If you’re a fan of the Charlotte Hornets, I’ve got great news: You can stop caring about this franchise again.
Yes, the uniforms are cool again, the coach is solid, the Hornets name is back, and Kemba Walker just became the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. So, in theory, it should be an exciting time to be a fan of the Hornets in the Queen City.
As of this writing, the team is 34-44, will miss the playoffs in the East for back-to-back seasons and the team has a roster that’s slated to count for $117.9 million against the cap next year. Hope, this does not inspire.
It’s incredibly frustrating, as it’s not as though the Hornets are without talent. They’re not the Wizards’ bench on a grander scale. Walker just made his second-consecutive All-Star game, Malik Monk has started to show flashes down the stretch, Batum has struggled with his shot but he’s still contributing in other ways, Marvin Williams would be adored on the Houston Rockets, and the team is smack dab in the middle in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the NBA. Like so many other teams stuck in the middle, their rosters would look far more appetizing if it included a star or two.
That’s where Charlotte is right now, though. They’re average, but somehow not average enough to sneak into the playoffs in a suddenly interesting bottom half of the Eastern Conference. It seems like they should be right there with the Pacers, the Heat, the Bucks, but they’re closer to the Knicks who have been without Kristaps Porzingis for most of the season and are letting Emmanuel Mudiay lead their club to Tankathon glory. ( I’m not going to look, but I’m fairly confident the former Nugget is still dead-last in RPM for point guards.) The team’s most-used five-man lineup, Walker-Batum-MKG-Williams-Howard, have played 903 minutes together this season and boast a +/- of +71, per 82games.com. Does that five-man group really look all that worse than what the Heat and Pacers are trotting out every night? If you dig a bit deeper, any lineup that features Walker has continued be a rousing success, unless he’s saddled with trying to keep defenses honest with Howard, Frank Kaminsky and MKG on the floor together, of course. To put it a different way, Walker is Jon Snow at the Battle of the Bastards. (And yes, this *does* make Michael Carter-Williams the Rickon Stark in this analogy, which just feels right.)
This team has simply spent too much money to not be at the very least a consistent playoff team, similar to the starless-Hawks who went to 10-straight playoff appearances before they finally elected to chart a different course this past offseason. So you can understand why Jordan would part with Cho, but to replace the foodie with...Mitch Kupchak is mind-boggling. Bringing in Kupchak into a cap-situation like Charlotte’s is like calling in a fireman who thinks the only way to put out a fire is by adding just a little more fuel. (Michael Carter-Williams for four-years, $48 million this summer? Don’t rule it out!) Many don’t actually know this, but the “This Is Fine” dog meme was created in response to the first press conference by Kupchak revealing the details of the Deng and Mozgov contracts.
Kupchak is a Tar Heel, so it should come as no surprise that Jordan has offered him the general manager job, but outside of the university connection, what is the appeal of bringing in the former Laker general manager? Is it the history he has with Steve Clifford in Los Angeles? Is the fact that Kupchak called Clifford in 2016 to gush about how good Roy Hibbert was on offense after the Hornets signed him away from Los Angeles? Is Rod Higgins not returning Jordan’s phone calls anymore? I need to know.
In Kupchak’s defense, he did draft Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D’Angelo Russell in the last few years. He sent the Wizards cash to draft Jordan Clarkson. He supported D’Antoni publicly after he resigned from the Lakers’ gig in what feels like a lifetime ago. He was even the guy who pried Luke Walton away from the Warriors.
But you just can’t block out the Deng and Mozgov contracts. And on a team that needs to shed salary and undergo another brutal, necessary rebuild, the stars don’t align. The Hornets may already have their own mini-Deng contract with Batum. They don’t need to bring in the guy who just may back up the Brinks truck for Isaiah Thomas this summer. They don’t need to bring in Sam Hinkie -- although, I’m still looking at you, Sacramento -- they just need a fresh voice. If you don’t want to do a full-roster teardown, that’s fine, pluck an executive that has excelled in building from the middle -- like the Rockets. Go snag a Neil Olshey disciple. Be creative. Just don’t hire Mitch Kupchak.
But maybe trade Kemba Walker?
The Hornets could have moved Walker prior to the trade deadline, but you can understand the hesitation from Charlotte’s perspective. Had he been moved, he wouldn’t have broken Dell Curry’s all-time scoring mark and given one of the best post-game interviews ever. (Seriously, just watch it and try not lose it as though you’re watching Matt Saracen ask why everybody leaves him.) And it’s still not out of the question this core could take a Portland-like leap with Walker and friends. Monk could very well become the former Huskies’ star C.J. McCollum. (They both even love the art of taking a bunch of difficult shots.) The parallels between the Hornets and Blazers are endless, from the Jusuf Nurkic and Dwight Howard comparisons, to the late-lottery-stretch-big-guy picks in Zach Collins and Frank Kaminsky, to the tantalizing long-term, offensive appeal of Damian Lillard and McCollum to Walker and Monk. None of that is to say the Hornets are on track to be the next Blazers, but it’s still a possibility. (Yes, I still like the potential in a five-man unit of Walker/Monk/MKG/Williams/Zeller with a side of Batum, Anybody But Dwight Howard and a backup point guard more like Shabazz Napier and less like Carter-Williams -- like Jeremy Lin, for instance. They should think about signing that guy at some point, he’d probably mesh well with Walker for stretches of games.)
The Hornets have options. They can trade Walker and go through another painful rebuild where they’d once again be relying on the Basketball Gods awarding them with the next Anthony Davis and not another Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But there are no guarantees. They could reload by moving on from Williams, Zeller, and even MKG to see if a slight roster reconstruction adds new life to a roster on life support. Or they can hire Kupchak, double-down on bad contracts and send Charlotte fans back to their laptops to watch ‘90s Charlotte Hornets highlights on YouTube like it's the Larry Brown and Tyrus Thomas era in Charlotte again. Jordan is probably going to hire Kupchak.
So take a break Charlotte fans because we all will understand.