Going into the offseason, fans are often positive about next season. Every team has a chance to win it all before the games start. In that spirit, this series looks at each team’s best case scenario in the offseason. Using salary cap gymnastics that would make Daryl Morey proud, we’re going to look at what is the best vaguely plausible assembly of talent a team can put together this offseason. Plausibility will be looked at in the forms of trades and team decision making. Whether a particular player will want to go to a destination will largely be ignored as that is not something a team has much control over and is often borderline impossible to predict. With all of that being said, this week is the Charlotte Hornets.
The Charlotte Hornets are the pinnacle of NBA mediocrity. Since Michael Jordan became a minority owner in 2006, the team has a record of 444-609 good for a winning percentage of 42.2 percent, which is less than 35 wins a season. In the NBA, mediocrity is wildly considered the worst place to be. You don’t get the benefits of being good, such as making the playoffs and exciting your fans, and you don’t get the benefits of being bad — high draft picks. Yet year after year the Hornets have consistently been mediocre. Their current roster is coming off a 39-43 season where they finished 10th in the east, just missing the playoffs. They have an expensive roster without any real avenue towards contention. They should blow it up and start from scratch but given Jordan’s propensity for mediocrity in his post-playing career, I’d be surprised if this happens.
What success the Hornets did have this year was driven by Kemba Walker, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He put up 25.6 points (a career high,) 5.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game and was named to the All-NBA third team. This distinction makes Walker eligible for the designated player distinction. Players with 7-9 years of experience are normally eligible for a maximum salary equal to 30 percent of the salary cap, equaling approximately $32.7 million this year. The designated player distinction allows a team to offer their player up to 35 percent of the salary cap, equaling approximately $38.15 million this year. In addition to single pay raise, teams can offer their own free agents annual raises of eight percent, instead of the five percent other teams can offer and a fifth year on the end of the contract. That means the Hornets can offer him a total of $221.3 million over five years while the most another team can offer him is $140.6 million over four seasons. This is a sizable advantage for the home team in retaining Walker. For his part, Walker has not made much money in his career. His career earnings are below $60 million, which for me or you would be a wonderful sum, but for a high-level starting point guard it’s a paltry sum. For reference Bismack Biyombo, picked two slots before Walker in the 2011 draft, has made over $75 million and is nowhere near the difference maker Walker is. All of this means, if the maximum contract is extended, I do think Walker would stay in Charlotte.
The question is, should the Hornets offer Walker the full max? While he is easily the best player in franchise history, I would say no. As mentioned earlier, the Hornets don’t really have a path towards contention and having Walker on this giant contract will at best keep them in mediocrity, and at worse, he’ll age quickly and the contract becomes a negative value very quickly if it isn’t already at the start. Having said that, Jordan has seemed unwilling to take a step back competitively in the short term to improve the team’s long term prospects. There’s a reason this team has been stuck in mediocrity for so long, and this is not something I expect to change. I expect the team tries to get Walker to come back for less than the max but will do whatever it takes to keep him.
With Walker returning this team needs to find ways to improve. They will not have the cap space to sign free agents, having the 12th pick likely won’t allow them the select a difference maker in the upcoming draft, and the young players they do have on the roster are unlikely to take a large step forward. This leaves trades as their only path to improvement. They should target players under contract moving forward, as Charlotte has not been known for attracting the top talent in the league. One possible player to target is Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans. With the Pelicans receiving the number one pick in the upcoming draft, there’s a good chance they decide to go younger and take their time rebuilding, making Holiday expendable. Holiday would also fit very well next to Walker. He can defend both guard positions, covering up Walker’s deficiencies on that side, and play both on and off ball at different times. If the Pelicans really were trying to get younger, a trade of Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Biyombo and the 12th pick should be enough to get it done.
Another possible target for them is Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s well known around the league that the Cavaliers resigned Love hoping to trade him, but his injuries last season and advanced age make the contract look worst every day. Love could be useful for a team looking to win basketball games, but that is simply not the Cavaliers at the moment. The Hornets could offer Nicolas Batum, a player who is also overpaid with an injury history but a shorter contract, and a future first-round pick. The Cavaliers would get to clean up their cap sheet a bit while adding future draft assets while the Hornets add much-needed talent to the roster.
These trades leave the Hornets with a core of Walker, Holiday and Love to build around. Will this team contend for a championship? Almost certainly not, but if Jordan is determined to not get any worse, I think this is the best case scenario for this team. Will this happen? No one knows for sure, but we will find out soon enough.