Hornets In 2015: Where Do We Go From Here?


Dec 20, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson (25) shoots the ball over Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets enter 2015 on a four-game losing streak and sporting a 10-23 record. Their most effective post-player and All-Star candidate Al Jefferson is out for at least a month with a groin injury. Charlotte’s biggest off-season acquisition, Lance Stephenson, is also sidelined with a pelvic strain and appears to be at least a week away from returning to a team that doesn’t seem to like him very much.

For the first ten months, 2014 was the best year for Charlotte basketball in a long time. Then the 2014-15 season started.

The good news for the Hornets is that they sit only 4 games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

That bad news, outside of the injuries and basically everything having to do with Lance, is that getting the eighth seed this season may not actually help the Hornets achieve long-term goals.

Hear me out. All Hornets fans agree that the ultimate goal is to win an NBA Championship. Most will also agree that the near-term goal, something achievable in the next three years, is to make it to the Eastern Conference finals and assemble a team that can be a perennial contender.

Will winning now, given that current state of affairs in Charlotte, push Charlotte closer to the conference finals?

It depends on what “winning now” means.

Winning now could mean one of two things: either Charlotte can manage to win some games with Jefferson out and remain within striking distance of the playoffs (aided by poor play from Eastern Conference brethren), or trading assets for the players needed to make a playoff push.

Dec 31, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo (8) shoots the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Staying the course is the most attractive scenario, but it’s also the least likely to actually result in a playoff berth. Charlotte is 29th in the league in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Expecting the offense to improve without Jefferson is hard to imagine, though a defensive improvement is possible with Bismack Biyombo seeing more minutes. But, you never know.

Trading current assets for win-now players could work, but how much should Charlotte really part with simply to make the playoffs? Sure, trading players who don’t expect to be a part of the team’s future sounds great, but is there really a market for the likes of Gerald Henderson and Marvin Williams? And what meaningful pieces could Charlotte expect to get in return. Obviously the attempts to trade Lance have stalled, though I still believe the Lance experiment could still prove beneficial. In order to get anyone of consequence, Charlotte will have to trade a young player and possibly a draft pick.

Nov 17, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Noah Vonleh (11) shoots a free throw in the second half of the game against the Dallas Mavericks at Time Warner Cable Arena. Dallas defeated Charlotte 107-80. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

If I were running the show, I’d want to use the remainder of this season to determine exactly which players on this team can be components of a championship-caliber team three years from now, not trading a young player for a short-term fix. We already know Kemba Walker will be in the picture, but what about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh, P.J. Hairston? None of these players have proven yet they can be star players in the league. MKG is close, and Cody has shown flashes. All we know about P.J. is that he loves to shoot. We don’t know anything about Vonleh.

Trading any of these players for a playoff push this year is short-sighted. Charlotte fans already know what getting swept out of the first round feels like. Championship teams are built around All-Stars and role players. There is no shortage of role players in Charlotte; it’s the All-Stars we lack. We have to see if any of these young guys can make the jump to the next level.

The elephant in the room is Jefferson’s health and contract. Jefferson has a player option for next season, meaning he can choose to play-out the final year of his contract at $13.5 million, or choose to enter into restricted free agency.

Presumably, the Hornets will want to keep Jefferson next season. There is a shortage of effect post players in the league, especially those who can score 20 points a night. Jefferson has been the center piece of Steve Clifford’s offense since both arrived, and Clifford hasn’t demonstrated much offensive creativity with Jefferson off the court. The two seem tied at the hip.

If Jefferson does opt-out, Charlotte will have to consider whether the aging big man is worth a long-term contract. Jefferson will turn 30 on January 4 and will likely command at least $17 million a year for four years. Re-signing Jefferson will maintain the current trajectory of the team. The question is, exactly how far can an Al Jefferson-led team go?

Charlotte doesn’t have to re-build if Al is not around next season. There are plenty of NBA players on the roster already, and Rich Cho will have major cap room to sign free agents.

Ultimately, this season hasn’t gone the way many hoped, and will likely end far short of expectations. But trouble this season does not mean next year can’t be great. And it’s time to determine exactly who is going to be part of the next great Hornets team.