Charlotte Hornets Offseason Report: Hornets exercise patience with new ownership transition

By Chase Whitney

August 20, 2023

Photo: Nell Redmond / AP

The offseason has all but came and went. Apart from any potential blockbuster trades, there are very few pieces left in the NBA offseason puzzle. The dog days of summer are officially upon us.

Only a handful of rotation-level players remain on the free agent market and most teams have locked in their training camp rosters at this point. That doesn’t mean the Charlotte Hornets can’t make moves, though. The new ownership group took the reins and the team added Frank Ntilikina and R.J. Hunter on non-guaranteed deals. It may not be the kind of activity some fans were longing for after a dreadful 2022-23 season, but it’s activity nonetheless.

Organizational change typically starts from the top-down in the NBA. On August 3, Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall officially finalized the acquisition of a majority stake in the Hornets franchise following 13 years of Michael Jordan’s stewardship. The two new owners are due to serve as co-owners and alternate team governorship every five years, with Schnall up first. Essentially, Schnall will represent the Hornets at league meetings and press conferences, and act as a “lead decision-maker” of sorts until it’s Plotkin’s turn in 2028.

Both majority owners are involved with investment firms and have been minority owners for the last few seasons– Plotkin purchased a stake in the Hornets in 2019 and Schnall broke in with the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, where he helped oversee a team rebuild, along with an arena and renovations to facilities. North Carolina natives J. Cole and Eric Church are a part of the minority ownership group, along with Jordan, who will remain an influential figure within the organization in a smaller capacity and serve as alternate governor.

The new owners spoke at length about their commitment to the Charlotte community, investing in the franchise and ultimately providing a successful team for the dedicated basketball fans in the area. Schnall mentioned that no major changes to the front office are likely in the short-term, which makes sense given the stage of the offseason and the existing contracts of both Mitch Kupchak and Steve Clifford. The new owners will likely give the current roster and front office staff a full season of evaluation before making any big decisions.

Rather than make any drastic trades or dive deep into the free agent pool in the first season under new ownership, Kupchak opted to lean on returning talent. Miles Bridges will return after missing all of last season due to a felony domestic violence charge, for which he’ll also serve a 10-game suspension to start the year. He’s due to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent next summer after accepting the $7.9 million qualifying offer. 

Bridges’ agents and the Hornets brass were unable to reach an agreement on a long-term extension– now, the team runs the risk of losing him for nothing next summer. Accepting the qualifying offer also gives Bridges a full no-trade clause this season. The only leverage the Hornets still hold in extension talks are his Bird Rights, which would not follow him to a new team should he waive his no-trade clause and part ways with the Hornets before the deadline.

Not long after Bridges signed the qualifying offer, LaMelo Ball inked a five-year, $205.9 million maximum contract extension. If Ball makes an All-NBA team, the total value of the contract jumps to $260 million. There are no options at the end of the deal and it also comes with a 15 percent trade kicker. He still has one more season on his rookie-scale deal before the max extension kicks in and runs through the 2028-29 season. Simply put, Ball will be in Charlotte for the long haul. He became eligible to sign the extension on July 1, and the Hornets had announced the extension by July 6. It didn’t take long for Charlotte’s biggest basketball star in decades to put pen to paper. The world saw what the Hornets looked like on the court when he missed extended time last season, and the front office was in no position to do anything but throw the kitchen sink at their franchise cornerstone. 

Of course, not every Hornets free agency situation has been amicably resolved. As mentioned in the introduction, there are only a handful of quality rotation pieces left on the market. Coincidentally, two of them played in Charlotte last season: PJ Washington and Kelly Oubre Jr.

Oubre seems likely to move on with the addition of Brandon Miller, the return of Bridges, and his salary preferences. No team has enough cap space left, but there are mid-level or bi-annual exception slots open around the league, and a competitor might be better suited for Oubre’s skillset. On the other hand, Washington is a valuable piece of the Hornets rotation, but as of now, it seems like the Hornets front office and Washington’s camp couldn’t be further away from a contract agreement.

The shot-creation load that Washington was saddled with tanked his efficiency, but he still put up the best numbers of his career last season. Only six players eclipsed 15 points, 1 block and 0.9 steals per game in 22-23: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Joel Embiid, Jaren Jackson Jr., Evan Mobley, Kristaps Porzingis and PJ Washington. With the exception of Mobley, due to it being his second year in the league, all of the remaining players are due to make $26 million or more this upcoming season. With the presence of Bridges, Miller and Williams, it’s unlikely Washington is more than a sixth man for the Hornets if he re-signs. Take a look at the roster without Washington, though. For a team that lacked depth last season (which Kupchak himself has acknowledged), there isn’t much in the way of reinforcements. It would be understandable if the Hornets overpaid a bit to retain a versatile, impactful rotation piece in Washington.

Up until early August, the Hornets had not acquired a single player that wasn’t a draft pick or a returning player from last season’s roster. Finally, the wait ended when Frank Ntilikina (nee-lee-kee-nuh) agreed to a partially-guaranteed one-year contract on August 4. Ntilikina was drafted eighth overall in 2017 and spent his first four seasons with the New York Knicks before spending the last two years in Dallas. He peaked at 6.3 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3 assists per game in 2019-20 with New York, while playing sparingly with the Mavericks. His lack of shooting range and pull-up scoring greatly hinder his playmaking and defensive abilities, but people said the same things about Dennis Smith Jr. prior to his resurgence last year. Maybe, Ntilikina follows a similar path. 

The Hornets have also added R.J. Hunter on a non-guaranteed deal. Hunter was drafted 28th overall in 2015 by the Boston Celtics, where he’s made 37 of his 45 career appearances. He’s spent time as a Two-Way player with Boston and Houston, and signed a non-guaranteed deal with Chicago. Since dropping 17 points in the finale of the 2018-19 season, Hunter has spent time in Turkey, Australia and the G League. 

In a much smaller move, the Hornets waived forward Xavier Sneed and opened a Two-Way slot. Back in July, the Hornets extended Théo Maledon a Two-Way qualifying offer, which will put Maledon in Sneed’s place should he accept the offer. He’d be limited to 50 active games on the Two-Way deal, but Maledon is a high-quality depth piece to hold. 

The offseason roster count stands at 18, including Hunter and the Two-Ways, and excluding Washington and Maledon. Kobi Simmons, JT Thor and Ntilikina are on non-guaranteed deals; Thor is a certainty to stay around, while Simmons and Ntilikina could be battling for a roster spot. The new CBA allows teams to carry up to 21 players during the offseason– the remaining three spots could be filled by Washington and/or Maledon, along with Exhibit 10 and training camp signees. 

A couple months ago, Hornets fans were gearing up for what some thought was the most important and consequential offseason in the franchise’s recent history. We’re now rolling through August and inching ever closer to training camps opening in mid-September. It’s fair to say the acquisitions (or lack thereof) made by Mitch Kupchak and his staff have underwhelmed to this point.

But, to be fair, Kupchak has been preaching patience to the fans for years in regards to player development and roster adjustments. How many more years will that message resonate with the fans? Fair or not, the result of the 2023-24 season will almost certainly give us an answer.

Check out the 2023-24 Charlotte Hornets NBA season schedule.

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