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Charlotte Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak discusses offseason moves, increased expectations, LiAngelo Ball and more

LAS VEGAS -- Don't expect any more moves from the Charlotte Hornets.

After a flurry of activity over the past two weeks, ranging from draft-day trades to free agent signings, GM Mitch Kupchak said the retooling of the roster is complete.

"Yes, I think we are done with the 'heavy lifting,'" Kupchak said Tuesday. "That doesn’t mean in this business there can’t be additional moves, but our roster in terms of guaranteed contracts is at its limit. In fact, it’s a little bit over the limit going into the regular season. So, yeah, I think we’re done. I think we’ve made some progress. We’ve added some veterans and we had a pretty active draft."

Kupchak & Co. were aggressive in the past few weeks, beginning with their acquisition of Mason Plumlee and the 37th overall selection on July 29. It was followed by the drafting of James Bouknight, a trade with the New York Knicks to grab another first-round pick to get Kai Jones at No. 19 overall, and then plucking JT Thor and Scottie Lewis off their draft board.   

Once free agency started, they agreed to a sign-and-trade with New Orleans to send Devonte' Graham to the Pelicans for a 2022 lottery-protected first-round pick and cash considerations, then expanded it to also receive the draft rights to Tyler Harvey from Memphis. Toss in the signings of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ish Smith and it's given the Hornets a decent makeover.

"I think just considering the trades, the free agents and the draft," Kupchak said, "we probably moved ourselves even more ahead than we probably thought we would’ve been a month ago.”

And that is already leading to increased organizational outlook. As in, it's time to see even more growth, enough that it propels the Hornets to a better postseason fate.

“Well, I think we’ve added to the talent pool with our young players and our free agent singings and the trades with the veterans I think give us a better chance to compete," Kupchak said. "And yes, the bar has been risen. I think there are more expectations this year than there were a year ago. Having said that, the goal is the same really. Continue to add talent, grow this roster, make the playoffs and advance in the playoffs.

"Our goal is just not to get the eighth seed or to make the play-in tournament, we want to get in and we want to advance so that’s the goal. Where and how successful we are, I don’t know right now. But yes, expectations are more than they were a year ago and they should be. We’ve made a lot of moves, we’ve got some talented players already and expectations should be higher.”

Kupchak also discussed a variety of topics. Among the notable:

• He praised signing coach James Borrego to a multi-year contract extension with the initial four-year deal Borrego inked in 2018 set to expire.

"We’re happy to have him back," Kupchak said. "He gives us stability. A good, young coach that’s gotten better every year that he’s been with us. I think the extension’s a reflection on how we feel about him going forward."

• LiAngelo Ball's play in summer league has been a hot topic, especially after his 16-point debut on Monday. Ball had 10 points in Tuesday's loss to Sacramento and has quickly turned into a fan favorite among the crowds watching in Cox Pavilion and the Thomas & Mack Center.

“Two days ago, he just had a great shooting game in game one," Kupchak said. "I think that’s the one thing that he could probably do in our league right now is shoot the ball. He plays hard, great teammate. Quiet, right? Doesn’t say a whole lot, just kind of goes about his business. We’ve had two games. We’ll see where it takes us. But the first game I know was fun for him and that’s it. We’ll just take it day-by-day and see where it leads.” 

• Addressing the center position by trading for Plumlee was Kupchak's first salvo. It signaled the end of the tenures of Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo. Bringing on board a more athletic center was one of the main things on his offseason checklist and he believes he did that with Plumlee.

“Well, I got to be careful because I don’t want to indicate that Biz and Cody weren’t an important part of this team last year, but you just got to make hard decisions," Kupchak said. "And they were both free agents, so there was uncertainty as to what the market would provide for him. And when the trade came up to get Mason, we feel we’ve added a player that rebounds the ball, gives us some rim protection, play makes a little bit.

"He’s pretty good at the top of the key passing the ball and getting players involved – very unselfish. In that regard, we feel we’ve addressed a need with some flexibility. Not only is he a veteran, but he’s on a two-year contract that also gives us some flexibility going forward.” 

• For the second straight year, the Hornets secured the services of a free agent by getting Oubre to come on board. Charlotte topped Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Denver, Brooklyn, Portland, Denver and Cleveland in landing Oubre.

Could this truly signal a glacial thaw of the Hornets slowly turning into an appealing franchise? 

“I hope so," Kupchak said. "Last year, getting Gordon was huge. Very unexpected – I’ve said that many times. I think this past season the style of play and the way we move the ball and the way you can get the ball and everybody’s involved. I think there was a little bit of a buzz about how the Hornets play. I think that’s a good thing. And then adding Kelly this offseason was another good thing. You wouldn’t call him the highest level of free agent, but he was a very coveted free agent in this period and I wouldn’t say he’s a Gordon Hayward status, but I’m not sure a year or two ago we could have gotten a player like that.

"He makes us deeper and he gives us some veteran leadership. We expect him to play and make a contribution, which you always can’t say about the rookies. He’s ready to play. I hope going forward, we do have flexibility. At some point in time, you got to start addressing the players that you have with rookie extensions or veteran extensions, so you got to be careful that even though you have money going forward, you have to be careful how you spend it. We do have that flexibility and I hope that Charlotte is becoming more and more of a destination. That would be great.” 

• With the bulk of the roster's salary structure in place for 2021-22, it's not too early to look ahead to what they could be staring at over the financial horizon next summer. Decisions on Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges potentially loom.

Rozier is scheduled to pocket $17 million in the final year of a three-year, $56 million contract. Miles Bridges will be a restricted free agent and his qualifying offer number is $7.4 million.

Managing the salary cap so they can continually improve the roster remains a priority.

“There are rules that prohibit extensions and there are rules that allow you to extend a player," Kupchak said, "so that is really the first hurdle, is to get over the rules that allows you to do stuff like that. I have to talk to ownership. I mentioned earlier keeping an eye on our roster and our salary structure going forward to provide the flexibility. We don't want to get ourselves in a position where we’ve got a lot of large contracts. And we are not at that point where we want to be in terms of competing, right? We want to get into the playoffs, we want to advance.

"And so you've got to be careful to feel you aren’t getting too much ahead of yourself. It’s hard. In this league you can get ahead of yourself too soon and have zero flexibility going forward. So those are all factors. And at the end of the day, we do have flexibility an this type son discussions will take place with ownership and we’ll figure out how to proceed."

• LaMelo Ball's growth and development will be key this offseason. Kupchak remains enthused with the potential of the NBA's reigning rookie of the year.

“Well, we want to make sure he’s healthy with his wrist and he’s been working out now full stream for over a month," Kupchak said. "So we don’t expect any problems there. The biggest part about his game is that he makes his teammates happy. Somebody who’s got the ball in his hands and if you’re a player, just knowing that you’re open, if you run the floor, if you make the cut, he’ll see you. Yes, he’s fun to watch. I know he can score. He does a lot of different things.

"Rookie of the Year, maybe there’s going to be more expectations. But going forward, just for him to remember to be a great teammate. There’s a reason why his teammates are happy playing with him, which is he loves to pass the ball and that’s his biggest gift. So, going forward, I think that’s what we’d like him to focus on. Continue to be a great teammate, which he will and then also to continue to make your teammates happy.”