The Charlotte Hornets are knocking on the door of a franchise pivot. Kemba Walker has one season remaining on his contract and Charlotte will be without salary cap space again next summer. It would be a massive organizational failure if the Hornets were unable to re-sign Kemba, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent, so Charlotte will not have the rights to match any offer. The team will have access to Kemba’s full bird rights and a fifth year on a new deal as ammo. The rest of the league can offer Kemba a deal for a maximum of four years.
For small market Charlotte, making the playoffs and marginal success is important. New general manager Mitch Kupchak has done a nice job of building a competitive roster for next season – a critical one for the Hornets and Walker. More on this later.
Although it’s fair to assume the Hornets will throw the house in an effort to re-sign Kemba, this is also a franchise that has torn it down and started over. Let’s take a brief glance at Charlotte’s professional basketball history (since ’04), a time when it appeared to be trending in the right direction, and how the Hornets have arrived to this uncertainty.
The Past Is Always With Us
Since basketball returned to Charlotte in 2004, it’s mostly been an afterthought for the majority of NBA fans.
There was a flash in the pan with Raymond Felton, Stephen Jackson, and Gerald Wallace in 2010, as the Bobcats clinched their first playoff berth since returning to the Queen City.
General Manager Rich Cho arrived in June of 2011 and soon after drafted Kemba Walker. The teardown of a veteran-laden roster that had maxed its potential was then initiated.
Charlotte owned the best odds in the 2012 lottery to win the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but fell to second and drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead – the toughest break of this franchise’s history.
The team was patient, and then in 2013 struck by signing Al Jefferson away from Utah in free agency. This group mustered 43 wins and landed back in the postseason, only to be swept by Miami.
The Return of Hope
The Charlotte Hornets name returned in 2014, buzz (no pun intended) encapsulated the city, but again the team failed to build off of the playoff momentum created the season before. Thanks in large part to the cancerous presence of Lance Stephenson, who was traded the following summer.
The summer of 2015 represents the hope that the current regime continues to chase. Nic Batum was acquired via trade and the team gave Jeremy Lin an opportunity on a one-year, make-good deal. Both transactions proved to be a boon, Kemba Walker started cashing in triples on a regular basis while developing a special pick-and-roll synergy with Cody Zeller, and Charlotte finished the season with 48 wins and tied for the third best record in the eastern conference.
That 2015-16 season remains the blueprint of a plan that team owner Michael Jordan still mandates to be carried out. That success is recent enough that you can almost wrap your arms around it – many of the players from that squad are still rostered – Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller. In contrast, that special season is also far enough removed that it appears as a distant memory for most Hornets fans.
How Charlotte Arrived Here
Regardless of how you view it, several transactions have taken place since, surplanting the Hornets in a precarious position today. Most notably, the questionable contracts handed out to Nic Batum and Marvin Williams in the summer of 2016 when the salary cap skyrocketed following the players union and owners failure to come to an agreement on a “cap smoothing” strategy. The players expected to get paid, while the owners, and smart economists, didn’t want to flood the market.
Feeling the pressure from an owner starved for consecutive playoff appearances, Rich Cho overpaid to retain free agents Nic Batum and Marvin Williams. Vastly overpaid. Batum and Williams will combine to earn $38M (37 percent of Charlotte’s cap) this coming season. Batum remains on the books through 2021, choking off any realistic cap space for the Hornets over the next two summers.
Also in 2016, as the season was slipping away from the Hornets, Rich Cho traded for Miles Plumlee – one of the worst contracts in the NBA. Miles was unable to stay healthy and Charlotte had now tied up more of their future cap with bad (dead) money.
Miles was eventually traded for Dwight Howard, who was then moved for Timofey Mozgov, who was most recently traded for Bismack Biyombo and the remaining two years, $34 million left on his contract – inked in, you guessed it, 2016.
Seriously, all of this is true, and it started with management trying to keep the magic alive from the 2015-16 season.
The Kemba Walker Conundrum
The elephant in the room for new general manager Mitch Kupchak is the expiring deal of All-Star guard and Hornets all-time franchise leading scorer, Kemba Walker. Kemba is one of the best bargains in the entire league, owed just $12 million on the final season of his rookie extension that was agreed to in 2014.
The speculation in Charlotte throughout the summer has been rooted in the idea that the team could trade Kemba for some form of future assets and officially pivot towards a rebuild. It’s a worthy strategy and one I’ve supported since it became obvious Charlotte was missing out on the 2017-18 playoffs prior to last February’s trade deadline. It would’ve made the most sense to move Kemba at that time in order to gain maximum return for what was remaining on his contract.
Jordan went through the aforementioned teardown in 2011-12, when the team landed the second pick in the lottery and missed out on Anthony Davis. Something tells me he doesn’t want to take that route again. Can you blame him? Rebuilds are really hard. Not every market has the luxury of pleading for patience from its fan base and to simply “Trust The Process” or the fortune of drafting three future MVP’s. The general idea of how to execute a rebuild sounds great, but the luck involved to realize it’s full fruition is always vastly understated.
The Middle Ground
Alas, the demonized middle ground of the NBA, where the Hornets currently find themselves.
Most people plugged into this league believe there’s no positive that can come from being between 35-45 wins per season. Relevant and able to stay in the playoff hunt and occasionally earn the right to lose in the first round, but stuck in the middle just enough to ensure a late lottery draft pick every summer that’s unlikely to significantly move the needle for a franchise.
Small markets with multi-billion dollar owners (like Portland) are more willing to dig their heels into this middle ground of the league, stay competitive, and continue to build on the fringes around their star player(s). It all hinges on whether or not the majority owner is willing to pay a luxury-tax bill. Michael Jordan is not, and by all evidence, never will be unless he’s owning a championship caliber team. He’s also no longer one of the leagues wealthiest owners, making it difficult to justify any amount of tax bill in a league floating in new money.
Michael Jordan is logical with his unwillingness to pay a tax bill on a mediocre, at best, roster. But you still have to build, and trying to improve a roster in between the salary cap and luxury tax line via cap exceptions is a tough road to hoe. More on this below.
Summer of 2018
Charlotte hasn’t traded Kemba Walker this summer and there’s no sign that move is coming. The team will very likely play this coming season out with their All-Star and then deal with his unrestricted free agency next July, trying to convince him to stay in Charlotte for the long haul. For what it’s worth, Kemba made some promising comments earlier this week on his intentions to be “a Hornet for a long time”.
Kemba will only remain a Hornet if he believes hope exists for future postseason success in Charlotte. Therein lies the specific issue – how can you improve a taxed out roster around your star player that simply wants to be relevant in the postseason. Needless to say, a big part of Mitch Kupchak’s job this summer has been to build a playoff roster with very little flexibility.
Last season was a major disappointment for the Hornets. Dwight Howard was predictably a problem away from the court, sabotaging a locker room that was rock solid prior to his arrival. He was also a less than ideal fit with Kemba Walker on both ends. Dwight still thinks he’s Hakeen Olajuwon and demands far too many post touches, sinking offensive schemes one hopeless isolation post-up at a time.
Wasting little time following the hire of new head coach James Borrego, Dwight was dumped to Brooklyn for Timofey Mozgov. Much like Atlanta did last summer, Charlotte took on extra years of dead money in order to part ways with Dwight. On paper, the Hornets didn’t win that trade, but getting him out of Charlotte was the first step to a summer littered with transactions that are (supposedly) related to a larger vision.
The national media will tell you the Hornets should’ve worked with Dwight and found a way to agree on a buyout, saving Charlotte’s cap any unnecessary future salary. That’s fair, but we’re ignoring the context with that viewpoint. Also worth mentioning that we’re not even sure Jordan could afford a buyout that would require $20 million-plus in cash. To put it lightly, this franchise isn’t backing up the Brinks truck to the entrance of the Spectrum Center.
Charlotte received two second-round picks from Brooklyn in the deal (cost for taking on additional year of Mozgov salary), one of which turned into Devonte’ Graham with the 34th pick in this summer’s draft. Note: I’m still optimistic Graham can play in this league for a long time, but he and the team received an unfortunate medical diagnosis last week that will keep him out indefinitely.
Moving Dwight’s $24 million this summer opened up valuable breathing room below the luxury tax line. About $9 million, which allowed the team to unlock their intention of using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (NT-MLE = $8.4M) to address two important team building priorities: find a backup point-guard on the free agent market and sign their 2018 second round pick, Devonte’ Graham. Rookies drafted in the second round are not held to a rookie salary scale, so they act as free agents in a sense. Using the NT-MLE to sign second round picks allows a team to build contract structures of three-plus years, thus securing the player’s bird rights. This was a priority for Charlotte – they loved Graham during the draft process and had given him a first-round grade.
The Hornets also created an $8 million trade exception (difference between Dwight and Mozgov’s salaries this season) and one that it sounds like the team plans to use prior to the 2019 trade deadline. That’s a significant team building tool and Charlotte will stalk teams desperate to get off money just above the tax line mid-season in search of a player that can help.
In what was a shock to most of the league, the Hornets came to terms with Tony Parker on a two-year, $10 million deal on July 6. If Parker can stay healthy, this shores up a depth issue at point guard that the team has battled since Jeremy Lin in 2015-16. Parker also represents the winning culture influence from San Antonio along with James Borrego. Charlotte might have slightly overpaid for a 36-year-old with a recent history of injuries, but it was reported earlier this week that the second year on Parker’s deal is non-guaranteed – this feels like a steal for the Hornets.
The next day, Charlotte welcomed Bismack Biyombo back to his first home in the NBA, as they flipped Timofey Mozgov to Orlando for Biz. The two players have very similar salary structures – Biyombo will make $1 million more that Mozgov this season and he’s unquestionably the more serviceable player at this stage. Charlotte’s roster was barren of anything that resembled rim protection and Biyombo will help plug that hole. The battle in training camp for the backup center position between Willy Hernangomez and Biyombo should be fun.
Now that the dust has settled on this summer, the Hornets roster has a much different look. It’s improved on the fringes, and again, that matters a ton in the final season of Kemba Walker’s current contract.
It’s unclear where the pivot will come from for Charlotte, but it’s coming. The results of this coming season will reveal the future plans of this franchise to the front office and its fans at virtually the same time. Settle in, Buzz City, uncertainty abounds.