Whatever the term for it may be, the Charlotte Hornets are in the complete opposite of a roster crunch heading into the 2022-23 preseason.
The NBA allows teams to roster up to 20 players (including Two-Ways) during the offseason, giving front offices flexibility to scout players in-house without fearing that it would take them over the 15-player regular season limit and force them to cut ties with another valuable player — teams will sometimes take on 15 or more guaranteed contracts and have players battle for the final roster spot as well. As things stand right now, the Hornets have 14 players under contract (including Bryce McGowens’ Two-Way) for next season. Here’s a look around the league courtesy of CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith for some perspective.
Current open NBA spots on 20-man offseason NBA rosters (including both actual and reported signings):— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) August 24, 2022
ATL - 3
BOS - 3
BKN - 6
CHA - 6
CHI - 2
CLE - 3
DET - 1
IND - 5
MIA - 1
MIL - 2
NYK - 5
ORL - 0
PHI - 1
TOR - 1
WAS - 3
Besides the Hornets, the only team with six open spots was mired in one of the league’s most significant trade sagas of all time, and one of two teams with five spots has been chasing after Donovan Mitchell for a month. It’s safe to say the Nets and Knicks have had eventful summers and less time to focus on the back end of a roster than Charlotte has, but the Hornets have dealt with unforeseen circumstances — through no fault of their own — that halted the process and left them with little depth as training camp approaches.
Regardless of whether things have gone to plan this summer, general manager Mitch Kupchak and his staff have two open roster spots and an open Two-Way at their disposal. Scottie Lewis may return from a July leg fracture at some point this season and take the Two-Way, but that’s not a certainty. LaMelo Ball is the only true point guard on the roster and the depth chart is littered with inexperience. If the organization’s goal is still to push for the playoffs, something is going to happen before camp opens. What could that be?
Perhaps the main reason the Hornets have yet to sign a free agent this summer is that Kemba Walker, who’s rumored to be interested in a reunion, hasn’t been released by the Detroit Pistons after they acquired him in a trade. There’s a strong chance Kupchak and Co. are waiting that situation out while keeping Isaiah Thomas, who earned immediate respect in the locker room last season, close by as a literal and figurative backup plan.
Other veterans still remain, such as Eric Bledsoe or Dennis Schröder, but waiting patiently for Walker to be bought out and opting for familiarity with him and/or Thomas seems most plausible. Honestly, signing Kemba (if he’s waived) and IT might be the easiest avenue to digging the vibes around this team out of the gutter.
Where it can be argued that Charlotte’s front office dropped the ball this summer — and this aspect of roster-building has little to do with top-end acquisitions — was utilizing training camp and Exhibit 10 contracts to bring undrafted 2022 prospects into the building. Connecticut forward Isaiah Whaley, who did not play a single second in Summer League, was the lone post-draft Exhibit 10 signing, meaning he’s the only player with incentive to sign with the Greensboro Swarm for next season.
Brady Manek and Justin Minaya were signed to play in Las Vegas, but are currently unaffiliated with the Hornets and also play the same position as Whaley. LJ Figueroa performed well enough to garner NBA interest in Summer League, but was not signed to a camp deal like Denzel Valentine with Boston or an E-10 like Tyson Etienne with Atlanta. For reference, the Hornets signed DJ Carton and Jalen Crutcher post-draft and retained Cameron McGriff and Xavier Sneed from the prior year in 2021, and they brought in five undrafted prospects in 2020.
The Hornets can’t and shouldn’t mimic the moves of other front offices. End-of-roster mismanagement and lesser commitment to unearthing potential gems is a trend fans associate with the Rich Cho era, though, not the current regime. This summer might be an outlier due to circumstances brought forth by the alleged heinous behavior of a certain individual, but it’d be troubling to see a reversion to old habits in a market where finding needle-in-the-haystack rotation players is a prerequisite for success. And not to blow the front office’s spot or anything, but the 2022 draft was on June 23, six days before any offseason plans might’ve been disrupted.
There’s still plenty of time for the 20-man roster to be filled out prior to camp opening in mid-September, though the majority of coveted free agents and prospects are no longer available. Or maybe the course of the basketball universe gets flipped upside down and the Hornets just go all-in for Donovan Mitchell and fill out the roster with unexpected minimum signings. Who knows?
All of this was not to say the Hornets have tons of work to do before the season starts or that they need to make a franchise-altering move, even though it’s certainly not out of the question given the Mitchell rumors and limited Russell Westbrook suitors. Nor is it even a most consequential issue — having LaMelo Ball answers a lot of questions off the bat. However, they do posses the ability to tinker with the roster as they see fit with six open spots, the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($10.49M), the bi-annual exception ($4.105M) and a handful of tradable contracts as tools to construct a team that can balance playoff contention with continued development, particularly among the growing crop of bigs. The messaging from the organization over the last year-plus doesn’t line up with the roster they’re fielding at this moment, so it’s fair to anticipate additions or movement, big or small.
Many teams around the league, apart from those entrenched in trade discussions, have signed a group of players to compete for NBA and G League roster spots in training camp next month. It’s not uncommon to have a few roster openings at this stage, but six indicates guaranteed contracts up for grabs along with Two-Way, camp and E-10 deals. Charlotte’s starters and main rotation pieces may be nailed down, but there’s still a ways to go before the team is ready to gear up for camp unless the plan is to field an incomplete roster this season.