The NBA is a cyclical, equalisation-focused league. The nature of franchise-building pillars the draft, the salary cap and free agency are all designed to ensure that it is nigh-on impossible (obvious contemporary California-based exceptions aside) for any one franchise to remain at the pinnacle of the league for any sustained period of time.
Conversely, those same measures are also all meant to ensure that no team remains at the bottom of the pecking order for longer than its fans are willing to put up with.
Since returning to the league in 2004 as the Bobcats (eventually returning to the current insect-based moniker in 2014), the Charlotte Hornets franchise has made the playoffs just three times. They were swept on the first two occasions (in 2010 and 2014) before managing to push the LeBron-less Heat to 7 games in 2016; eventually bowing out in the first round again.
They have had no major NBA award-winners since Emeka Okafor’s 04-05 Rookie of the Year campaign; a season in which the team went 18-64 for a win percentage of .220. Unfortunately that ill-fated season (at that point the worst in franchise history) was later eclipsed by the 2011-12 team, which managed to go 7-59 in a lock-out-shortened year and claim the official title of Worst NBA Team Of All Time (.106 winning %).
This is not how it’s meant to happen. The NBA’s goal is for teams to dip towards the bottom of the standings for a year or two; stashing draft picks and cap space until they’re ready to rise from the ashes as contenders once again.
After losing Kemba Walker – their only asset even slightly resembling an above-average NBA player – to Boston in free agency, the Hornets seem destined to spend yet another year as an NBA bottom-feeder. Unfortunately for their fans there’s no one factor responsible for their systemic failure to compete; but we can isolate a few broad areas.
1. Draft Howlers
Since re-entering the league in 2004, the Hornets have had 10 top-10 draft picks.
Apart from Walker and the aforementioned Okafor, it’s fair to say none have turned out well. Even Okafor never made an All-Star game, despite averaging 14.4 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in 06-07. It’s actually not all that surprising he missed out given only four Hornets players in their history have made an All-Star game whilst at the franchise; the last prior to Walker being Baron Davis in 2002.
The misses are almost too numerous to mention, but here are some high(low)lights:
- Adam Morrison at pick #3 in 2006, ahead of Rudy Gay, JJ Redick, Kyle Lowry and Rajon Rondo;
- D.J. Augustin at pick #9 in 2008, ahead of the Lopez brothers, Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka, George Hill, DeAndre Jordan and Mario Chalmers;
- Gerald Henderson at pick #12 in 2009, ahead of Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague;
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at pick #2 in 2012, ahead of Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green and Khris Middleton;
- Cody Zeller at pick #4 in 2013, ahead of CJ McCollum, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert;
- Frank Kaminsky at pick #9 in 2015, ahead of Justise Winslow, Myles Turner and Devin Booker; and
- Malik Monk at pick #11 in 2017, ahead of Donovan Mitchell, John Collins, Bam Adebayo, Jarrett Allan and Kyle Kuzma.
You get the picture. It’s been really bad.
One of the cornerstone’s of the league’s equalisation policies is the idea that a poor team should be able to rely on the draft to fix their issues. Unfortunately, an apparent inability to identify talent has meant that the Hornets have failed to take any advantages afforded to them by virtue of their own incompetence.
To have 10 dart-throws and basically have the dart miss the board, bounce back and hit you in the eye on all but one occasion is a stunning failure. If Charlotte had opened just one of the alternate-universe doors posited above – say Mitchell instead of Monk (a decision head coach Steve Clifford apparently favoured at the time but was overruled by owner Rich Cho) – their world looks completely different.
2. Baffling Roster Management
Some would argue the draft is an inexact science. There’d almost definitely be the data to support that, and it’s worth highlighting in bold that the Hornets were certainly not the only team to make some baffling-in-hindsight decisions over the last decade and a half.
What is not an inexact science though is one of the fundamental concepts of the NBA (and really sport in general); giving bad players heaps of money is a bad idea.
Let’s take a quick look at Charlotte’s current roster situation for next season (courtesy of Spotrac):
That is ugly. Like, really, really, really, desperately, Quasimodo levels of ugly. No need to run through that list player-by-player, because each one and the salary they’re on is more baffling than the last.
The worst of the set is undoubtedly Nicolas Batum, who managed to leverage a breakout 2015-2016 in to a five-year $120 million payday in the infamous 2016 offseason. Unfortunately 2016 only got worse from there for the Hornets, with Marvin Williams also signed to a four-year, $54.5 million deal.
The Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller contracts deserve an article of their own. Just for reference, Kemba Walker was the 6th highest-paid player on Charlotte’s roster last season. Try and wrap your head around that
Going in to 2019-20, the Hornets currently have cap allocations totalling $121,265,861. The Rozier sign-and-trade means they’re now hard-capped below the cap threshold of $132,627,000 with a starting 5 likely consisting of Terry Rozier, Cody Zeller, Nic Batum, Dwayne Bacon, and Miles Bridges.
That should make your eyes bleed if you’re a Hornets fan. That amount of money tied up in so many poor contracts leaves you hamstrung in terms of attracting free agents, or keeping your own free agents… Which brings us to our next point.
3. The Kemba Walker Disaster
Kemba Walker is the best player in Charlotte Hornets franchise history. It’s not even close.
He leads them in minutes played, points scored, win-shares and overall value over replacement player (ahead of such illustrious names as Gerald Wallace and Larry Johnson). He now plays for the Boston Celtics, after the Hornets low-balled him with an offer of five-years and $160 million; well short of the potential five-years and $221 million he was eligible to receive after making the third All-NBA team this year.
In NBA circles there is currently a debate circling around the merit (or lack thereof) of Charlotte’s clear willingness to lose Walker in free agency.
Unfortunately, keeping Walker was not a bona fide option. The salary-cap bind the Hornets found themselves in made it completely impossible for them to hang on to Walker without launching themselves headlong in to the luxury tax; something owner Michael Jordan has been openly desperate about avoiding.
Terry Rozier is not a patch on Walker in terms of basketball ability, but he comes at half the cost (without even considering how much luxury tax Charlotte would have been paying if they kept Walker),
The real crime is not that Charlotte failed to retain Walker, it’s that they left themselves in a position where it was physically impossible that they would be able to keep him. That seems to be a fact that is getting lost in the debate. The decision itself was not a bad one; the decisions leading up to it were inexcusable.
That includes the now mind-boggling call not to try and trade Walker somewhere for a pick or decent young player back in February of this year; at which point management must surely have known they would not be able to offer anywhere close to the max. If – as some reports seem to suggest – that decision made out of a desire to keep Walker in Charlotte for a home All-Star game, heads need to roll.
The plus-side (counter-intuitive as it seems) is that a Kemba-less Hornets are finally in a position to be able to fulfil their tanking destiny
4. Failure to Bottom-Out
Whilst this isn’t necessarily a criticism – given how we all prefer our sporting teams to, you know, try and win games – it’s a simple fact that Charlotte’s failure to allow themselves to fall right to the bottom of the NBA food-chain has cost them dearly.
Since 2012-13, only one Hornets season has fallen outside the range of 33-43 winning games (the 48-win 2015-16). They haven’t finished better than 6th in the East, and haven’t finished worse than 11th.
Part of the draft issues we touched on above are the result of receiving good draft picks and choosing poorly, but the other part is the picks themselves haven’t actually been that great. Since taking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd pick (behind Anthony Davis) in 2012, they’ve had 5 top-12 picks, but only one (Cody Zeller with pick #4 in 2013) inside the top 9.
This has led to Charlotte missing out on guys like Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Luka Doncic etc. not through any fault of their own at the draft table, but because they simply haven’t had high enough picks to get them.
By contrast, teams now making their way towards top of the NBA pile (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago etc.) recognised the need to get worse before they could get better. Charlotte’s commitment to competitiveness has been admirable, but ultimately misplaced.
At least now the post-Walker era should mean the Hornets’ hands are forced towards the tank.
Or, maybe Terry Rozier leads them to another 35-47 10th placed finish and the number 12 pick in the draft. And the cycle continues.