Rich Cho’s press conference on Thursday came off much like those given by Steve Clifford and the players — with a sense of disappointment. Given that he reiterated last season’s success more than once to the media, falling short of that was an unexpected step back for him and likely everyone involved with the organization.
Along with the team, most, at least locally, expected the Charlotte Hornets to be back in the playoffs. Nationally, others weren’t quite as confident, but the sentiment wasn’t that Charlotte had gotten worse, but rather that other teams had improved. That proved true to a degree, as both Milwaukee and Washington improved enough to make the playoffs, pushing out, coincidentally, Miami and Charlotte, who matched up against each other this time last year.
Like the Wizards and Bucks, the Hornets will be hoping to make a similar leap next season. The problem is, they don’t have a lot to work with. Over the salary cap, but under the luxury tax, the Hornets will have to make good use of the Mid-Level Exception, which will be slotted at $6 million for the upcoming season. Getting the right player with the MLE will be vitally important.
Given Cho’s comments on Thursday, it will likely be used on either a backup point guard or a rim protector. Finding either of those might be difficult — $6 million a year sounds like a lot (what am I saying, it is a lot), but only accounts for roughly five percent of next season’s salary cap. For comparisons sake, Ramon Sessions signed for $6 million a season last summer. Any player of the quality Charlotte needs coming off their bench is going to be looking for more than the MLE.
With the limited amount of salary, Cho will likely approach this in one of two ways. He could sign an under valued player with the MLE, or look to acquire a needed player via trade. Both are options he’s utilized in the past to an extent in the past.
Signing the under valued player was able to land them Lin two seasons ago, but also brought Hibbert last summer. There’s a clear distinction between both, however — Lin’s disappointing stint in Los Angeles was more about fit both with the team and in the city, while Hibbert’s declining play was clearly a health issue. Cho could opt to sign another player looking to raise their value, but would do well to steer clear of the one’s battling a debilitating injury. Because Charlotte had cap space when signing these two, they didn’t make use of the MLE, but they will more than likely have to use it on a under valued player.
Opting for a trade theoretically gives them more options, but a lot will depend on how highly valued the Hornets players are. According to Cho, the Hornets do have “players that are valued around the league”. And hey, I agree, but with the team’s disappointing season, most of the roster’s trade value isn’t as high as they’d like it right now.
They also lack the unproven, but intriguing young player they had with Noah Vonleh two seasons ago. Say what you will, but the league tends to love the guys who haven’t played enough to figure out whether they are good or not. Vonleh didn’t play on a pretty underwhelming team, and yet he was the biggest trade piece in the deal for Nicolas Batum. Currently, the Hornets don’t have that kind of trade chip, and their greatest mystery is whether or not Johnny O’Bryant III’s 15 point debut was a fluke or not.
Beyond free agency, Cho commented on the upcoming draft, revealing little. Barring the luck of the lottery, Charlotte will pick 11th, and Cho expects to keep the pick and take the best available player, while keeping their options open. This was a polite way of saying “I’m not telling you what we’re doing,” but it makes sense for them to keep it. Their draft history has been mixed, but they should be able to get a solid player at 11, which should add to the mix of older and young players currently on the roster.
Speaking of the younger core, Cho mentioned that Briante Weber, Treveon Graham, and O’Bryant will play with the summer league team in July. All three have un-guaranteed contracts heading into next season, and will get a chance to make it guaranteed with a strong performance in summer league and training camp. Graham seems to be in the best position of the three, but all three appear to have caught Clifford’s eye.
Ultimately, with their options limited, look for a pragmatic approach this offseason. As much as many of us would like to see a dramatic upgrade and reshuffling, the Hornets don’t have the flexibility to do so. It won’t make for a eye-catching summer, but some of Charlotte’s best moves in the past were the ones that initially went under the radar.