Will the Hornets’ recent transactions since the trade deadline yield different results for the franchise?

By Chase Whitney

March 13, 2024

Photo: Matt Slocum / AP

The shine has slightly worn off the collective of new additions to the Hornets roster, but the renewed sense of optimism among the fan base is still strong. 

In a matter of hours on trade deadline day, Mitch Kupchak took his last couple of swings by swapping out PJ Washington and Gordon Hayward for Davis Bertans, Seth Curry, Tre Mann, Vasilije Micic, Grant Williams, and a handful of draft picks. Then, the team waived 2021 lottery pick James Bouknight as part of the ensuing roster crunch. Just a few weeks later, Kupchak’s replacement was made official; Jeff Peterson is the team’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. Shortly after that, Peterson made his first hire, Dotun Akinwale, who left his post as VP of Player Personnel with the Atlanta Hawks to become Charlotte’s new assistant general manager. It’s truly been a whirlwind of change for the Hornets organization in the last month– all positive, at least for now.

The new pairing has presumably been tabbed to head the front office, with Peterson as the lead decision-maker and Akinwale as his right-hand man. The two spent years working under current Hornets owner Rick Schnall when Schnall was a co-owner of the Hawks, and Peterson and Akinwale were prominent voices within the scouting department. Together, the two had a hand in selecting John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Trae Young, and Cam Reddish for the Hawks, and after Peterson left for Brooklyn in 2019, Akinwale was a part of the regime that drafted Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson, A.J. Griffin, and Kobe Bufkin. Considering only Young, Reddish and Okongwu were selected in the lottery, the draft history of the Peterson and Akinwale tandem is encouraging. The Hornets are on pace for the fourth-best odds in the 2024 draft lottery, and are near-certain to be selecting inside the top eight.

The new regime wasted little time making its first official transaction upon taking over. Aleksej Pokusevski, another former Oklahoma City Thunder first-round pick, was signed to a two-year minimum contract that is non-guaranteed for next season, filling the roster spot opened with Kyle Lowry’s buyout. The 22-year-old Serbian seven-footer only played 10 games this season, and was initially assigned to the Greensboro Swarm. The injury-proned forward/center has flashed the floor-spacing, ball-handling and mobility that made him so appealing in the 2020 NBA Draft. Poku should have plenty of opportunity down the stretch to prove he’s worth keeping around for the long haul.

The front office will benefit from some sort of evaluation period with this new iteration of the Hornets, even if it’s a small sample size at the end of a lost season. For all the intrigue the on-court production the new players have garnered, some players might be most useful as moveable contracts in the offseason. Bertans, especially, whose $17 million contract can be used to salary-match in trades, along with Micic’s $7.7 million (similar to how Oklahoma City used them to acquire Gordon Hayward and his $31.5 million contract). Curry is due $4 million next year, though his contract is non-guaranteed up until the day before the 2024 NBA Draft, and Mann is in year three of his four-year rookie-scale deal. Deciding which of these new players fit best alongside the team’s young core will be much easier after watching the remaining games this season. 

One player whose fit within the organization and presence in the locker room has been undeniable is Williams. The energetic Charlotte native has quickly established himself as a vocal presence on the court and in the locker room. Once he gets fully settled in, that will extend to the community as well. Being a physical, strong-bodied 6-foot-6 forward that shoots 37.7% from three-point range for his career, adds a layer of versatility to Clifford’s lineup configurations. His willingness to mix it up and get under the skin of the opponent is an element that Charlotte has lacked for years. Williams is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists with the Hornets so far, and he endeared himself to fans with his actions against Golden State.

For a few days after the All-Star break, the new-look Hornets had the league’s best defense. While only Williams arrived in town with the reputation of being an impactful defender, the influx of veteran talent gives Clifford a complete rotation of players that can execute a variety of defensive schemes. Each player has thrived in an expanded role compared to their previous situations– Mann in particular has excelled as a feisty point-of-attack defender, generating a team-leading 3.5 deflections per game, a top-10 mark in the league since the new guys debuted on February 10. 

Williams has been praised by Clifford for his organizational skills and communication, and Bertans, Curry and Micic have been pros for nearly 30 years combined. It goes without saying, just how much that experience can help a young team like the Hornets.

The team’s defensive rating has since fallen post-deadline, and while the offense has lagged recently, the Hornets are still a better watch than they were at this time last month. Micic’s flair for the dramatic as a passer is strongly reminiscent of LaMelo Ball, and the former EuroLeague MVP and two-time EuroLeague champion has been filling the void as the lone point guard in the rotation. Cody Martin is an adept situational playmaker, especially making pocket passes to rolling bigs out of ball-screens and hand-offs, but neither he nor Mann are suited for a lead distributor role. When Ball returns this season, the Hornets staff will finally get a picture of what the offense looks like at full strength.

For as much flack Kupchak caught in his final months on the job, he deserves credit for extracting maximum value at the deadline, recouping five bona fide NBA rotation players along with a bevy of draft picks. With that, his era leading the front office comes to a close. 

Between all the trades and the appointment of Peterson to lead the new front office regime, the month of February truly represented the dawn of a new era in Charlotte Hornets history. But tearing down a roster has always been the easy part for NBA teams. Rebuilding and restoring an expectation of success the city hasn’t seen in nearly 30 years is the hard part. 

Check out the remaining Charlotte Hornets 2023-24 schedule.

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