On a budget, Hornets prudently address their flaws
At 36-46, the 2016-17 Hornets’ had the second-worst record ever by a team that outscored its opponents.
Point difference, rather than record, tends to better predict future success. So, simple regression to the mean should lift Charlotte – which finished the season +16 – firmly into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
But the Hornets didn’t stop there, addressing their two biggest issues in a quietly focused offseason.
Charlotte fell apart when Cody Zeller missed games (3-17 record) or Kemba Walker went to the bench (-7.0 net rating) last season.
Enter Dwight Howard and Michael Carter-Williams.
The Hornets moved $44,106,060 of salary (Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli) for Howard and his $47,319,725 remaining salary – and moved up 10 spots in the second round. Howard isn’t necessarily the answer at center in Charlotte, but he might be, and Plumlee definitely wasn’t. Plumlee is also due $12.5 million each of the next three seasons while Howard’s deal expires after only two. Belinelli was a helpful reserve on an expiring contract, but drafting Malik Monk at No. 11 completely softens the blow of a deal that was already pretty cushy.
After going from the No. 41 to the No. 31 pick in the Hawks trade, the Hornets moved back down to No. 40, getting Dwayne Bacon and pocketing $1.8 million for the swap. It’s still about money in Charlotte.
That’s why the Hornets had to settle for Carter-Williams, who’ll earn just $2.7 million on a one-year contract. Jeremy Lin shined as Charlotte’s backup point guard on a similar contract a couple years ago, but I wouldn’t count on similar success for Carter-Williams. The former Rookie of the Year fell out of favor with the Bucks and Bulls fairly quickly. It wouldn’t be hard for him to outperform the low bar Ramon Sessions set behind Walker last season, but the Hornets paid for a flier – not a sure-fire fix.
Most of their mid-level exception is left unused, and it will likely remain that way with Charlotte butting up against the luxury tax. The Hornets have never paid the luxury tax, and I doubt Michael Jordan changes the policy now.
Monk was a steal at No. 11, and maybe the 6-foot-3 combo guard eventually factors at point guard. But it’s no guarantee he ever makes that transition full-time, and it’d be shocking if he did it as a rookie. A more reasonable case: Monk makes Jeremy Lamb expendable, though that also requires Lamb – owed $14,488,372 the next two years – to play well enough to maintain value.
Steve Clifford could have his hands full setting this rotation, especially at center. Howard can play only center, which is also Zeller’s best position by far. Between the two, they probably deserve more than 48 minutes per game – which means one or both will get less playing time than warranted and/or Zeller will play some power forward.
There’s also a matter of who starts. Howard is far more established, but Zeller – seven years younger – will soon be better if he isn’t already. Would Howard chafe at coming off the bench? He spent his season in Atlanta doing the dirty work then seemingly griping about his role after the fact. If Zeller is superior, how would sticking him behind Howard affect team chemistry?
Clifford might be the Howard whisperer, but this situation could get tricky.
Still, having too many centers sure beats last year’s problem of not having enough. If Carter-Williams becomes a competent point guard – certainly possible, but unlikely – this could be a team with no glaring weaknesses. That’s a big deal after two holes sunk Charlotte last year.
The Hornets still rely on Walker, a fringe All-Star, for all their star power. But Monk was a steal at No. 11, and he could eventually shape this franchise’s future.
The Hornets were never as far off as they looked.
They might be even closer now.
Offseason grade: B-