The Charlotte Hornets need more than a jersey change
After embarrassing themselves in the Play-In for a second-straight season, something needs to change for the Charlotte Hornets.
Sean Carroll illustration
L aMelo Ball is going to change his jersey number from two to one at the start of the 2022-23 season according to Sports Illustrated.
“It's supposed to [happen]. I ain't supposed to wear two ever again in my life.
“If I see a two, ah man, I don't know what I'm going to do, I ain't going to lie to you. I just ain't never been two. It's just weird for me. It just don't feel like you playing, for real. Like, I don't know who this is. I don't know who number two is. I know my brother, that's it. No other number twos.”
He seems kind of harsh on himself, “it just don't feel like you playing, for real” doesn’t exactly match up with a stellar sophomore campaign in which the first-time All-Star averaged over 20 points with 7.6 assists while shooting nearly 40 percent from behind the arc.
But he’s right, something needs to change for this Charlotte Hornets team. After a second-straight year of flaming out in the Play-In, they need to do something, and it might take more than a number change.
Thankfully, it looks like Michael Jordan agrees, as the future of general manager Mitch Kupchak is uncertain per Jake Fischer, Bleacher Report. Kupchak, who has held his role as lead decision-maker in Charlotte for four seasons now, has yet to receive a contract extension and Fischer suggests that he may move into an advisory role in the front office.
This is the kind of change that the Hornets need because while the on-court product has overachieved, there have been some questionable personnel decisions.
This past season saw head coach James Borrego lead this team to the sixth-best offence and 20th-ranked defence using Cleaning the Glass' metrics. Sixth in offence is exceptional and in my opinion, to be 20th on a defence that’s held up by a fucking Plumlee and Martin twin is even more impressive.
But because Kupchak thought the team had enough to build off after drafting LaMelo in the 2021 draft, his successor will take over a team that’s dangerously close to the luxury tax, struggling to put premium talent around Ball and with no real avenue to do so.
Assuming there will be another general manager in charge, let’s take a look at what they’ll have to do.
Fix the big man issue
In the 2021 offseason, the Hornets had enough cap space to throw at one of the several free agent bigs and a lottery pick to exchange in any potential trade. What did they do? Trade for Mason Plumlee.
Plumlee is a fine big man in today’s NBA but on a title contender, he’s probably a backup or a stop-gap solution who doesn’t close games like Kevon Looney for the Golden State Warriors.
It’s clear that Plumlee isn’t a starter and without the same vertical juice as other big men out there, it’s taking away from their best player’s best skill - passing.
LaMelo frequently creates highlights throwing alley-oops to Miles Bridges, but he’s more than just a finisher, he has proven his shot is legit and has a little shake with the ball in his hands (more on that later).
If the Hornets can find Ball a capable rim-rolling big that can leap for lobs, the offence will not only get better, but they’ll have possibly the grooviest bread-and-butter to fall back on when they need a bucket.
Someone like Richaun Holmes in Sacramento would be a very affordable trade target since the rest of the league knows he’s expendable after the Kings’ trade for Domantas Sabonis. Myles Turner doesn’t have the same leaping ability as Holmes but his competence on defence and three-point shooting more than makes up for that.
In free agency, there’s Jusuf Nurkic (who the Portland Trail Blazers will be desperate to keep) and Deandre Ayton (who’s restricted) before moving into some lesser names like Andre Drummond, Isaiah Hartenstein or Ivica Zubac, the latter who has a team option worth $7 million.
But before even thinking about splashing in free agency, the new GM has pressing matters.
What do you do with Miles Bridges?
I’d like to think if you put Miles Davis and Leon Bridges in the same room, they’d get along swimmingly.
Davis, an iconic jazz trumpeter, and Bridges, one of the best soul singers in the world today would make some of the best music the world has ever heard. I imagine it’d be similar to what Bridges recently did with stoner rock trio Khruangbin on Texas Sun (2020).
Compare that to Miles Bridges and the next Charlotte front office - I’m not so sure.
Before the start of the 2021-22 season, Charlotte offered him a four-year, $60 million deal per The Hoop Collective and Bridges says he would've signed it if it weren't for his agent… Rich Paul… who told him to play it out and see if he can improve his value throughout the season.
ESPN’s Tim McMahon noted on the same podcast that the wing wouldn’t sign any new deal for lower than $90 million across four years. In fact, Bridges is expected to command his maximum from the Hornets, a deal around $173 million over five years per The Hoop Collective and Bridges says per Fischer, Bleacher Report.
After a breakout fourth season, the max offer sheet another team could sign him to would be for four years, at around $130 million. If Charlotte wants to pinch some pennies, they could hold off on offering him a max and match a four-year deal from another team.
Who knows if that offer is out there in restricted free agency, but if it is, this team could get very expensive, very fast.
The issue here is that this same situation played out with Gordon Hayward and the Utah Jazz when they didn’t want to pay their wing the full five years. He signed a four-year deal elsewhere with a player option on the final year and even though the Jazz matched, Hayward jetted as soon as he could.
If the new GM believes they’ll be better off spending their sparse cap space elsewhere, Bridges could just sign a one-year qualifying offer with the Hornets and a season later, they might risk losing a 24-year-old forward for nothing - a nightmare scenario.
“But Sean, why doesn’t this hypothetical replacement just open up more cap space? They could then re-sign Bridges and try upgrade elsewhere.”
Great question reader!
The big salaries on the books for the Hornets are Gordon Hayward, owed north of $30 million until the end of the 2023-24 season and Terry Rozier, who recently signed an extension that’ll pay him around $23 million until the 2024-25 season.
That’s over $50 million tied up in two players who are 31 and 27-years-old respectively and aren’t in the top ten at their position…
The easier salaries to move are Kelly Oubre Jr. who has a non-guarantee for $12.6 million for next season and Plumlee with a non-guarantee worth $9 million for next season. The only issue is, if you let them walk, you need to replace two major rotation pieces, not just upgrade on one.
So what do you do? Pay Bridges and other free agents like Cody Martin and Montrezl Harrell and push for the Play-In again next season? Or let all the free agents walk, renounce some rotation players and play hard ball with Bridges?
Both are tough looks.
If the next decision-maker really wants to shape the Charlotte Hornets to their vision, they’ll first have to undo the mistakes of Mitch Kupchak, otherwise there’s nothing outside of symbolism for a regime change.
Put the ball in Ball’s hands and be done with it
Coming out of the draft, LaMelo Ball was a bit of a wildcard. His rookie season was supposed to go worse than it did, but I think it’s fair to say we’re watching his best-case scenario play out.
He might be the best passer in the entire league not called LeBron James, Nikola Jokic or Chris Paul, and he’s definitely one of the more creative in the league. His highlights are gorgeous and his advanced stats are even better.
LaMelo makes his team better by 2.2 points per 100 possessions which is a top-third percentile in the league per Cleaning the Glass, while he generates more three-pointers for his teammates and they shoot better than average everywhere on the floor.
Those numbers aren’t MVP-level, but it’s important to remember that the All-Star is only 20 years old and he’s playing the hardest position in the entire league. He’s at the helm of the sixth-best offence in the league and he can’t even order a crisp, cold can of beer at a bar.
Yet despite his brilliance, he shares the ball with other dominant players like Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Miles Bridges. I’m not saying that he should be the only ball handler on the roster, in fact, it’s essential to have at least two players that can break down the defence at all times, but this is too many cooks for a transcendent chef.
And while in the culinary universe of metaphors, the solution has practically been served up on a silver platter.
One or both of Hayward or Rozier should be traded for this roster to reach its full potential.
Hayward is eating up way too much cap space and it’s hard to find a role for him alongside the two guards and Bridges. Rozier’s salary is appropriate for his skill level but pairing LaMelo with a defence-agnostic, small guard is about the worst thing you can do at this point in his career.
But for the same reasons that they’re not great fits on Charlotte’s roster, these two aren’t great fits around the league. If the new GM wants to trade Hayward, they’ll probably have to attach assets to move on from his contract - is it really worth it?
If the answer there is no, then we might have to wait a few seasons until LaMelo Ball is truly allowed to flourish with a roster tailored to his talents. Just make sure that when Kupchak is replaced, we don’t blame the new decision maker for failing to surround him with talent, they’ll be swamped by previous mistakes.