With Kemba Walker leaving, the Charlotte Hornets must embrace being bad as the path to recovery.
Play the kids throughout next season the way coach James Borrego did the last dozen games last season.
Don’t worry about the final record, worry about development.
Position yourselves to get a top-five pick.
Go be the 10-72 Philadelphia 76ers of 2015-16. Or at best the 29-53 Atlanta Hawks of last season.
Tanking sure isn’t foolproof — the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats of 2011-12 illustrated that when they missed out on Anthony Davis — but breaking the pattern of stagnation the Hornets have languished in since the 48-victory season in 2016 is a must.
They overpaid for role players. They drafted poorly. They made bad gambles on quirky guys like Dwight Howard and Lance Stephenson. Over the last three seasons they are 111-135: not good enough to even be the eighth seed in the weaker Eastern Conference, but not bad enough to draft better than 12th overall.
It’s not working. Time to hit reset. This is going to be rough on a fan base that is already exasperated with the past three seasons and pretty much the last decade. But it’s necessary.
I know this isn’t appealing to owner Michael Jordan or general manager Mitch Kupchak. When Kupchak took the job in the spring of 2018, he said they weren’t in rebuild mode. Most of last season they functioned that way, playing veterans and aiming for a playoff appearance.
In mid-March, Borrego shook up his rotation. He started Dwayne Bacon, a second-round pick from 2017 who spent much of last season with the G-League Greensboro Swarm. He gave veteran Tony Parker’s minutes as the backup point guard to second-round rookie Devonte Graham.
This actually made the Hornets better; they won eight of their last 12 and just missed the final playoff spot. Borrego and Kupchak praised the young guys’ improvement, while also challenging rookie Miles Bridges (who started the second half of last season) and Malik Monk to have big offseasons.
I don’t think playing time automatically improves young players. But in this case the 2019-20 season might best be used as a laboratory: See how Bridges and rookie PJ Washington, the 12th overall pick, mesh as starting forwards. Feature Bacon, who has the strength and quickness to be a solid defender and has improved his shooting. Find out if Graham can be a rotation player at point guard, where the Hornets will have a massive hole if Walker leaves.
And make sure, once and for all, to determine if shooting guard Monk should be in the plan, before his rookie-scale contract expires in the summer of 2021.
If that means expensive veterans don’t play much, that’s the cost of change. Borrego showed last season, his first full one as an NBA head coach, that he’s not reluctant to make hard choices with his rotation. He sat Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist entire games and moved Jeremy Lamb to the second unit to get Bridges into the starting lineup.
Power forward Marvin Williams has said he’d have no problem coming off the bench if Borrego asks that of him. In a situation like this, it makes sense.
Money and time
The Hornets’ payroll is a wreck right now, a big reason why they won’t so outbid other teams for Walker that they’re at serious risk of losing him. But the financial burden lessens in a year.
Contracts for Bismack Biyombo, Williams and Kidd-Gilchrist end after next season, trimming $45 million off the payroll. The Hornets aren’t traditionally a big factor in signing free agents, but that reduced payroll offers flexibility that could accommodate signings and trades.
That assumes the Hornets don’t make long-term commitments to veterans if Walker leaves. It’s hard to see the upside in that.