Do you remember the buzz around Charlotte when they drafted their new franchise player, LaMelo Ball, and then signed former All-Star Gordon Hayward? Suddenly, the Hornets were all over social media and fans were filling the seats. The Hornets were an exciting team with LaMelo Ball throwing behind-the-back passes, Miles Bridges defying gravity, Terry Rozier hitting clutch shots, Gordon Hayward making a strong All-Star case and Eric Collins screaming as loud as he can in Spectrum Center. Through the first 43 games in the 2020-21 season, the Hornets were sitting at the 4th seed before LaMelo Ball fractured his wrist and Gordon Hayward was sidelined for the season. Even though Charlotte finished 10th that season; for the first time in a long time, the Hornets had a direction. They had a talented young core to build off of centered around LaMelo Ball.
Then last season with Miles Bridges making a huge leap to a 20-point scorer and LaMelo Ball becoming an All-Star, the Hornets were not only fun but good. Charlotte had their best season since 2016, winning 43 games in a tough Eastern Conference. In most seasons, 43 wins would’ve been enough to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those seasons. But Charlotte’s positive growth was encouraging and showed that they were ready to make the “next step” that Mitch Kupchak discussed earlier in the offseason.
But as we all know everything changed when TMZ reported that Miles Bridges was arrested for felony domestic violence against his wife, Mychelle Johnson. Charlotte had the option to rescind Bridge's qualifying offer but decided to keep him a restricted free agent and await the legal process. As time goes on, it's clear that this will be a long process that will go into the season. Bridge's preliminary trial is on September 7th which is cutting it close to training camp.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Charlotte is expected to be patient in their roster moves until the Bridges case is resolved. This is evident as the Hornets have failed to improve the roster and the only move they made in free agency was the re-signing of Cody Martin. Now at this point in time, it doesn't make sense for Charlotte to make any major moves without knowing the status of Miles Bridges, but I believe Charlotte has to be ready to face the fact that their future may not include him.
At this point, the Hornets are in the worst position a team can ever be in the NBA. They’re too talented to get a Top-5 pick, but also frankly aren’t good enough to make the playoffs as presently constructed. Something Charlotte has failed to realize over the past few seasons is that small markets have to build through the draft or take risks in the trade market. You can’t pick 11th every year & be conservative in trades and expect to become a winning team. That leaves the Hornets with two options: make a big trade or bottom out.
Embrace the Youth & Tank for Wembayama
Let’s make the case for Charlotte to join the Wembanyama sweepstakes. Right now the Hornets have several hungry young players looking for an opportunity but backed up in a rotation full of veterans. Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre, and Mason Plumlee are all preventing the Hornets from really seeing what they have in their young talent. James Bouknight was drafted 11th and only logged 362 minutes in his rookie year and Kai Jones (19th pick) spent most of his time down in the G-League playing only 62 minutes for Charlotte. These two are players that have to play this season as 2nd-year players, but just looking at the roster it’s hard to find minutes for them. With Bridges likely not playing next season Charlotte could look at the 2022-23 season as a gap year. Trading veterans like Hayward or Rozier for a potential Russell Westbrook swap with draft capital. This will help ensure minutes for the young players on this team and also try to pair LaMelo with a top prospect in the 2023 Draft like Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson.
Trade the Farm for a Star
I’ll now make the case for Charlotte going all-in for a playoff push.
Charlotte is desperate to get their first playoff appearance in seven years. The Hornets made that clear when they decided to fire James Borrego despite his recent extension and the ten-win improvement from 2020-21 to last season. They re-hired Steve Clifford (who isn’t exactly known for player development). If the goal is still to make the playoffs Charlotte has to be willing to cut ties with their young players and draft capital. According to Shams, Charlotte has had discussions with Utah on a Donovan Mitchell trade. If the Hornets can pull that trade off without sending PJ Washington, a backcourt pairing of LaMelo and Mitchell would significantly increase their playoff odds. It’s difficult to get stars to play in Charlotte. Donovan Mitchell would be under contract until 2026 and give you a bonafide young star alongside LaMelo Ball. Obviously this trade is a risk because Mitchell could just force his way out with one year left on his contract. But tell me what good team didn’t take risks in order to get where they are.
In my mind these are the only two options for Charlotte. Being mediocre can no longer be an option for the Hornets. The Play-In is no longer an accomplishment. The Hornets can wait all they want on Miles Bridges but eventually, they’ll have to face reality and make the best decision in order to build a consistent playoff team in the Eastern Conference.