I totally get why so many Charlotte Hornets fans feel a sense of exasperation. Thirty years of the NBA in Charlotte and not a conference championship series to show for it.
I do think, however, there is a fatalism implicit to some of your questions that is a bit overstated. Like the question I chose to lead this week’s mailbag, because it reflect a lot of the inquiries I get these days:
Q. Will the Hornets ever be relevant?
A. Think about “ever” in the context of a sport where one player can so change a franchise’s fortunes that the NBA had to institute a draft lottery to discourage teams from writing off entire seasons to assure drafting No. 1. Basketball is different that way, so there is always hope.
An illustrative example: As well-run an organization as the San Antonio Spurs is, those five championships started with dumb luck, jumping into the top pick in 1997 to draft Tim Duncan. Sure, they had a great coach in Gregg Popovich and found Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili far outside the lottery picks, but how much would that have mattered had they not been building around Duncan?
Maybe the Hornets somehow get the top pick in Tuesday night’s lottery and draft Zion Williamson. Maybe they’ll stumble into the next Giannis Antetokounmpo later in a first round. Maybe none of that happens and they assemble a decent ensemble that at least wins a round of the playoffs. But let’s not be so cynical as to assume the past must define the future.
Q. Any insight on the hopelessness senior management must feel because the salary cap is tied in to so many poor performers?
A. I doubt general manager Mitch Kupchak views this situation as “hopeless,” but he knew when he took the job a year ago it was problematic. When you inherit $94 million in guaranteed contracts, yet have Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb going into unrestricted free agency, there is a mess to still clean up.
When I asked Kupchak right after the season if he feels a sense of urgency, he said yes. However, there is an important difference between urgency and panic. One of the problems in the past were attempts at quick fixes that were bad value propositions. It’s a fair guess they didn’t make a deal at the trade deadline to avoid giving up significant future assets in return to a little help in the short run.
Q. Of the expensive veterans under contract, who is the most tradeable?
A. If you’re talking about Nic Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (I put center Cody Zeller in a different category because he’s younger), then I’d definitely say Williams.
Williams is as professional, as team-oriented, as just about any player in Hornets history. He is at the stage of his career when he wouldn’t care whether he’s a starter or a reserve. He still has skills (defense and 3-point shooting) that a contender would value.
Missing the last five games of the season with a foot injury raises a question about Williams’ durability entering his 14th season. But with one season left on his contract at $15 million, I could see a contender viewing that as a reasonable risk.
Q. Is there a player on this roster, other than Kemba, who is a potential All-Star?
A. I haven’t seen evidence yet that there is a player other than Walker who shows signs of being one of the best 30 players in the league. Miles Bridges is solid and can be an NBA starter for multiple seasons. But it would be a pleasant surprise if Bridges or any of his young teammates reach what Walker has become the past three seasons.
Q. What would you rate as the best and worst draft picks in franchise history?
Morrison had an odd psychological profile for a professional athlete — he had an almost paralyzing self-consciousness playing home games in Charlotte — that should have been detected in the vetting process before that draft.
The best pick? I can’t say Kobe Bryant at No. 13 in 1996 because the Hornets were picking for the Los Angeles Lakers in a prearranged trade. So I’ll say Walker at No. 9 in 2011. To find the franchise’s all-time scorer that deep into the first round was a coup.
Q. What’s the biggest draft-lottery jump in Hornets history?
A. The Hornets went 26-24 in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. They were the last team in the Eastern Conference to be eliminated from the playoff race. But they jumped up to the third spot in the draft lottery and selected point guard Baron Davis. He ended up a two-time All-Star and was third-team All-NBA in 2004 (after the original Hornets moved to New Orleans).
Q. If Kemba leaves, what is the win ceiling for this roster? Could it be bad enough to match the Bobcats’ record-worst season?
A. If Walker signs elsewhere, I think the Hornets must accept they’re then in deep-rebuild mode and invest abundant playing time in the young guys; that much more so than coach James Borrego did in the last dozen games this past season.
The Hornets will have a first-rounder and two second-rounders in the June draft, and I’d anticipate at least some small move or moves in free agency. But as your question implies, a Kemba-less Hornets team in 2019-20 could be really bad.
But bad as the 7-59 Bobcats in 2011-12? I doubt we will ever see another NBA team win just 10.6 percent of its games over an entire season. That’s in part because there are always another half-dozen or more NBA teams destined for the lottery in a given season. It’s nearly as hard to be historically horrible as it is to be historically great.