Amid the most dormant part of an NBA cycle, we at Liberty Ballers will be sizing up the Philadelphia 76ers’ 14 Eastern Conference foes. Next up are the Charlotte Hornets.
Previously on our offseason review series: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, and New York Knicks.
The Charlotte Hornets had a decent enough season in 2021-22, finishing with a 43-39 record and earning a play-in spot. It was only the third time the Hornets finished above .500 over the last 12 seasons. Not bad for a team whose lone All-Star was 20-year-old LaMelo Ball and who got a breakout season from 23-year-old Miles Bridges.
With vets Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward under contract and still producing, Charlotte seemed like a team that was going in the right direction — building around young talent while supplementing it with useful veterans.
But to say the Hornets had a rough offseason would be a resounding understatement.
They fired head coach James Borrego after what felt like a successful stint in Charlotte. Off the Gregg Popovic coaching tree, Borrego had his best season at the helm in 2021-22. Alas, Borrego was let go.
The team’s coaching search was a mess. There was plenty of smoke around the team hiring former Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Instead, the team agreed to terms with Kenny Atkinson, the former Nets head coach that served as an assistant for the champion Golden State Warriors. Atkinson then pulled out of the deal, electing to stay by the Bay. The team circled back to D’Antoni, who I’m sure felt great about being the team’s second choice. Ultimately, Michael Jordan and company made the oddest of moves and brought back Steve Clifford, the team’s head coach from 2013-2018.
And that’s just the beginning.
Bridges, who was expected to get a max deal or close to it as a restricted free agent, was arrested on a felony domestic violence warrant on June 30. The Hornets extended Bridges a qualifying offer just prior to the arrest. Not only should Bridges’ future as a Hornet be in question, but so too should his status as an NBA player. Bridges has pled not guilty, but these allegations are grave.
Free agent big man Montrezl Harrell was also arrested on felony drug trafficking charges — though Harrell didn’t seem likely to return this offseason.
Add to that, Ball was in the crosshairs of his own controversy.
As far as transactions, Charlotte was relatively quiet. The Hornets did re-sign Cody Martin, who solidified himself as a solid rotational piece last season. Other than that, they made no signings or trades. A disappointing development for a team that has clear aspirations of advancing beyond the play-in and has Hayward and Rozier amongst its highest-paid players.
Charlotte did decently in the draft. They went into the night with picks 13, 15 and 45. They wound up trading pick 13 for a bunch of future picks, took talented Duke big man Mark Williams at 15, and traded up for an intriguing one-and-done guard in Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens at 40. Williams should have a shot at immediate rotation minutes. He has an NBA body, is a strong rim protector and has touch around the rim with flashes of extending his range.
It’s hard to know what to make of this Hornets squad. I’d expect LaMelo to build on his excellent sophomore campaign. He and Williams — also just 20 years old — could become an exciting pick-and-roll duo for years to come. Ball-to-Williams lobs in the open court have a chance to be breathtaking.
Outside of that, there are way more question than answers. How will Clifford fare in his second go around? Will the team lean more into a soft rebuild around Ball or stay in play-in purgatory (or worse)? The Bridges situation will likely be hanging over the organization for quite some time — unless they proactively decide to move on.
With so many teams improving in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets could be in trouble this year. Perhaps moving players like Hayward, Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Mason Plumlee could give them future cap relief while accumulating assets and freeing up minutes for younger players. Or they can stand pat, like they did this summer, and have to fight tooth and nail for the ninth or 10th seed.