candidate to return, but he reportedly signed overseas from Olimpia Milano. The Italian club is headed by Ettore Messina, who spent the last several years on the bench with the Spurs and knows Charlotte coach James Borrego well from their time together in San Antonio.
Former Orlando point guard Jerian Grant was a good option on a minimum contract, but he also just reportedly signed in China. The same could be said for Trey Burke, another younger point guard who was scooped up by the Philadelphia 76ers.
As the Hornets transition away from the Walker era and get younger across the roster, it may behoove them to look to do the same with this signing, though it’s certainly not an imperative for what isn’t likely to be more than a one-year contract.
The center position is similarly sparse, with only Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo truly capable of playing that spot. Charlotte could certainly throw out some interesting small-ball lineups using Marvin Williams, Washington or McDaniels at the 5.
Williams got some experience as a small-ball center last season for nearly 500 minutes, during which time the Hornets outscored opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions.
He doesn’t fit with the team’s younger identity, but Joakim Noah could be an answer to some of the Hornets’ questions going into the 2019-20 season. He played surprisingly well for the Grizzlies in 2018-19 after being let go from the New York Knicks and would provide a unique playmaker at a position that is mostly bereft of talent on the free agency market.
Noah’s fit next to Rozier is particularly good because of Rozier’s off-ball ability. Throwing the ball to Noah at the elbow and letting him make plays for Rozier and the rest of the team would give the Hornets a different look from traditional perimeter-based pick-and-roll through Rozier and Nicolas Batum.
The club’s long-term future is still fuzzy at best, with Rozier presumably brought in to help the team attempt to contend throughout his three-year contract.
With so many veterans coming off the books in 2020 and 2021, the team is going to look very different in the third year of Rozier’s deal. For now, they have just him, Washington and Miles Bridges under contract for the 2021-22 season. They’ll add a pair of first-rounders between now and then, as well as other players through free agency and trades, but the fact remains that there will be a lot of roster turnover over the next two years and Mitch Kupchak will have his chance to truly make his imprint on the club.
For now, they’re going to do the best they can to put a competitive team on the floor. And while they’ve likely taken a step back from where they were last year (when they weren’t even a playoff team in the Eastern Conference) it seems the Hornets are altogether allergic to tanking.
They’ll hold onto their slim chance at competitiveness rather than bottoming out, which serves to create a more profitable product for Jordan but does precious little for their ability to reach the postseason any time soon.