30 Teams in 30 Days: Hornets are still searching for difference maker


What offseason?

That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free-agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.

With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today—from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record—as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.

* * *

Today’s team: Charlotte Hornets

2017-18 Record: (36-46, did not qualify for the playoffs)

Who’s new: Coach James Borrego, Tony Parker (free agency), Bismack Biyombo (trade), Miles Bridges (Draft), Devonte’ Graham (Draft)

Who’s gone: Coach Steve Clifford, Dwight Howard, Michael Carter-Williams

The lowdown: When you can’t manage a winning streak longer than four games, the end result becomes predictable, and once again the Hornets under owner Michael Jordan’s rule failed to make the playoffs. Charlotte have reached the playoffs only three times since 2004-05, and the club is still looking to advance beyond the first round in that span. The Hornets took a step sideways in what was a 2017-18 season of mixed results when help for All-Star guard Kemba Walker never materialized.

Years of marginal Draft picks and poor trades finally caught up to the Hornets and subsequently forced major front-office changes. Rich Cho was fired as general manager and replaced by Mitch Kupchak and Clifford was bounced in favor of Borrego. Also, the Howard experiment fizzled after only one season, although that was not a big surprise. The Hornets entered the offseason desperately seeking leadership, stability and mostly, some life in the lineup.

You know what has plagued Jordan throughout his ownership? He’s still the face of the franchise.

Well, sure, finding someone to become more famous than the Jumpman himself might be unrealistic. But how about drafting, developing or signing a player who’ll make Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton the No 2 athlete in town? Is that asking too much?

The Hornets can’t seem to get that difference maker, with all due respects to Walker. Some of it is front-office mistakes, some of it bad luck. They selected No 2 in Drafts where Dwight Howard (2004) and Anthony Davis (2012) were the clear No 1 picks.

But that’s excuse making. There are other ways to build when the ping-pong balls don’t drop your way and the Hornets didn’t manage well with those options, either. Nicolas Batum has been a dreadful addition considering the cost (five-year, $120-million extension in 2016) as he averaged less than 11.6 points a game last season. Marvin Williams, an otherwise decent rotational player, is making $14 million at age 32 and averaged 9.5 ppg. This isn’t smart spending, and such financial clunkers often become a factor when chasing other options to improve your team.

Other than Walker—who delivered another solid performance (22.1 ppg)—the Hornets lineup suffers from a lack of assets. Kupchak didn’t have much to work with when he walked in the door.

That’s why the offseason was so uninspiring for the Hornets. Kupchak did dump Howard on the Nets. But Charlotte had to take back another bad contract in Timofey Mozgov (coincidently given by Kupchak when both were with the Lakers), which was then shoveled to Orlando for, yes, a bad contract belonging to Biyombo. Try to keep up here.

Essentially, Kupchak dealt one more year of Howard for two years of Biyombo (along with some second-round picks).

What’s crazy is Biyombo was one of those Hornets’ lottery picks (No 7, 2011 Draft) that went splat and they refused to extend his rookie contract in 2015. But guess what? Three years later, they’re paying him $17 million a season! What a league!

In the Draft, which is traditionally a challenge for Charlotte, the Hornets made a minor deal with the LA Clippers and took Bridges and got some future second-round picks for their trouble. Even then, there was buzz about whether Kupchak made the right decision.

That’s because three picks later, small forward Michael Porter Jr went to the Denver Nuggets. When Porter Jr tumbled in the Draft because of fears about his back, the Hornets had the chance to roll the dice on someone who, when healthy, would’ve gone much higher. That was a gamble the Hornets weren’t willing to take—and perhaps just as well, given their luck in the Draft.

Past lottery picks Biyombo, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Frank Kaminski have been reasonably decent at best, but none bring star potential. Yet the Hornets paid Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist handsomely after their rookie deals and are doing so for Biyombo, too.

A much-better received decision was hiring Borrego, who learned at the feet of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Borrego, a first-time coach (he had a short interim stint as the Magic’s interim coach in 2015), is a solid communicator who helped with the Spurs’ play calling.

Borrego no doubt played a role in the Hornets’ signing of Parker. Yes, Parker is an old 36 and the tires are clearly worn. However, he’s been around winners his entire basketball life. That should go over well in the Charlotte locker room even if the Hornets probably aren’t ready to make a big push next season in the East.

Curiously, the Hornets didn’t deal Walker. He’s entering the final year of his team-friendly contract and could bounce in unrestricted free agency next summer. That would be a major loss, and although Walker likes Charlotte, this situation bears watching. Charlotte could pull the trigger by the trade deadline ... or back up the Brinks truck for him next summer.

If Bridges is the real deal and the Hornets get more from last year’s No 1 pick, Malik Monk, they could improve. Otherwise, the biggest excitement to hit town will be in February for NBA All-Star 2019, where once again, the face on the welcoming committee billboards will most likely be Jordan. Again.

Coming Next: Detroit Pistons

By Shaun Powell

First appeared on NBA.com

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, WNBA, their clubs or Kwesé Sports.

Next entry: Stewart headlines 2018 All-WNBA First Team