Hornets’ erratic offseason leaves looming questions

The last few months have been anything but predictable for the franchise

After Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson backed out of being the Hornets’ next coach, Charlotte pivoted and brought back Steve Clifford for a second tour of duty with the team. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — A Charlotte Hornets’ offseason that began with the abrupt firing of coach James Borrego has only spiraled further into murky territory as the team now finds itself searching for an identity while the future of top scorer Miles Bridges remains uncertain.

Much has changed in Buzz City over the past months following a 43-win season. Charlotte went over the 40-win mark for the first time since 2016 — back when All-Star Kemba Walker was the team’s franchise player — and the LaMelo Ball-led Hornets entered the offseason with at least some sense of promise despite suffering a blowout loss in the play-in tournament for the second straight year.

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan made a surprising change in late April when they dismissed Borrego despite four years of slow but steady progress.

Appearing to conclude what had become an elaborate coaching search for Borrego’s successor, Kupchak and Jordan found their man in Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson, a decision that received praise in league circles.

But after Atkinson’s Warriors won the 2022 NBA title days after word of his pending hiring emerged, he reneged on his decision and decided to stay in San Francisco instead of joining the Hornets.

Two months after firing Borrego and two weeks after the Atkinson hiring backfired, the reeling front office opted to bring back the coach Borrego had replaced, introducing Steve Clifford as the next coach.

Then, with the first of its two first-round picks, Charlotte addressed its center depth by drafting Memphis big man Jalen Duren at No. 13. But the Hornets flipped Duren to Detroit in a package that will give them a late first-rounder and a few more second-round picks in the coming years.

Duke center Mark Williams was then selected at No. 15, with Kupchak later saying the Hornets had Williams above Duren on the team’s overall draft board. Williams’ Summer League play, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, has provided hope for a franchise in desperate need of a boost at that end of the floor.

The 7-foot-1 Williams might not immediately supplant Mason Plumlee in the starting lineup, but he has the makeup to be Charlotte’s best post threat in years if his offense can catch up to his defense.

The Hornets’ best-laid plans were further blown up June 29 when starting forward, team leader and leading scorer Miles Bridges was arrested on a felony domestic violence warrant in Los Angeles. Bridges, 24, now faces one felony count of injuring a child’s parent and two felony counts of child abuse under circumstances or conditions likely to cause great bodily injury or death, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office said in a statement on July 20.

As Bridges’ NBA career now hangs in the balance of court rulings and likely league suspensions, Charlotte has decided to keep him on the roster, at least for now, as a restricted free agent.

His arrest coincidentally landed on the eve of the league’s free agency period when some speculated he might receive a maximum contract from the Hornets. Instead, Bridges’ situation remains up in the air.

Aside from re-signing key role player Cody Martin to a four-year, $32 million deal and picking up the team option on Jalen McDaniels’ contract, Charlotte has not made any notable moves in free agency to improve the lineup. It has been rumored that Walker could return to Charlotte or that Isaiah Thomas might re-sign with the Hornets to bolster the backcourt.

But the biggest rumored move is the possible acquisition of All-Star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, who has reportedly been shopped around by the Utah Jazz. The potential move would give the Hornets another star to play alongside Ball, but the price to land Mitchell would likely include starting-caliber players and future draft picks.