April 14, 2020, 12:46 pm
In a somewhat surprising development, the Hornets let their most successful player in franchise history walk during free agency last summer, a result of their inability to build up a contending team rather than
a detriment to Kemba Walker’s value. With a roster filled with overpaid veterans and a complete lack of financial flexibility, Charlotte entered the year with many questions in place in regards to the direction the team was taking and to the personnel that was going to replace the team’s all-time leading scorer.
A weak Eastern Conference left the window of opportunity open in regards to making the playoffs, but it was clear from the beginning that the Hornets were turning the page and were entering a new chapter in their history.
What stood out during the off-season was that owner Michael Jordan, GM Mitch Kupchak and coach James Borrego, were undoubtedly on the same page regarding the direction the team was taking, making it easier for the fanbase to accept a term that usually brings up unpleasant memories and low expectations for years to come: “rebuilding.”
Rebuilding Through the Draft
Charlotte has never been a top destination in free agency and the team had no problem whatsoever dealing with the hard reality and adjusting accordingly. The Hornets were smart enough to acquire disgruntled point guard Terry Rozier in a sign-and-trade with the Celtics that sent Kemba to Beantown, but they had to overpay for his services, agreeing to a three-year, $56,700,000 contract. Mitch Kupchak admitted that the Hornets had no chance of becoming major players in free agency and they would rather attempt to build a winning franchise through the draft and player development and that plan was already put in place.
James Borrego, the team’s coach, was assigned the task of communicating that message to his players but the strong endorsement from upper management made it easy and he really had no problem explaining to his veterans that their minutes were going to be reduced dramatically in favor of developing the youth. Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo were not a consideration for the starting lineup and hopefully most of you saw the early signs and avoided drafting any of these guys to your fantasy team.
The Hornets started the season immediately giving major minutes to young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte’ Graham and even rookie PJ Washington, who had an impressive training camp and earned himself a place in the starting five. The coaching style of Borrego made sure that the ground rules were in place and discipline on both ends of the floor was enforced immediately, making the Hornets a somewhat fun team to watch in the early part of the year. Charlotte remained a competitive opponent on a nightly basis and finished the year with a respectable record (13-23), staying in play for a possible playoff berth.
Finding The Sideline Leader
After going through four different coaches in a span of of three years (2010-2012), the Hornets finally found some stability with Steve Clifford who posted a 238 – 254 record (.484) in five seasons, leading the team to a couple playoff appearances. Some serious health issues and the team’s inability to advance past the first round led to him leaving Charlotte as the team’s winningest coach in a move that surprised the NBA world and had many people question Jordan’s long-term vision for the franchise.
James Borrego, coming from the San Antonio Spurs coaching tree, took over an unbalanced roster with little upside and in his first season he simply tried to maximize his roster by establishing a defensive scheme where his players switched everything and tried to play a fast-paced offense. The personnel was obviously not ideal but the team ended up with a very respectable 39 – 43 record, finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference, validating the team’s low upside with the current roster.
In his second year as the Hornets head coach, Borrego cleaned house and wasted no time establishing four pillars of success for his young team:
- Competing: The roster itself wasn’t expected to win games on pure talent so the point was to make the most out of categories like charges drawn, deflections, loose balls recovered, box outs, screen assists and contested shots.
- Player development: The team focused on the individual development of young guys since day one, a bold but necessary approach since there was no point of playing the veterans heavy minutes anymore.
- Identity: Borrego emphasized defensive performance and he was straightforward about attempting to generate a culture with defense being a top priority. This is obviously something that takes time and the growing pains were visible at the beginning of the year when the team was the worst in the league at defensive rebounds per game, the worst in opponent field goal percentage and the worst in points allowed in the paint, while ranking 25th in the league in opponent 3-point percentage. Here is a possession that shows the lack of defensive discipline by forward Miles Bridges who finds himself on the wrong end of a coverage, navigating between playing one-one-one defense and helping on the weak side.
What is Miles trying to do?
That's not good folks.. pic.twitter.com/kDY5WpkG1O
— Filippo 🕺🏼💕🤞🏻 (@BarresiFilippo4) November 26, 2019
- Winning Habits. Establishing winning habits is equally crucial to any team and the point here was that a young, energetic, group that wants to get better, wants to learn and grow as much as possible as to compete at both ends of the floor.
After an expected slow beginning to the season, everything started to come together for the Hornets and the team was turning the corner on the defensive end of the floor before the unexpected pause of the season due to the coronavirus. From February 10th until the suspension of the season and in a span of 13 games, the Hornets allowed 104.5 points per game, the fewest in the league, while owning a defensive rating of 109.2, 10th best in the league.
Borrego handled the challenge of struggling through the growing pains of establishing his agenda with class and dignity. He never threw anyone under the bus or called anyone out and he kept his options open, adjusting his schemes and simply playing the guys who responded to his plan while emphasizing on player development and allowing his guys to learn though their mistakes. This seems to have been appreciated by everyone in the organization and there seems to be little to no doubt right now as to who is the right coach to lead this young Hornets team to the next level.
Devonte’ Graham: Fantasy Gold
Devonte’ Graham was a relative unknown coming into this season after a rookie year where he spent most of his time in Greensboro with the Swarm of the G League. The former Jayhawk stayed in college for four years and even though he averaged 17.3 points and 7.2 assists, forming one of the college basketball’s most dynamic backcourts with Frank Mason III, he was undersized and got overlooked during the 2018 draft 2018, slipping all the way to the second round.
Graham is a humble kid and he tried to absorb as much wisdom as possible from veterans like Kemba Walker and Tony Parker in his rookie season, while everything quickly came together when he was given the chance. Dwayne Bacon started for the team in the first few games, but Graham quickly forced himself into the starting lineup after multiple double-digit games where he showed he could be an explosive scorer next to Terry Rozier.
The fantasy community mostly fell asleep during his emergence, but Graham was able to sustain his production in a career year, becoming a fantasy asset that made the difference for everyone that was quick enough to pick him off the waiver wire early in the year.
Graham is making a strong case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player as one of the highest on/off efficiency differentials of any player in the league while establishing himself in the top ten on the list of pick and roll ball handler possessions in the 64th percentile of efficiency. Returning top-75 value for the season, his field goal percentage and 2.9 turnovers per game are the only barrier to him taking the next step in his development but the 7.5 assists and 1.0 steals per game have been rock solid all year long.
Bacon Frustration, Monk’s Rollercoaster, and the Martins
This year was supposed to be a breakout season for Dwayne Bacon after he finished last year strong, putting the ball in the basket and playing good defense. Bake was a 5-star, top-20 recruit coming out of Oak Hill Academy before two years at Florida State that earned him spots on the ACC All-Freshman and 2016-2017 All-ACC teams, so expectations were high and the team was confident that he was about to take the next step. Unfortunately, with just one 20-point scoring night since November and due to the emergence of Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk, multiple DNP-CDs followed as Bacon fell out of favor in Charlotte.
He asked to be sent down to Greensboro to keep himself focused and passionate after not playing much but even that hasn’t been able to persuade Borrego to give him more opportunities and his future with the franchise is up in the air. His percentages have been the main difference this season as he is shooting just 34.8 percent from the field, 28.4 percent from 3-point territory and 66 percent from the foul line, a major drop from 48/44/74 last year.
The high expectations as a result of Malik Monk becoming the No. 11 pick in the 2017 never materialized in his first couple seasons, where the undersized guard struggled to shoot the ball efficiently and really didn’t do a lot to earn the trust of Steve Clifford and James Borrego. Monk entered this season with many questions about his future in the league but with the window of opportunity wide open for him due to the direction the team was taking.
At the end of January Monk finally found his rhythm and looked the most comfortable as ever, scoring in double-digits in 11 of his 13 games before receiving an indefinite suspension after testing positive for an undisclosed substance in violation of the NBA’s Anti-Drug Policy.
His performance was not an accident as Monk embraced a combo guard role that allowed him to be the credible playmaker that he is instead of playing the traditional shooting guard position and developing comfortable as the sixth man. His suspension was a rough blow to an organization that was looking for more “success stories” and hopefully it will operate as another step in the long learning curve of Monk, who recently admitted to the press that he was not ready for the NBA when he was drafted.
On a positive note, the Martin brothers have been a pleasant surprise in Charlotte with the team allowing them to flourish and both of them earning more minutes as the season progressed. Caleb, an offensive-minded guy who can score in a variety of ways, came to the Hornets as an undrafted rookie and just before the coronavirus pause, he had completed back-to-back double-digit scoring games while playing almost 20 minutes per night in the last 13 games.
Cody on the other hand, a defensive force that has shown the ability to play tough defense, was a second-round choice in the 2019 NBA draft and has been a part of the rotation almost for the entire season, especially due to his ability to impact the game on the defensive side of the ball.
The Hornets also recently unleashed their other second round pick from 2019, Jalen McDaniels, who, even though he is still a work in progress, he has shown quick improvement in his decision making, his shot selection and his rebounding.
Completing the Rebuild
The Hornets are one of the few NBA teams that really don’t have a lot to play for in the event that the season is continued in the upcoming weeks or months. The goals set forth by the management and coaching staff have been mostly accomplished and the franchise can continue to rebuild while shaping its on-court identity and finding its leaders.
Charlotte currently employs six players that have remained from the old regime (Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller, Nicolas Batum, Willy Hernangomez, Malik Monk, and Dwayne Bacon) and it’s likely that they try to move on from them and manufacture more financial flexibility. Mitch Kupchak wasn’t the sexiest pick as a GM and he undoubtedly got the job due to his personal relationship with Michael Jordan but he has nailed most of his draft picks so far (PJ Washington, Miles Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, Cody and Caleb Martin, and Jalen McDaniels), which gives him more leverage to continue with the rebuild.
It’s obvious that the Hornets will be looking at acquiring a rim protector in the upcoming draft and guys like James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu and Daniel Oturu will be on their radar. Charlotte is crystal clear on following this path through the draft and even though no major moves should be expected, their fanbase should be excited as a really nice project is currently being built and the fruits of the team’s labor don’t seem to be that far away.