CHARLOTTE — Sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 12-35 record, the Charlotte Hornets are on track to finish the season with one of the NBA’s worst records.
Circumstances have become dire — the Hornets would need two wins for every loss throughout the rest of the schedule just to have a slim chance at receiving the last spot for a play-in game.
Add in LaMelo Ball’s third ankle injury of the season (paired with a lingering wrist injury), Charlotte has likely transitioned from playoff dreaming to positioning itself for the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes in the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery.
Per NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Hornets are expected to “prioritize lottery position” and become sellers ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, with league rumors circulating that the team is prepared to take trade calls for veterans such as Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre Jr.
While offloading current talent isn’t a requirement for a Charlotte team that has a 14% chance to get the No. 1 pick and a 52.1% shot at a top-four selection (per Tankathon), Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and team owner Michael Jordan might be leaning toward a roster rebuild and overhaul.
Of the three Hornets potentially on the trading block, Rozier and Oubre are both more likely to be traded.
With $31.5 million owed to Hayward in 2023-24, it could prove difficult to move the injury-prone forward who has appeared in just 21 games this season and averaged only 13.7 points per game — his lowest scoring rate since 2011-12.
Hayward has generally been a positive for Charlotte when he is actually on the court, but his durability has continued to be an issue dating back to an opening night injury with the Boston Celtics in 2017.
Rozier would be the best player available, although his contract — initially a four-year, $96.3 million deal — has at least two more guaranteed seasons and could be too steep for some teams. The 28-year-old guard has averaged 21 points, 5.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game this season, providing valuable minutes but also struggling with 3-point shot accuracy and on defense.
A playoff-bound team looking to add depth with a sharp-shooter off the bench could do much worse than targeting Oubre, who has posted a career-high 20.2 points per game this season. The former University of Kansas star is currently out of the lineup with a torn ligament in his left hand that required surgery in early January, making it uncertain if he’ll get back on the court by the trade deadline.
With an expiring $12.6 million contract, Oubre might be precisely what an NBA contender is looking for to shore up its roster. His hand injury does complicate the situation, but the strength of his early-season success could make his contract a worthwhile gamble.
PJ Washington and Mason Plumlee are two other Hornets that have their names floated in trade speculation.
Because of the felony domestic violence charge that Miles Bridges faces, Charlotte has been rumored to be more interested in re-signing Washington now than they were previously. The 24-year-old is set to reach restricted free agency in the offseason, but the Hornets have plenty of salary cap room to match any offer sheet he receives.
Meanwhile, Plumlee has been quietly playing some of the best basketball of his career leading up to the trade deadline, giving the Hornets a shot to sell high to a team that needs center depth.
Backup center Mark Williams recently produced a career-high 17 points, six rebounds and five blocked shots in a 122-117 road victory over Houston, finishing 8 of 10 from the field in less than 19 minutes of work off the bench. With the Charlotte rookie beginning to display the talent that made him the 15th overall pick out of Duke, the Hornets’ front office will need to gauge how valuable Plumlee will be to the team’s future.
One thing is for certain — the first half of the 2022-23 season was a trainwreck for reintroduced coach Steve Clifford and his team. The looming trade deadline gives the Hornets a chance to reappraise multiple player contracts that will affect the team’s trajectory in years to come.