With LaMelo Ball injury and the trade deadline passing, Hornets have looming offseason decisions to be made

By Chase Whitney

April 2, 2021

Photo: Chuck Burton / AP

The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, and the Charlotte Hornets emerged on the other side with Brad Wanamaker, a point guard acquired from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for cash considerations (and heavily protected future second-round picks that will likely never be conveyed).

Some NBA fans anticipated a busy deadline from Hornets’ general manager Mitch Kupchak, but the injury to LaMelo Ball took some of the wind out of their sails. Without its star rookie point guard, the team’s most tradable players– Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk– became necessary pieces of the rotation and were thus untradeable if the Hornets wanted to compete for a playoff spot. 

Brad Wanamaker trade

Ending up with Wanamaker, who had been in and out of the Warriors’ rotation prior to being moved, is not the most exciting or captivating trade deadline deal, but to Kupchak’s credit it was practical. The Hornets gave up nothing (2022 second round draft pick for 2025 second round draft pick) in exchange for veteran point guard depth, which would be needed if Graham or Monk are injured or in foul trouble. Wanamaker is a sturdy, dependable guard that can finish around the rim, defend his position, and shoot with average efficiency from deep;  he’s also one of the best free throw shooters in the league.

Are the playoffs still possible without LaMelo?

When Ball went down, it was presumed the Hornets would fall down in the Eastern Conference standings, but that has yet to be the case. Charlotte won three straight over San Antonio, Houston and Miami, and Graham and Monk have both replaced Ball’s production and filled in admirably. With the team currently in fourth place in the East, the expectations may not subside without Ball as much as we’d thought.

Ball went beyond the value of a typical rookie by actually impacting wins in his first season. Charlotte’s offense was 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with Ball on the floor than off, per Cleaning The Glass, and his mark of 1.6 steals per game is good for eighth in the NBA. Even while putting up stats, it’s hard for rookies to simultaneously adjust to the speed and physicality of the NBA and help their team win, and Ball struggled with that too, albeit much less often. His defense was inconsistent and he hasn’t quite figured out how to score in the mid-range yet.

While Ball’s wrist heals, head coach James Borrego will continue to lean heavily on Graham and Monk while they incorporate Wanamaker into the system. The Hornets have made a point not to rule Ball out for the season but, even if he is able to return, it would be in the closing weeks/days of the regular season or right at the start of the playoffs. Charlotte has nearly two months to stay afloat and keep themselves within striking distance of a playoff– not play-in– seed.

Kupchak and Borrego staying the course

Regardless of what expectations have been set outside the organization, it’s clear that Kupchak and Borrego remain on the same page. This franchise is not in desperation mode and clawing to return to the playoffs; they’re currently in position to make the playoffs, but that’s not by design. It’s because the Hornets are lightyears ahead of schedule in this rebuild.

Kupchak’s comments embody the thought process a non-major market team should have during an organic rebuild: start from the ground up, developing the players that are in-house, and building a culture and team chemistry that transcends talent and potential. Eventually the fruits will bear, much like they are for the Hornets right now.

Now that they’ve got undeniable chemistry evidenced by the NBA’s best “crunch time” offense, all Kupchak is doing is demonstrating patience while the puzzle pieces fall into place. The above-.500 Hornets are one of the most exciting shows in the league. 

The future

This offseason is of the utmost importance for this organization. With Ball firmly in place as the franchise cornerstone, every decision that Kupchak and his staff make from here on out will revolve around how it affects him. The only thing harder than finding a “special” player at the NBA level is surrounding them with the right pieces, and that’s the focus of the Hornets’ front office going forward.

The team probably would’ve made a decision between which of their three guards– Graham, Monk and Rozier– they planned to keep beyond this season at the deadline had Ball not gotten hurt, but that decision still needs to be made at some point. Graham and Monk are both due contract extensions this offseason, and Rozier will have one season left on his deal at about $17.9 million. Ball is obviously the keeper, but which guard(s) the Hornets decide to pair with him is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the upcoming offseason.

The team’s other upcoming free agent is Cody Zeller. Zeller has spent his entire eight-year career in Charlotte, and has proven to be a useful player when healthy. Unfortunately, staying healthy has been tough over the last four or five seasons for Zeller, and that will absolutely factor into whether the Hornets retain him. Contenders will surely be lining up for Zeller’s services as a backup/spot starter, and whether or not he stays in Charlotte will depend entirely on his desired role and salary figure.

The 2021 NBA Draft

Hornets fans have gotten used to paying close attention to the NBA Draft in recent years, but the team’s 2021 pick probably won’t be as exciting. However, it’s still crucial that Kupchak nails a solid draft pick. The Hornets aren’t a “complete team” yet, with holes at the center position and on the wing. They need to keep hitting on these picks to ensure they have a full cupboard of assets when the time comes to make a move.

The Hornets will probably pick in the mid-to-late first round and select the “best player available” as any team should, but a wing or a center would be ideal for this current roster.

Check out the remaining 2020-21 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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