Next season is going to look very different for the Charlotte Hornets. In a lot of ways, it could be the beginning of a new era. While the primary change to their roster was largely out of their control, it gives them a unique opportunity to prepare for the future. LaMelo Ball is the unquestioned face of the franchise, but as they look to build around him, taking this year to asses their asset pool might be the best course of action.
Over the past year, the Eastern Conference has gotten even more competitive. Last season, the Hornets failed to make the playoffs, losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the Play-In Tournament. And now, most of the teams around them improved.
The Hawks added Dejounte Murray. The Cleveland Cavaliers will be looking to get their guys back from injury, as will the Chicago Bulls. The New York Knicks added Jalen Brunson to the mix and are staring a deal for Donovan Mitchell in the face. Even teams like the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons look ready to make minor jumps.
That leaves the Brooklyn Nets (maybe?), Indiana Pacers, and Hornets as the only three teams who got worse around the Play-In area. If Charlotte wants to make the playoffs, they are going to have to hope for major improvements from some of their very young players, and even then, it will be a near-impossible road.
But what if they shift their focus for a year? Instead of pushing all their chips on the table in an attempt to scrape their way to a Play-In spot, why not take a year off, in a sense? It’s far from the route fans may yearn for, but if they want to find long-term success, it may be the smartest route to take.
What does that entail, exactly?
Well, first and foremost, the Hornets should be prioritizing the development of their younger players. Doling out minutes to Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Mason Plumlee may help them win, but if the definition of “win” is to almost make the Play-In, then is it really worth it?
This isn’t to say that all of those players need to be traded, though Mitch Kupchak should explore that possibility. However, while Steve Clifford may prefer to play his veterans in an attempt to scrounge together as many wins as possible, it might be more valuable to give Charlotte’s younger players the chance to learn on the fly.
With the (likely) departure of their top scorer from last season, the development of guys like Cody Martin, PJ Washington, Jalen McDaniels, and James Bouknight just became all the more important. So if Clifford has the option of throwing Hayward into the game or letting one of those four figure things out, the latter could end up being the smarter long-term decision.
Fans shouldn’t view this as a throw-away season, but rather a chance for the team’s young players to earn the minutes they need in order to become effective NBA players at a much faster rate. Young players are often a product of the opportunities they are given just as much as they are a product of the talent they possess.
Look at Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown as the prime example. Through the early stages of his career, Brown struggled to earn minutes, but as soon as he was handed the keys, in a sense, he emerged as an All-Star. Now, he and Jayson Tatum are fresh off of an appearance in the NBA Finals.
This isn’t to say that anyone on Charlotte’s roster is capable of transforming into a second star next to Ball, but some could be more than they seem right now.
Washington looks like a solid floor-spacer, but what if the Hornets entrusted him with a larger role alongside Ball? Could he improve his scoring numbers to the point where people begin viewing him as a potential co-star next to the Hornets point guard?
Right now, Martin is a quality 3&D player. But what if the Hornets gave him more responsibilities? Could he expand upon that role and turn into a player like Dorian Finney-Smith or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?
What about McDaniels? It’s tough to decipher his exact role within the Hornets’ rotation, but with his hustle and quality defense, what could he turn into if given the chance?
Similar statements can be made for all of the Hornets’ recent draft picks, too. It may not sound glamorous. Charlotte doesn’t have a Brown on the roster. But taking a year to find out what they have would not only give them some peace of mind moving forward, but it could potentially help identify players that fit alongside Ball best, as well as those that don’t.
It’s extremely possible that Michael Jordan, Kupchak, and Clifford want to win at all costs. Young players will get their chance to shine, but that won’t be the priority. But in the grand scheme of things, based on the unfortunate events of the offseason, that idea seems very shortsighted.
Just take a gap year, Charlotte. It’s not ideal, but it may be what’s necessary.