The Charlotte Hornets have numerous needs and limited off-season tools to address those flaws.
The Hornets made major moves last summer, trading their first-round pick for veteran Marco Belinelli and paying big to re-sign Nic Batum and Marvin Williams.
They now have six players – Batum, Williams, Kemba Walker, Miles Plumlee, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – who will make $12 million or more next season. That all but assures the Hornets will be over the salary cap, necessitating the use of exceptions to improve this roster.
Improve they must, and that is general manager Rich Cho’s challenge. They finished 36-46 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. They appear a significant distance from team owner Michael Jordan’s often-stated goal of a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference, conveying home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
What now? With about two weeks until the NBA draft and less than a month away from free agency, consider how the Hornets must improve to return to the playoffs, and what avenues are available to do so:
Superstars determine who wins and loses more in the NBA than in any other team sport. The Hornets don’t have a player approaching such status. Point guard Kemba Walker was a first-time All-Star, but he’d probably be the second- or third-best player on a title contender.
So the Hornets are more dependent on depth than teams possessing superstars. That worked well in the 2015-16 season, when Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson had such impact off the bench and a midseason trade for Courtney Lee compensated for Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury.
Lin, Jefferson and Lee all departed, and the Hornets suffered. When the starters were intact, the Hornets were competitive, but the bench was unreliable in 2016-17 - particularly so on defense. Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lamb are limited defenders, and Plumlee, acquired at midseason, played only 13 games because of injury.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s goal is to be top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency each season (efficiency is defined as points scored or allowed per possession).
The Hornets dropped from ninth in defensive efficiency two seasons ago to 13th last season. This team isn’t talented enough offensively to be mediocre on defense. Center Roy Hibbert’s chronic knee injury (he was eventually traded to Milwaukee) was a factor, taking away the team’s rim protection.
The Hornets allowed the sixth-highest 3-point percentage in the NBA last season at 36.9 percent. Clifford is generally more concerned about limiting points in the lane and avoiding fouls, but this team’s inability to consistently close out on perimeter shooters is concerning.
The Hornets need more quickness and size to improve defensively.
The Hornets were terrible last season down the stretch of close games. They were 0-9 in games decided by three points or less and 0-6 in overtime games.
That was partly related to the shaky depth compared to the previous season. Clifford could go with a Walker-Lin backcourt in the fourth quarter to have two penetrators on the floor together. A comparable option wasn’t there last season.
Backup point guard Ramon Sessions had a poor season and missed most of the second half following knee surgery in February. It’s a priority to address that position.
The Hornets have the 11th and 41st overall picks in the June 22 draft. They have made six picks in the lottery (the top 14 selections) since 2011, and the track record on those picks isn’t strong.
Of those six, Bismack Biyombo left for no compensation and Noah Vonleh was traded after one season. Walker and Zeller have been solid picks. Kaminsky and Kidd-Gilchrist are still players with holes in their games.
At No. 11, the Hornets won’t have access to the perceived stars of this draft, such as Washington’s Markelle Fultz or UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Also, it’s questionable whether anyone chosen 11th will crack the playing rotation as a rookie.
With so many top prospects joining the draft after a single college season, players often enter the NBA without the training or physical development to play right away. That makes the draft more a long-term investment than any sort of quick fix.
Trading has often been good to the Hornets. Mid-season deals for Lee and Josh McRoberts in recent seasons helped boost the Hornets to playoff qualification.
The difficulty is more what trade currency the Hornets’ current roster would provide. Other than Walker, who would be highly valued by other teams? Would dealing a Zeller and/or a Kidd-Gilchrist bring back a difference-maker?
Probably not, coming off a record 10 games below .500.
The Hornets will have two significant cap exceptions this summer: the mid-level exception (projected at about $8.4 million) and the bi-annual exception (about $3.3 million).
Neither of those exceptions would acquire a high-impact starter in these inflationary NBA times. But they can address depth, which is essential to getting back at least to where they were two seasons ago.