Charlotte Hornets Offseason Guide: Pivotal decisions ahead and flexibility for Mitch Kupchak

By Chase Whitney

April 18, 2022

Photo: Chuck Burton / AP

A second consecutive blowout loss in the play-in tournament was certainly not the ending Charlotte Hornets fans were hoping for.

This year’s season-ending defeat came slower than last year’s immediate drubbing at the hands of the Pacers, going into halftime down eight against the Hawks. Regardless, this margin of defeat was even larger after Atlanta ran away with the game in a 42-point third quarter while LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier shot a combined 15-47 (31.9 percent) from the field and 6-22 (27.2 percent) from three-point range. 

Highlights from the 21-22 regular season

Lamelo Ball 

The sting from the play-in loss is subsiding now though, and looking back, the Hornets did accomplish a lot this season going 43-39 to finish above .500 for the first time in six years. Ball was named to his first All-Star team and after averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game on high-volume efficiency, it looks like he has many more nominations in his future. Shooting 43.8 percent on 8.1 three-point attempts per game post All-Star break, it’s clear he’s developed the shot creation to complement his elite passing ability. More consistency on defense in year three would help him take yet another developmental leap and put him in the discussion with the top point guards in the NBA.

Miles Bridges 

Miles Bridges built on his late-season surge in 2020-21, becoming a top candidate for the Most Improved Player award with career-high averages of 20.2 points, 7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, firmly establishing himself as a core piece of the franchise. The improvement in Bridges’ overall playmaking was monumental, but his ability to create for his teammates in halfcourt settings has further opened up an offense that thrives off the chemistry of he and Ball. 

Terry Rozier 

After receiving a four-year, $97 million extension last summer, Rozier put up near-identical numbers to the season that earned him the big payday. He averaged 1.1 fewer points per game (19.3 to 20.4) on an incredibly slight efficiency dip, while his rebounding and assist averages changed by a combined .4 per game. He did go through a rough patch to end the season that was capped off by an uncharacteristically rough showing in the play-in, but his veteran presence and reliability as a scorer buoyed the offense throughout the season. Ball, Bridges and Rozier each dropped nine 30-point games this season and carried Charlotte to the eighth-best offensive rating and third in team assist percentage (65.6).

PJ Washington 

Heading into the first offseason in which he’s eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension, PJ Washington is in an interesting spot. He recovered from a slow start to the season, finishing strong as a vital piece to James Borrego’s defensive puzzle with his ability to play both frontcourt positions and switch onto smaller players. Relegation to a reserve role resulted in career-low per game averages across the board, but players that can defend multiple positions, make plays with the ball and shoot above league average from downtown are typically compensated well for their services in the NBA.

Kelly Oubre Jr. 

Kelly Oubre Jr.’s first year in Charlotte didn’t end on a hot streak, but he ripped off a few of them during the regular season. On January 26 against Indiana, Oubre scored 39 points on 10-15 shooting from long-range, tying the Hornets’ franchise record for three-pointers made in a game. He added three more 30-point outings on the season, including a 37-point performance against Memphis on November 10.

Cody Martin 

Cody Martin is another player looking for a payday, finishing his three-year, $4.47 million rookie-scale contract he signed after being drafted 36th overall in 2019. The minimal $2.28 million cap hold won’t prevent the organization from making any moves and the Hornets have the right to match any deal he signs as a restricted free agent. Martin’s three-point percentage jumped from 27.6 to 38.4 percent even while adding an extra attempt per game and averaged career per-game highs in most categories. If teams think he’ll consistently shoot above league-average from distance while providing his excellent perimeter defense, Martin will receive plenty of interest on the free agent market.

Harrell, Thomas and Plumlee

The midseason additions of Montrezl Harrell and Isaiah Thomas bolstered depth and helped the team go 11-4 to round out the regular season. Harrell, acquired in exchange for Vernon Carey Jr. and Ish Smith, admittedly did not solve Charlotte’s rim protection issue, but his chemistry with Ball in the pick-and-roll shined, as did his aggression and intensity. Thomas averaged over eight points per game, scoring in double figures off the bench seven times in 17 appearances, and making his locker room presence felt immediately upon arrival.

Last, but certainly not least; Mason Plumlee. Much like Harrell, Plumlee isn’t the rim protector the Hornets defense needs, but he was a serviceable center when small-ball didn’t provide an advantage. Shooting an abysmal 39.2 percent from the line, he showed above average passing ability from the elbows and the low block, which helps him avoid taking a ton of those cursed free throws.

What happened to James Bouknight and Kai Jones this season? 

The Hornets’ 2021 rookie class garnered some hype heading into the season after James Bouknight declared that this team was going to be “box office.” Strangely enough, the only rookie who made an impact as a member of Borrego’s rotation was JT Thor. Selected 37th overall, Thor quickly flashed potential as a rangy off-ball defender with the foot speed to stay in front on the perimeter.

Kai Jones received the bulk of his minutes with the G League Greensboro Swarm this season, putting up 18.3 points, 11 rebounds, 1.6 steals and two blocks per game.The former high-jumper skied for dozens of highlight dunks and lobs, and showed real growth as a positional defender and rim-runner. Even though he only played 10 non-garbage time minutes as a rookie per Cleaning The Glass, it wouldn’t be surprising if Jones gets a shot to be the backup center in training camp this fall.

Bouknight was able to crack the rotation during the Covid spell for a pair of six-game spans in the winter, dropping a season-high 24 points on six made threes against Sacramento. Despite that outburst, it was difficult for him to supplant Cody Martin or Ish Smith/Isaiah Thomas in the rotation. Bouknight and Jones played the second and fourth fewest minutes of all the first-round rookies in 2021, though both displayed plenty of reasons for optimism in Greensboro. 

Offseason Preview 

Gordon Hayward

There are few non-free agents in the league with more speculation in the offseason than Gordon Hayward. For the second time in as many seasons, Hayward missed the stretch run with an injury while the Hornets were ousted early in the postseason. Granted, it’s not his fault that he continuously suffers untimely injuries, but when Charlotte has needed veteran leadership the most, their best veteran player has been unavailable. With two years and $61 million remaining on his contract, plus a 15 percent trade kicker that the Hornets would have to pay if they move him, there isn’t exactly a long list of trade suitors. On top of that, Hayward has been an effective player for the Hornets when he is on the court. Only time will tell which direction general manager Mitch Kupchak decides to go with the 32-year-old forward.

Bridges’ Contract 

Reports indicate that Bridges could command a massive offer in restricted free agency, reaching up to five years and $173 million, per Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer. However, reports have also indicated that Charlotte is prepared to keep the 24-year-old budding star no matter the cost. Bridges’ chemistry with Ball is rivaled by few young duos around the league, and the small-market Hornets would be remiss not to retain All-Star caliber homegrown talent. While only a handful of teams have significant cap space this summer, Bridges’ home-state Detroit Pistons are one of them. The Hornets have never once gone far enough over the cap to pay the luxury tax in the history of the franchise, but Michael Jordan must be prepared to do so in the coming years if the team is to retain its young talent. 

One of Kupchak’s most savvy moves of the 2021 offseason– if not his best– was acquiring players with partially-guaranteed contracts after this season. Oubre’s two-year, $24.6 million deal is guaranteed for $5 million of the $12.6 million in the second season, saving the Hornets (or another team) $7.6 million in cap space if he’s waived by June 30. Plumlee’s $8.53 million for next season becomes fully-guaranteed 10 days prior to the 2022 moratorium, which coincides with the official start of the 2022-23 season on July 1. If he’s waived prior to that, he’s guaranteed $4.3 million. Kupchak gave himself valuable flexibility by signing solid depth pieces to team-friendly deals, making it easier to trade Oubre and Plumlee, or cut ties without too much of a penalty.

Two First-Round Draft Picks

Charlotte did collect another victory in the 21-22 season when the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in to earn the No. 8 seed, sending the 15th overall pick to the Hornets as part of the Devonte’ Graham trade. The Hornets’ own pick possesses the 13th-best lottery odds, meaning Charlotte will more than likely hold a pair of picks in the teens. Since the protected first-rounder sent to New York for Kai Jones (now owned by Atlanta) prevents Kupchak from trading the Hornets’ own first-round picks until 2025, having two tradable mid-first-rounders in 2022 opens up a lot of flexibility. 

The never-ending search for a Big Man 

Yet again, the Hornets will need to address their interior defense this offseason. Harrell is an unrestricted free agent who spoke of general uneasiness with his role at times during exit interviews and Plumlee may be expendable. Nick Richards hasn’t yet been able to demonstrate the growth necessary to become a full-time backup and also has a non-guaranteed contract, so his $2 million salary could be wiped off the books for financial purposes, too, leaving Jones as the lone big man with roster spot security. 

The free agent crop this summer is less than stellar, but there are a few good options available. Jusuf Nurkic doesn’t fit the rim protector archetype the Hornets need, but is an unrestricted free agent. Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson are both unrestricted, while Mo Bamba is a restricted free agent with Orlando. Gorgui Dieng, Robin Lopez and JaVale McGee are just a few of the veteran role player options available on the market.

The big fish in the free agent pond is clearly DeAndre Ayton, who is a restricted free agent that didn’t agree to a maximum contract extension prior to the season with Phoenix. The Suns are likely to match any max offer Ayton receives from another team, given that it would be a four-year deal compared to the five-year, $173 million contract Phoenix is allowed to offer as they hold his Bird Rights (rule that allows teams to spend over the salary cap to keep talent)

Depending on how Utah’s season ends, they could follow in the footsteps of Portland and become the next Western Conference team to split up a star duo. Talks of a rift in the relationship between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell have existed for years, and that only ramped up as the Jazz took a slight step back in performance this season. That would obviously benefit the Hornets, who need a rim-protecting center of Gobert’s ilk. Though he’s completing the first season of a five-year, $205 million extension, the Hornets have the assets and flexibility to enter the trade market, if one ever surfaces.

Steven Adams, Clint Capela, Jakob Poeltl, and Myles Turner could become available as the offseason progresses, but there’s not much in the way of rumors during the postseason. Once the playoffs shake out, more teams will shift to “offseason mode” and get back on the phones to talk trades, free agency, the draft, and all of the other fun things that make the NBA offseason compelling. 

Pivotable offseason for the Hornets

The Hornets have a very intriguing summer ahead of them; last offseason, Kupchak declined to make any big splashes in an effort to push the franchise into the upper echelon of the East, opting for flexibility in retaining draft assets and future cap space. With Bridges and Martin hitting free agency, Washington becoming extension eligible and Ball expected to take another step forward, Charlotte’s front office could decide to double down on their young talent or move some pieces to construct a more cohesive roster. 

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