It’s safe to say that we should all be pleased, at the least, with how the first half of the Charlotte Hornets’ 2020-21 season unfolded.
The Hornets were pegged by lots of NBA media members to be one of the worst teams in the East, and that couldn’t have been further from reality. Turns out, adding LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward to a team in the bottom-half of the lottery will lift them out of the lottery and into the playoffs. Who’d have thunk it, apart from every single Hornets fan alive? Nobody!
But we’re past that now. This Charlotte squad is legitimately decent, everyone with eyes knows it, and for the first time in years (decades?), they’re one of the NBA’s most fun teams to watch. James Borrego’s electric mixture of ball movement, outside shooting and fast-paced offense has earned the eyes of a new viewer demographic—aka, anyone outside of the Carolinas or anyone that isn’t a die-hard NBA fan.
“Trade deadline rumors revolving around the Hornets and another team’s center” is a tale as old as time, and it’s reprised itself to critical acclaim in 2021. Let’s tackle that first:
Nikola Vučević rumors
The Orlando Magic big man made his second-straight All-Star appearance last weekend amid a career-best season. “Vooch” is averaging 24.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game as the Magic’s offensive fulcrum; he does this with absurd efficiency from the center position, leading the NBA in above-the-break 3-pointers (ridiculous). Without Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, coupled with the lack of a true point guard in Orlando, Vučević acts as the offensive initiator and does everything for the Magic.
Do the Hornets need a player like Vučević? Yes. Would it be nice to have Vučević himself on this team? Again, yes, but it’s not plausible unless Orlando’s asking price falls (which it won’t, they adore Vooch). Does a core of LaMelo, Hayward, Vučević, Rozier, and Miles Bridges compete beyond the first round of the playoffs? Highly unlikely, given the depth they’d be gutting in trading assets for Vučević and the fact that he doesn’t help with their biggest issues. Teams simply cannot make those trades without assurance that it’ll pay off. The Hornets are good, but not good enough to mortgage their future for one player (yet).
Possible trade routes
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a deal out there that bolsters the Hornets’ roster for the postseason, though. We’re familiar with Mitch Kupchak’s “savvy trades” remark by now, but he has yet to really make any; with an open roster spot and about $4.1M in cap space, this is his best opportunity so far.
The 2021 trade market is likely to be slow and unexciting given that around a dozen teams can’t trade first-round draft picks this season, there are no stars on the market, and the play-in gives teams extra incentive to win. Here are a few examples that I cooked up on the trade machine, and you can read James Plowright’s article on the Hornets’ trade chips at this link:
Boston needs wing-sized shooters and playmakers, and they can match offers for Ball in restricted free agency this offseason. A first, two late-seconds, Romeo Langford and Cody Martin is a decent return for a player that will be very expensive to retain and Hayes, whose trade value has fallen consistently since he was drafted.
Khem Birch has been the definition of solid this season and he’s an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Hornets lose both 2021 second-rounders, but neither will be higher than 55 anyways, and prospects available then can often be signed as undrafted free agents. Orlando might get a better offer for Birch than this, though.
Greensboro Swarm season concludes
The Greensboro Swarm did not qualify for the playoffs in the G League bubble, so unfortunately their 2020-21 season is already over. Vernon Carey Jr., Nate Darling, Nick Richards and Grant Riller have all been recalled to the Hornets and will be with the team for the second half of the season.
If you’d like a detailed rundown on the Swarm season and how their Hornets-affiliated players performed, well, you’ll just have to listen to the latest episode of ATH Live with me and James. Ha-ha, tricked ya! Here’s a very short description of each player’s season:
Carey Jr: flashed offensive talent, pick-and-roll finisher, not an NBA-level defender yet
Darling: versatile shooter but needs to be a lot more efficient to make it to the NBA
Richards: definitely an NBA-level defender, shot 7-14 from 3P, mistake-prone and poor feel
Riller: career hinges on knee health, great finisher/ball-handler/shooter, improving passer
The outlook for the rest of 2021
At the All-Star break, the Hornets sit in seventh place in the East, just 1.5 games behind the fourth-place Celtics, but also just 1.5 games ahead of the 11th-place Hawks. Teams aren’t separated by a large amount of games yet, but as the elite teams sort themselves out amidst a pandemic, the upper echelon of the East will rise. If the Toronto Raptors hold on to Kyle Lowry (trade rumors surround him right now), they’ll climb up, too, which bumps Charlotte down to eighth, which is where many Hornets fans envisioned them finishing prior to the season.
Whether or not the Hornets organization views this season as one worth competing in is far beyond me, but I do know this; pushing for a playoff spot or standing pat and letting the team develop are both good options. Playoff experience for young players is invaluable, especially to an organization starved of success, but the chances of Charlotte getting past a Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston or Miami are slim-to-none. The Hornets just aren’t there yet; the playoffs are about which team has the best players, and the Hornets’ best players aren’t in the same stratosphere as the East’s contenders... yet.
The “...yet” is why it’s fine to let this season run its course. Besides the fact that another lottery pick would only help the situation, the Hornets already have a handful of talented, fun young players led by a future perennial All-NBA candidate in LaMelo. Everything the Hornets do for the next four years revolves entirely around him, because if this team is ever to win (i.e. advance past the second round of the playoffs), he needs to be fully-optimized as the best player. If a move that helps long-term presents itself and the player is a good fit with LaMelo, Kupchak should pull the trigger immediately.
Until that happens, let’s have fun watching this really awesome team. Charlotte hit the jackpot with their 2020 lottery pick, and we don’t want to bury him in mediocrity like we did with poor Kemba Walker. Swinging a big trade at the deadline of LaMelo’s rookie season for players above the age of 30 that are locked in with long-term contracts sounds eerily mediocre.
Whether one wants Charlotte to contend for the playoffs or mail it in for a final “rebuild” year, it’s hard to argue against the Hornets being in anything but great shape. Let’s keep it that way.