2018-19 Season Preview: The Duality of the Charlotte Hornets

As the Charlotte Hornets prepare for their first season under James Borrego, the team is still caught between two identities -- and appears as lost as ever.

In the NBA, the worst place to be is caught in the middle. Not good enough to compete for a title, but not bad enough to snag a high draft pick and add a superstar to the roster. Especially for a small market team that struggles to attract marquee free agents, that's a vicious cycle without a clear path forward -- essentially a death sentence.

Of course, it's also exactly where the Charlotte Hornets found themselves during the Steve Clifford era, and where they figure to settle again in the first year under new head coach James Borrego. Normally, that's enough for apathy to settle completely over fans of an NBA team. This season, however, there is actually reason for cautious optimism in Charlotte.

Obviously, any excitement with this team starts with Kemba Walker. The two-time All-Star is a dynamic player, a highlight machine even in Clifford's relatively boring system. Night after night, Walker gives fans a reason to tune in. But the intrigue on this team goes beyond just one player. Borrego's fast-paced style promises to be more viewer-friendly than Clifford's methodical, defense-first game plan. And after a year of injuries and playing behind Dwight Howard, Cody Zeller returns to the starting lineup; Jeremy Lamb seems likely to join him after finally earning his chance, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seems to have been relegated to a bench role, primarily as a power forward -- limiting minutes for the frustrating Frank Kaminsky. These are positive changes on an aesthetic level, but should also make the Hornets a more competitive team this season.

The real attraction, though, comes in the youth movement. First-round pick Miles Bridges looked like a stud in the preseason, and all signs point to more playing time for explosive young scorer Malik Monk. That pair should add a youthful energy and excitement to games this season, while hopefully establishing themselves as a solid core for the franchise moving forward.

As exciting as those young players may be, there's also reason for that excitement to be somewhat muted. That's because, as the Hornets play a more entertaining brand of basketball en route to another finish in NBA purgatory, they're also caught in the middle in another way. While there is exciting young talent waiting in the wings, it's waiting for the often less-exciting older players to get out of the way. Charlotte is caught between a roster built to compete now and one that still needs to wait a few years.

At 28 years old, Walker is in his prime. Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams are aging role players on bloated contracts, deals that wouldn't be quite as ugly if the team was as competitive as it expected to be when they were signed. Tony Parker is 36, just a steady hand at the backup point guard spot until Devonte' Graham or someone else is ready to take over. And while Zeller, Kidd-Gilchrist, Kaminsky, Lamb and Bismack Biyombo are all 26 and under, they're also largely known quantities. These players all deserve some level of playing time, but they all block younger guys that are potentially more intriguing: Monk and Bridges are both 20; Graham is 23, as is Dwayne Bacon; Willy Hernangomez is 24 and still a relative unknown that has shown some flashes.

It's not impossible to combine younger talent with more established players without hindering anyone's development: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have thrived on a Boston team looking to compete immediately. But it is easier said than done: Walker and Zeller aren't quite Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and Monk and Bridges probably aren't Tatum and Brown, to say nothing of the Celtics' great supporting cast. In Boston, a somewhat similar roster construction seems poised to compete for a title; Charlotte simply doesn't have the talent to pull it off.

This duality in the Hornets' roster, between the exciting young players and the established vets, is a cause for concern. It would be a shame to bury players like Bridges or Monk and stunt their growth in order to chase the Eastern Conference's eighth seed. Too much of the young players, though, could mean another season watching the playoffs from home and Walker leaving in free agency, dooming the team to less exciting and less competitive play until another star is found or developed. And even if Walker leaves and the team launches a full rebuilding effort behind Monk and Bridges, their financial flexibility is weakened by big contracts owed to Batum, Biyombo and Williams.

The bottom line is this: between Walker, Borrego, Monk and Bridges, the Hornets should be a more exciting team to watch this season. But that doesn't make the franchise's future any clearer, and it doesn't look like it will add up to anything more than mediocrity. Simply put, while things might be exciting on a surface level this season, this team is just as lost as it has been for years.

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