It hurts to say this, but Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak lied to us; he went on record — many times! — to say that he didn’t anticipate Charlotte making a splash in free agency, and that they planned to make a collection of smaller moves throughout the off-season, which doesn’t exactly sound like the framework for signing Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million contract (sign-and-trade details are still being negotiated with Boston and a possible third team).
Hornets fans are divided as to how they should feel about this splashy move (it’s good), but the worst part of all? We, as a collective, have not devoted nearly enough time in the last week to think about how awesome it is that LaMelo Ball is a Charlotte Hornet.
Charlotte was always going to take the “best player available” of the “consensus” top-three prospects, but getting a player that acclaimed draft analysts viewed as the clear-cut No. 1 prospect and the only one with franchise-altering potential at third overall is great value. LaMelo’s passing, court vision, basketball IQ, ball-handling and defensive potential at 19 years old in a 6’ 7” frame are a seamless fit in James Borrego’s preferred up-tempo style of play, not to mention the off-court benefits that a star like LaMelo brings to one of the smallest markets in the NBA.
To put it simply; LaMelo himself has 5.8 million followers on Instagram and the Hornets’ official account has 1.3 million. He’s featured on a web show since 2017 that has 111 episodes. He has literally circled the globe playing professional basketball at just 19. He’s going to expose the Hornets to an entirely new demographic, and that’s undeniably good.
But off-court promotion only means so much, and thinking about basketball is more fun than thinking about economics. LaMelo also gives the team a playmaker to ease Devonte’ Graham’s workload and allow him to move off-ball for more catch-and-shoot looks, which he excelled at last season (42.2 percent on 3.3 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game). LaMelo can defend the opponent’s bigger guard while playing point guard on offense, which will help both Graham and Terry Rozier, who is coming off of a season in which he ranked fourth in the NBA in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage among players that averaged more than three attempts per game. Add in Malik Monk’s downhill speed, athleticism and finishing, and the Hornets have a speedy, versatile backcourt group.
It doesn’t hurt to add LaMelo, already one of basketball’s best — and certainly most-confident — lob-throwers to a team that has Miles Bridges and PJ Washington in the frontcourt. Miles is renowned as one of the NBA’s most athletic dunkers, and PJ is long, strong, and not afraid to meet anybody at the rim. Both Miles and PJ should double as pick-and-roll partners for LaMelo while also being able to spot-up from long-range and knock down the shots he creates for them. Cody Zeller will continue to do the little things that help his guards succeed; set brutalizing screens, seal off in the paint, keep the offense flowing with smart passes and put in effort on the glass. Zeller’s importance to this team early in the 2020-2021 season has been underrated, and it’s likely that we’ll see a lot of him as the team primes him to become a trade asset at the deadline.
Historically, role-players tend to elevate their performance when sharing the floor with players that can create shots for them. Cody Martin, Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels are alert off-ball cutters and improving 3-point shooters, and Bismack Biyombo can clean up missed shots and finish in the paint. LaMelo makes all of their jobs easier.
The one player whose fit hasn’t been addressed yet but was easily the team’s biggest acquisition; Gordon Hayward. People can (and will) debate the optics of that signing until the cows come home, but one thing needs to be clear; Hayward’s on-court fit on this roster, especially with LaMelo in the fold, is borderline perfect. As Jon and MickSmiley have outlined in their excellent pieces, Hayward is capable of shouldering the load of a No. 1 option for the time being while LaMelo’s shot mechanics and shot selection improve, and then he can slide into a backseat role when LaMelo becomes “the guy.”
Any self-creation, one-on-one isolation possession can be given to Hayward — who is also a great point forward in pick-and-roll sets — while LaMelo can act as a freelance orchestrator of the offense, grabbing rebounds, pushing the ball up the court and scanning for driving lanes and open teammates as he adapts to the physicality and sheer difficulty of the NBA in the halfcourt. A 42.5 percent shooter from long-range off the catch on 2.9 attempts per game last season with a 20.6 percent usage rate as Boston’s fourth option, it’s clear that Hayward is active off-ball and will put himself in the right spots to get open when the offense is being ran by LaMelo or even Devonte’.
The Hayward signing left some Hornets fans wondering how the team could acquire their franchise cornerstone, but the answer to that question was right in front of them; they already have him. LaMelo Ball is the future of the Charlotte Hornets franchise, like it or not, and the Hayward signing indicates that Kupchak and the Hornets front office believe that, too. What has happened between the end of last season, where they had the eighth-worst record and fourth-worst point differential, and now to make Kupchak think this team has been elevated to a yearly playoff contender? Only one thing; they drafted LaMelo. Hayward would not be a Hornet making $30 million per year as he heads into his thirties if the front office didn’t think they already had a player to build around.
Sure, it would’ve been nice to see the Hornets get a shot at adding Cade Cunningham, BJ Boston, Evan Mobley, etc. to their core with a top pick in a loaded 2021 Draft, but perpetuating a losing culture is something that a.) no organization is ever going to do on purpose, and b.) is not necessary when the caliber of player they’re tanking for is already present on the roster.
The way the Hornets are looking at it, they already have their future star in LaMelo to go with supporting cast members in Devonte’, PJ, Miles, Malik, and possibly some of their recent second-round picks. After the draft, they had two options; run it back with the 2019-2020 Hornets plus LaMelo and take their chances with lottery luck, or take a plunge in free agency and put a supporting piece of veteran talent next to your franchise cornerstone. If the Hornets thought they still needed to find that cornerstone, they run it back and hope for the best, like most rebuilding teams do. Clearly, the front office has confidence in LaMelo’s ability to significantly raise the ceiling of this team with Hayward alongside him. The rebuild was not hastily sped up by signing Hayward, it was organically sped up by drafting a player that has an All-NBA ceiling.
This organization’s debilitating problem during the Kemba Walker era was the inability to surround its home-grown All-Star with talent, and it ultimately led to his departure after eight middling seasons. The Hornets are not going to make the same mistake with LaMelo.