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The Hornets’ Convoluted Future

With a loss against the Miami Heat on Tuesday, the Charlotte Hornets came another step closer to the end of a disappointing season.

The Hornets hoped to put together a playoff run in the final weeks of the season, but now sit two games behind Boston for the last playoff spot in the East, and are also behind Miami and Indiana.

The possibility of the playoffs was fool’s gold for Hornets fans anyway. It masked the disappointment of a team thought to be on the rise before the season. Charlotte was a feel-good story last year and during the offseason, but now looks like an organization unsure of the path back to relevance.

Coming off a 43-win season and landing coveted free agent Lance Stephenson, the Hornets were seen in most preseason books as a 44 or 45-win team. As the season winds down, however, Charlotte has just 33 wins, leaving the Hornets as one of the three most disappointing teams in the eyes of projected wins. (the Lakers and Nuggets are the others)

Charlotte was banking on Stephenson solving some of its offensive woes, but he has been a complete disaster. There’s a good case to be made that Stephenson has been the least valuable player in the league this season, and Shawn Woods outlines the case well here.

With Stephenson giving the Hornets next to nothing, the offense has looked even worse than last year. The Hornets have the worst spacing in the league, and it makes running any sort of competent offense extremely difficult. Among players shooting at least three three-pointers a game on the roster, Marvin Williams leads the way at 36.1 percent. The next best player is notoriously bad long-range shooter Gerald Henderson at 33.8 percent.

Gary Neal should have helped the spacing this year, but he shot just 29.3 percent from three before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Mo Williams deal. Williams has been a good three-point shooter over the course of his career, but he’s at just 32.9 percent in Charlotte on nearly seven attempts per game.

Then there’s Stephenson, who’s at an unfathomably bad 17.1 (!) percent from deep. All of this leads to the Hornets ranking dead last in three-point percentage at 31.5 percent, a full 0.6 percent behind the next worse team.

The other offensive issue is the decline of Al Jefferson. Jefferson’s decline has been more noticeable on defense, where he has become a huge liability again, but his offensive numbers also aren’t as sparkling as they were last year. Dealing with injuries all season, Jefferson is averaging just 16.6 points after averaging 21.8 last year. His field goal percentage, free throw percentage and assists are down as well, and the lack of spacing is also likely contributing to this decline.

Jefferson’s decline and the three-point woes have led to an overall decline in the Hornets’ offensive efficiency. In 2013-14, the then-Bobcats ranked 24th in offensive efficiency at 101.2, per ESPN.com. This season, the Hornets are 28th at 98.1.

The defense has survived the decline of Jefferson with a great scheme and another step forward for elite perimeter defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but the Hornets aren’t going to be relevant with an offense that dreadful.

Charlotte desperately needs to add a shooter (or multiple) to play next to Kidd-Gilchrist, but lacks the cap room to pursue any high-profile candidates. If Jefferson and Henderson opt in next season, the Hornets have just under $66 million committed to salaries, per Hoops Hype, leaving almost no wiggle room under the cap. There aren’t too many great trade chips on the roster, with Noah Vonleh showing very little this year (although he was always seen as a project) and Cody Zeller being just serviceable. A decision must also be made on reserve big man Bismack Biyombo, who’s set to be a restricted free agent.

If Jefferson and Henderson opt out, the team could have a bit more flexibility this offseason. And in 2016-17, the Hornets will have plenty of flexibility, as Walker is currently the only guaranteed contract.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, almost every team will have some sort of cap room that year, with the cap rising dramatically. It’s going to be a tough sell in Charlotte, with only Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist to build around for the future, unless some of the other youngsters blossom quickly. Charlotte is going to need to hit a home run in free agency or the draft, or the team is going to find it very difficult to get much better.

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