Hornets have building blocks, look to take next step

The offseason opens with optimism for Charlotte

The Charlotte Hornets have a foundational player to build around in point guard LaMelo Ball, who was arguably the NBA's top rookie this season. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

The Charlotte Hornets’ season may have ended on a down note, but there’s reason for optimism.

Charlotte won 10 more games than last season and flirted with a winning record for much of the year. The team made the postseason, but not the playoffs, getting blown out by Indiana in a one-and-done appearance in the play-in tournament.

The Hornets also found some key pieces toward the contender that GM Mitch Kupchak and the front office are trying to build.

LaMelo Ball was hampered by injury but still emerged as a rookie of the year candidate and future star, averaging 15.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds.

Terry Rozier showed he can be the top scoring option, leading the team with 20.4 points per game, a career high. He also shattered his career best for shooting percentage. P.J. Washington took a step forward in year two, averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds, both up from his rookie season. Miles Bridges also improved, hiking his shooting percentage from .424 last season to over .500 this year. He also hit a career-best 40% from three.

Jalen McDaniels also emerged as a surprise contributor, averaging 7.4 points and starting 18 games for the team.

As the next generation of the Hornets nucleus continues to develop, some members of the old guard are ready to move on. Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo and Malik Monk are all scheduled to be free agents. So is Devonte Graham, who averaged 14.8 points.

Together, that group represents about $29 million in cap space, which would likely put the Hornets near the top of the list of teams with spending money on the free agent market this offseason.

The team would likely try to hold onto Graham, who is a restricted free agent, which will eat into that pool, but the Hornets could still have as much as $20 million to spend.

Charlotte should feel fairly confident at guard, wing and forward spots. The team’s most glaring need is in the post.

It’s unlikely the Hornets will be able to fill that need in the draft. They’ll enter the lottery slotted for the No. 11 spot, which is not where teams generally find game-changing big men. If Charlotte is willing to sign and trade Graham, they might be able to move up in the draft, but the next starting center for the Hornets will most likely come on the free agent market.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, the options aren’t exactly eye-popping there, either. Richaun Holmes, who averaged 14.2 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Kings, is an intriguing possibility. So is Andre Drummond, who might be out of the Hornets’ price range. Drummond is coming off of a down year, production-wise, but he’s capable of averaging a double-double and would likely see an upturn in his numbers with Ball feeding him passes in the post.

Montrezl Harrell might be available, depending on whether he opts to stay with the Lakers. The Hornets were rumored to be looking to trade for him earlier in the year.

Alex Len and Nerlens Noel will be available, as will Kelly Olynyk and Daniel Theis. All would be solid, functional rotation players. Of course, that’s what Charlotte has had in Zeller.

Perhaps the best option for the Hornets at center is to swing a deal for the Pacers’ Myles Turner. He regularly averages more than a dozen points and half-dozen boards and has led the league in blocks twice in the last three years. With Ball passing to him, Turner could see a big improvement in production with the Hornets.

He’ll be costly, with a key piece of the Hornets’ future likely leaving in return — possibly Bridges or Graham. He’ll also be in demand. The Celtics and Kings are already rumored to be discussing packages with the Pacers.

The Hornets made a stride in 2020-21. They’ll look to make another this offseason. The journey to being a contender is a long one, however, as  Kupchak, who earlier this season proclaimed the team “ahead of schedule,” pointed out at season’s end.

“We have to balance it,” he said. “Grow the team. Get into the playoffs. Get some experience. Yet keep in mind, it’s not just about getting in and losing in seven (games) or six or five or four. It’s really about trying to build something greater than that.”

The team will make another move toward that future in the upcoming months.