Charlotte Hornets: Best-Case Scenario Off-Season

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 11: Miles Bridges #0, LaMelo Ball #2, and P.J. Washington #25 of the Charlotte Hornets smile during the game against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on February 11, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 11: Miles Bridges #0, LaMelo Ball #2, and P.J. Washington #25 of the Charlotte Hornets smile during the game against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on February 11, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images /

After yet another play-in game embarrassment the Charlotte Hornets failed to make the playoffs for the sixth straight season, marking what is now the second longest playoff drought in the league.

While that was a disappointing outcome given the expectations, it is hard to consider the season a total failure. Reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball picked up where he left off and became the fourth youngest All-Star in league history, Miles Bridges took a massive leap and made a run for the Most Improved Player award, while other pieces proved their worth as well. Entering a pivotal offseason regarding the team’s future, what would a best case off-season scenario look like?

1. Ace the head coaching hire

The first order of business was finding the correct head coach for this group. Despite doing an exceptional job in player development and improving the team’s record by ten wins in back-to-back seasons, James Borrego was let go. He just could not get the team over the hump and the consecutive blowout losses in the play-in tournament was too much to overcome.

Kenny Atkinson was signed to a four-year deal and on paper he fits perfectly with the team. Atkinson is not new to the task of helping a young team make the playoffs; he did it with the Brooklyn Nets as the head coach and with the New York Knicks an assistant.

In Brooklyn, Atkinson played a key role in developing players such as Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen; however, no development was as remarkable as that of D’Angelo Russell. Under Atkinson’s guidance, the former second overall pick became an All-Star and a leader for the team. A 118-190 record as a head coach is mediocre at best, but context tells a different story.

Atkinson accepted the job to coach a Nets team that was at rock bottom. They had no draft picks and no reason to be optimistic about the future. However, just three seasons after having a starting unit of D’Angelo Russell, Sean Kilpatrick, DeMarre Carroll, Trevor Booker and Timofey Mozgov, Atkinson had the Nets back in the playoffs.

2. Maximize the value of draft picks 

Having two picks in the top 15 is a good thing. There is no way to spin it otherwise.

However, there are still some problems that can be associated with this situation. Two draft picks would mean dedicating two roster spots to developing players, in addition to the spots designated for James Bouknight, Kai Jones and JT Thor, who will essentially be playing their rookie seasons next year.

Charlotte is no longer in the early stages of their rebuild and having yet another developmental year seems redundant at this point. With that said, trading at least one of the picks for a veteran should be considered.

For Dallas: 

With Jason Kidd at the helm there is more to Dallas’ offensive gameplan than simply giving the ball to Luka Doncic. This year’s attack is more reliant on ball movement and versatility.

Players like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie were given on-ball duties. Not only did this give Doncic a breather during the regular season, but it also proved to be something that the team was missing in previous years. After their Western Conference Finals appearance, Dallas has motivation to double down on Jason Kidd’s formula, and no player fits that formula better than Buddy Hield.

Once a one-dimensional player, Hield has now reinvented himself. Since Hield entered the league, he is one of only four players (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Duncan Robinson) who have averaged better than 40 percent from three-point range on more than seven attempts per game.

In Indiana, Hield increased his assist average from 1.9 to 4.8. Defensively, however, there are some red flags. That said, being in a winning environment with better defenders around him could help turn things around for Hield on that end of the court. Dallas would also benefit by moving Davis Bertans’ four-year, $64 million contract.

For Indiana: 

The Pacers are in full-on tanking mode. They made that very clear when they moved Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert at the trade deadline.

They want as many draft picks and as much young talent as possible. In this scenario, Indiana would have the 6th, 15th, and 22nd picks in the 2022 draft, giving them the chance to either trade up or add three prospects to their young core.

By definition, Gordon Hayward and Davis Bertans are bad contracts, but that does not have to be a deal breaker for the Pacers. They are rebuilding and should not need cap room for max contracts for at least a few more years.

For Charlotte: 

Myles Turner has long been linked with Charlotte; he can help any team in need of interior defense from a stretch big.

Turner’s 3-and-D skill set has been underutilized in Indiana, but it would be a great fit in Charlotte. His blocking ability is uncanny, and his stats jump out. He impacts the game in altering shots, having led the league in blocks twice. Offensively, Turner does not stand out nearly as much as he does on defense, but he is still valuable. He is a career 35% three-point shooter and finishes well around the rim. His scoring output can be inconsistent, but scoring would not be his primary responsibility in Charlotte.

Frank Ntilikina almost seems like a throw-in in this trade but there is a lot to like about Ntilikina. He could provide the defensive edge that Charlotte desperately needs. Although he is only 6-foot-4, he has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and has proven to be a defensive menace. Ntilikina can impact the game without scoring and when playing alongside LaMelo Ball, Ntilikina could fit nicely. He can guard the opposing teams’ best player without taking shots away from Charlotte’s offensive pieces on the other end.

3. Draft an NBA-ready prospect 

With the 13th overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Mitch Kupchak should not think twice about selecting Ochai Agbaji if he is still on the board.

Every team needs long, athletic wings who can defend multiple positions and knock down open shots. If superstars are a team’s engine, these switchable, versatile wings are the oil. Charlotte already has their superstar in LaMelo Ball, but they lack a true two-way wing.

During Kansas’ run to the national championship, Agbaji averaged 18.8 points on 48/41/77 shooting splits and guarded the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. His transition to the NBA should not be difficult, as his release is quick and his 6’10’’ wingspan gives him flexibility on the defensive end.

It is easy to see how Agbaji could play a role similar to that of Cam Johnson with the Phoenix Suns and De’Andre Hunter with the Atlanta Hawks.

4. Retain PJ Washington 

PJ Washington has steadily improved every single year of his career. In Washington’s noteworthy first game, he broke the record for the most three-pointers made in an NBA debut with seven, and he has not looked back since. He is a career 37.5 percent three-point shooter on over four attempts per game, exceptional numbers for a stretch-four.

Washington’s high motor and athleticism allow him to play bigger than he is and while his average of 5.7 rebounds per game is certainly more impressive in context. Charlotte has a of options to rebound the ball and one of their strategies is to have LaMelo Ball getting as many defensive rebounds as possible so he can start the fastbreak immediately. Defensively, however, is where Washington’s value lies.

At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he fits perfectly in the modern NBA and his ability to defend every position is extremely valuable. Washington will be eligible for a rookie contract extension this summer and locking him up for the coming years would leave Charlotte in a good position. A four-year, $65 million extension seems fair for both sides and with how the league is trending, the deal could end up being a bargain if the salary cap continues rising and contracts continue to get larger.

5. Sign Miles Bridges to an extension 

Miles Bridges was one of the league’s most improved players this season, with averages 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.8 assists.

After failing to reach a contract agreement with the Hornets last offseason, Bridges is now a restricted free agent, meaning that Charlotte can match any offer sheet he is given.

Losing Bridges in not an option. Bridges was the team’s leading scorer this season, but his value goes far beyond what he does on the court. Bridges is the team’s longest-tenured player and has built a strong bond with his teammates, especially LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier.

6. Add depth to the roster

After the aforementioned moves, the Hornets would be in a good position heading to free agency and would not need to make any big splashes.

The only task remaining at that point would be to add some depth and there will be some intriguing names on the market.

Wesley Matthews: As an above-average shooter and elite defender, Matthews could slide into Charlotte’s rotation with relative ease.

Gary Payton II: Payton is an excellent defender and is able to disrupt passing lanes often. His size allows him to guard multiple positions. Offensively, he turned a corner this year and showed that he can space the floor with his shooting.

Jalen Smith: At 22 years old, Smith has plenty of time to reach his full potential. He is a young big that can stretch the floor and provide solid defense.

Dwight Howard: Dwight Howard is at the veteran-minimum point of his career and that makes him a very realistic target for the Hornets. Howard’s high-end production only comes in spurts, and he will not be able to produce multiple effective games in a row. However, his veteran presence could be enough to warrant him a contract.

Otto Porter Jr. : Porter is a capable shooter and defender. Adding another perimeter defender would strengthen the Hornets’ roster.

Gary Harris : Harris is a capable shooter and wing defender. If the Hornets could sign him at the right price, he could provide excellent backup minutes at either the shooting guard or small forward spot.

Isaiah Thomas : Isaiah Thomas had some nice moments with the team at the end of the season and the young players respect his voice.