A look at two summers of inactivity for the Hornets

We’ve danced around the topic a bit. The Hornets are slow playing and/or struggling to agree to a new contract for PJ Washington. Otherwise, the roster looks mostly set barring a few moves around the edges or a sudden random change. All told, the Hornets have done next to nothing this summer, and that now makes two summers in a row where that’s the case.

The Hornets have looked like a team on autopilot for two summers now. Like when you’re playing career mode in a video game and you simulate through transactions. Moves are made, but they’re the most basic moves possible and they don’t really move the needle. I don’t know what the front office has worked on behind the scenes. They may have had big plans that just didn’t come to fruition, and all of this is unfair criticism. But from an outsider’s perspective, it’s been bad. Let’s summarize.

The 2022 offseason got off to the worst possible start with Miles Bridges getting arrested for domestic violence on the eve of free agency. That created a dark cloud over the organization, and the uncertainty understandably made it difficult for the front office to make major moves. All they did was sign Dennis Smith Jr. to what amounted to a prove-it deal. We won’t hold that stagnant summer against them, but even before all of that happened, the Hornets made the first in what has become a series of moves that give off vibes of a team that doesn’t know how to handle its assets.

The Hornets went into the 2022 NBA Draft with the 13th and 15th selections. Working under the assumption that Bridges would be back, the Hornets apparently didn’t want to add “too many rookies,” so they offloaded the 13th pick for what turned into the 27th pick in 2023 and a handful of second rounders. Dropping 14 spots one year later isn’t an ideal price to pick up four second rounders, especially with what the Hornets have gone on to do with those second rounders. They used one of those to help them move up to get Bryce McGowens in the second round, which is another emerging theme. More on that later.

The Hornets struggled in the 2022-23 season and were primed to be sellers at the trade deadline. They traded Jalen McDaniels for Svi Mykhailiuk (who was just roster filler for the end of the year), a 2023 second round pick and a 2027 second round pick. They traded Mason Plumlee for a 2028 second round pick. McDaniels will be making $4.5 million per year over the next two seasons and was a useful rotation piece for Charlotte. Perhaps the Hornets don’t have room for McDaniels on the roster anymore, but it seems like a very cheap price to unload a player that’s been a useful rotation piece.

So for the 2022-23 season from the summer up to the trade deadline, the Hornets did this:

  • Relieved themselves of a first round pick by moving it back one year and taking on a bunch of second round picks
  • Used one of the second rounders to move up from 45 to 40 to draft McGowens
  • Signed Dennis Smith Jr. to a minimum contract and made no other free agent moves or trades
  • Traded Jalen McDaniels for second rounders
  • Traded Mason Plumlee for a very distant second rounder

So on to 2023. The current offseason. The Hornets entered the draft with arguably the best stash of assets. They had picks 2, 27, 34, 39, and 41. This time, they felt like they should use both of the first rounders, and that they did. They then managed the rest of the asset crunch by giving up 34 and 39 just to move up to 31 with the intent to select James Nnaji. Nnaji is a fine prospect, but I can’t help but think the Hornets targeted him specifically because he’s under contract in Europe and can be stashed. They consolidated picks to ensure they could pick the player they didn’t have to add to the roster. They then used the 41st pick like normal.

That makes two straight drafts where the Hornets consolidated picks to move up an inconsequentially small number of spots in the second round. The Hornets seem to be trying to get rid of the picks however they can while technically benefiting from them. Practically speaking, they’re not gaining anything out of the moves. They’re just shuffling around.

Then we get to the free agency period that’s drawn the ire of most everyone. The Hornets had two restricted free agents in Washington and Bridges and a decent unrestricted free agent in Dennis Smith. Smith walked to sign a minimum deal elsewhere. Bridges signed his qualifying offer, and Washington remains in limbo. The team signed LaMelo Ball to a max extension, but that is simple stuff that requires no savvy or negotiating.

The front office had the midlevel exception and plenty of room under the luxury tax to make an impact signing. All they’ve done to this point is sign Frank Ntilikina and RJ Hunter to camp deals, and it took over a month before we even got there. At this point, there’s no one left that can help the Hornets, so they’re either rolling with what they have or relying on a big later summer trade. To recap the 2023 offseason:

  • The Hornets used their draft picks. They consolidated two picks to move up a few spots to draft the player they could stash in Europe.
  • They have not retained any 2023 free agents on long term deals despite having two restricted free agents and one player that signed for a minimum deal elsewhere
  • They signed two fringe NBA veterans to training camp deals

It’s a lot of nothing. No moves that strike you as sharp NBA front office moves. The moves that have been made are rudimentary and have done next to nothing to change the outlook of the team. If anything, the Hornets look like a team that keeps biting off more than they can chew, so they have to offload assets however they can. Like they acquire a bunch of second round picks, then the draft arrives and they don’t know what to do with all of them, so they find any team they can that will take multiple picks for one pick. It’s technically the right move, but any front office can do that.

The Hornets should be better this year from internal improvement, but the front office needs to be doing more to supplement that. Every move for the last year plus feels like front office 101. The Hornets are at a phase of their construction where they need to be a little more aggressive and a lot more creative. So far they’ve shown no creativity and seem content to see what falls into their lap.

They could make this whole post pointless and make me eat my words if they get in on a big trade, like the one that will probably send Damian Lillard to Miami at some point. But for now, the front office has done little to inspire confidence, and Hornets fans have every right to be frustrated.

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