The Charlotte Hornets let Kemba Walker leave in free agency to embark on a long-awaited rebuild. With training camp quickly approaching, what can we expect from James Borrego’s team in the 2019-20 NBA season?
Bottom line: Charlotte is the least talented team in basketball, and it’s not particularly close.
Terry Rozier was the Hornets’ lone major offseason addition, and any excitement gleaned from his acquisition is tempered by the front office feeling compelled to afford him a three-year, $58 million contract. Even accounting for “Scary Terry” in the 2018 playoffs, Rozier has never consistently shown the ability to be even an average starting point guard, but Charlotte nevertheless decided to pay him like one.
The good news otherwise is that no other veteran on this roster is locked into an expensive contract past this season. Nicolas Batum has a player option for 2020-21 it would make financial sense to exercise, but he may prefer to hit free agency this summer rather than waste another year of his extended prime playing for a lottery team. He’ll start on the wing this season, next to a backcourt of Rozier and Malik Monk, a lottery pick in 2017 who’s yet to live up to his reputation as a microwave scorer, let alone round out the rough edges of his game. Miles Bridges, one of the most explosive vertical athletes in basketball, is probably Charlotte’s best All-Star hope, but after an understated rookie season seems best suited as an elite role player on a good team. The same goes for rookie P.J. Washington.
Third-year wing Dwayne Bacon quietly made major strides offensively as a sophomore, especially from beyond the arc. He should be given ample playing time off the bench this season, and guard Devonte’ Graham, coming off a Summer League performance in which he jacked threes at a wild, encouraging clip, is poised to play significant minutes, too.
Zeller, health provided, will start at center, continuing to make all the subtle plays he has throughout his career. Willy Hernangomez should also get ample opportunity to carve out a role in the middle. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fared better last season after being shifted down to power forward full-time, but like Batum and Marvin Williams, will see his minutes cut in 2019-20 as the Hornets, finally, embrace a youth movement.
Charlotte would undoubtedly love to outperform expectations this season, but that’s more indicative of a desire to foster a culture of chemistry and development than any realistic hopes of competing for a playoff berth. Even in the Eastern Conference, it’s impossible to imagine the Hornets being good enough offensively to compete with lower-rung teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls that carry hopeful aspirations of postseason contention.
Far, far more likely is that Charlotte engages in a rock-throwing contest with the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, and perhaps Washington Wizards – depending on what happens with Bradley Beal – at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Michael Jordan shouldn’t want anything more than that, either. His team sorely needs an influx of talent, and maximizing chances to win the lottery by finishing with one of the the league’s three worst records is the best means of getting it.
11/7 vs. Boston Celtics – Kemba Walker’s lone trip back to Spectrum Center is also the Hornets’ lone nationally-televised broadcast of the entire season.
12/18 at Cleveland Cavaliers – The first of three matchups with Cleveland this season might be the best chance to find out how Charlotte stacks up to other league-wide bottom-dwellers.
4/15 at Philadelphia 76ers – Will lottery odds be on the line when the Hornets visit the 76ers in the season finale?
Projected Record: 19-63
It would shock if Charlotte wasn’t one of the several-worst offensive teams in basketball this season. Borrego employs a modern style that prioritizes ball screens and shifting the defense from side to side, but the Hornets just don’t have the horses – even allowing for a potential breakout from Monk – to be even league-average on that side of the ball. Defense is another story; Charlotte possesses several wings with the ability to check multiple positions and shift down a spot in the lineup, allowing for the option of switching one through five. But Borrego and Mitch Kupchak have made it clear that player development comes first and foremost this season, ensuring that smart, quality defenders like Kidd-Gilchrist, Williams, and Zeller see less court time than they should.
The likely result? The Hornets’ worst season since 2011-12, when they went 7-59 in a lockout-shortened campaign.