Hornets just miss playoffs, look to hold onto free agents

Kemba Walker’s future with the franchise is the biggest of many offseason questions

The Hornets will need to make a decision on several free agents this offseason, including former first-round pick Frank Kaminsky. (Tony Dejak / AP Photo)

The Charlotte Hornets missed the postseason for the third straight season, which is tied for the fifth-longest current playoff drought in the NBA, behind Sacramento, Phoenix, New York and the Lakers.

The team made some strides in 2018-19, but each positive can also be counterbalanced by a red flag.

The team improved its record by three games over last season. The Hornets still finished below .500, however, at 39-43.

Charlotte was in contention until the very end, going into the final day of the regular season with a chance at a playoff berth.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” coach James Borrego said. “They kept battling until the last minute. We had 82 meaningful games this year where young guys got great experience, our team got great experience, we never hung our heads, we stayed resilient all season and put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs when nobody probably expected this.”

GM Mitch Kupchak didn’t see a picture quite as rosy as Borrego’s.

“We are disappointed,” he said. “Once again, we were not really in the hunt a month ago and here it is it came down to the very last game so that is a good thing and it was exciting to go into the last month of the season and watch our style of play and actually be in the hunt for a playoff spot. But at the end of the day, one of the things we did want to do was make the playoffs this year and we did not, so that’s disappointing.”

The Hornets’ small step forward can also easily be nullified, depending on what happens in the offseason.

Guard Kemba Walker, who blossomed from local star to NBA frontliner with a 25.6 scoring average and 5.9 assists, becomes an unrestricted free agent. Walker has said he wants to stay in Charlotte, but the team will need to do two things to make that happen: Make a competitive offer to Walker and commit to surrounding him with a team that has a chance to contend.

Kupchak was noncommittal, praising Walker as a “once-in-a-generation kind of player” but also discussing the difficulty of adding the talent Walker might want to see next to him.

“Over 82 games, talent is going to win out,” Kupchak said. “The more talent we can put on the court, the better the talent, next to Kemba, that will be a goal, absolutely.”

Jeremy Lamb is also an unrestricted free agent. The shooting guard was the second-leading scorer on the team, increasing his average by 2.4 points, to 15.3.

Frank Kaminsky, who had a breakout final month of the season, is also a restricted free agent. After receiving DNPs in nearly half of his games for the first four months of the 2018-19 campaign, Kaminsky averaged 12.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in the last 21 games.

Again, Kupchak was less than optimistic about his pending free agents.

“Now we’ve got to think, in addition to Kemba and Jeremy, we’ve got to talk about Frank a little bit here,” he said. “So once again, without going into great detail, we don’t have as much financial flexibility as we’d like. I think we have the ability to bring everybody back that you want to bring back and you pay them as much as you’d like to pay them to make them happy. But I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and sometimes you have to make tough decisions.”

The Hornets have some solid pieces behind the free agents, although likely not enough to form the core of a playoff contender if they lose the guys testing the market. Cody Zeller boosted his scoring average to 10.1 points per game. Nicolas Batum, 30, and Marvin Williams, 32, showed that they can still contribute.

Charlotte also has young talent that its hoping will blossom into stars. Rookie Miles Bridges averaged 7.5 points and four rebounds. In his second year, Malik Monk improved his scoring average to 8.9 points and improved his 3-point shooting by more than 80 points. Dwayne Bacon also doubled his scoring average in his second year.

“We beat some elite teams and we were playing a number of young guys,” Borrego said. “Four young guys (including rookie Devonte’ Graham) were in the rotation to end the season. There are a lot of healthy things going on right now. There’s a healthy culture. There are four young guys playing meaningful minutes right now. To me, that’s extremely positive.”

Assuming, of course, they can keep the group together.