In what turned out to be a mostly quiet NBA trade deadline, the Hornets stayed put. They made their move three weeks before the deadline came around, shipping out Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes for Miles Plumlee. That was a lateral move at best, one that didn’t move the needle much in either direction. That makes sense: Charlotte’s roster is built to compete this year, and making a major move at the deadline would mean a complete change, of course, one that was never likely to happen.
That’s all fine, but there’s one issue with it: the Hornets aren’t winning. What do you do when your team that’s built to win games and makes the playoffs is well below .500 and sitting in eleventh place in the conference?
That’s a difficult question, but it’s the one facing Charlotte right now.
The roster of bloated with players miscast in roles that are either too big for them or simply don’t fit very well. The Hornets had an impressive run in the second half of the season, leading the team (and most fans and writers) to believe that the team would continue to be competitive in the eastern conference with mostly the same core. That’s clearly turned out to be untrue, and now Charlotte is stuck paying big contracts to role players.
Marvin Williams has failed to live up to what was a career year and now he’s being paid $13 million per year. Nicolas Batum was incredible last season, but he’s come back down to earth a bit. He’s still a valuable player, but he’d be much better as a third or fourth option. Unfortunately, he’s in the first year of a five-year deal at well over $20 million per season. Plumlee’s also on a hefty contract, $12.5 million per year to be a backup.
The Hornets are able to keep their heads above water financially despite those outsized deals thanks to bargains elsewhere on the roster. Kemba Walker has two more years at just $12 million per year, Cody Zeller will be with the team until making just under $15.5 million in his most expensive year. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s $13 million isn’t terrible for a 23-year-old that is as good as he is on defense.
That’s the core moving forward: Walker, Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist are good building blocks, and Williams, Batum and Plumlee are pretty much unmovable on their contracts. Frank Kaminsky and Treveon Graham are both young reasonably solid contributors on cheap contracts. And at this point, it feels that Christian Wood is pretty much the only other guy worth keeping. Ramon Sessions and Brian Roberts can both leave in the summer, and neither has made a particularly strong case to stick around. Jeremy Lamb and Marco Belinelli have been okay, but it’s worth seeing if any teams might be willing to trade for them.
Basically, the Hornets need to rebuild from the bottom of the roster. Better backups are vital, and that’s about all the team can afford to find. If they can woo a backup guard that can outperform Sessions (not hard) in free agency, draft one or find one in the D-League, they’re already better off. If Charlotte does find a way to move on from Lamb or Belinelli, it’ll need another bench player on the wing as well as a guard. The lottery pick would hopefully turn into one of those, while the other could theoretically be picked up in free agency.
Rebuilding the bench might be good enough to return to the postseason next year if the team is a bit healthier. In order to really take a big step forward, though, they’ll another scorer. If a miracle occurs in the lottery, they could grab one of the top-tier wing prospects to pair next to Walker and Batum. Another scorer would take so much pressure off of Walker and allow Batum to fill a role doing everything except creating his own shot, allowing both to settle into more natural roles.
A star on the wing might also push Steve Clifford to test lineups with Kidd-Gilchrist at the four, which might be his best spot. Opposing teams just don’t guard him, and that would be less of an issue if there’s another perimeter scorer to worry about. MKG could still guard the opponent’s best perimeter player, and Batum could probably slide up to guard today’s perimeter-oriented power forwards.
All of that relies on the Hornets’ ability to attract a star, which isn’t going to happen without some lottery luck. Since that probably won’t happen, they just need to focus on rebuilding the bench around their young stars and their bad contracts. If they do that well enough, they can come back next year and actually present a threat.