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The Hornets are Trapping Themselves in the NBA’s Abyss

The Charlotte Bobcats surprisingly made the playoffs in 2013-14, their last year of existence. Al Jefferson dazzled as the offensive centerpiece after signing a three year, $41 million contract in the prior offseason. The Bobcats were swept by LeBron James‘s Heat, but there was reasonable optimism in Charlotte surrounding the core of Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Charlotte then wonderfully transitioned back to its original nickname, the Hornets, and celebrated the dawn of a new era by signing Lance Stephenson to a three year, $27.1 million deal. Alas, 2014-15 was a disaster for the 33-49 Hornets, and Stephenson played a large part in that.

Of Charlotte players with at least 800 minutes played, Stephenson had the worst on-court net rating, -7.5 points per 100 possessions, by far. Gary Neal was next at -4.7 in nearly 600 less minutes than Stephenson. After shooting 49.1 percent overall and 35.2 percent from deep in 2013-14, Stephenson bottomed out last season all the way to 37.6 percent on an impossibly bad 17.1 percent from three.

Charlotte, understandably, had enough with the mercurial wing, and kicked off its offseason by trading Lance to Los Angeles for Matt Barnes (he was then traded again) and Spencer Hawes, who has three seasons left on his contract. Hawes had a nearly equally disastrous run himself last season, and the Hornets already had seemingly promising young big men Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh on their roster in addition to Jefferson.

Trading the polarizing Stephenson was perhaps inevitable, but the Hornets really snared the NBA’s June headlines by acquiring Portland’s Nicolas Batum from out of the blue. The Blazers received Gerald Henderson and Vonleh, who’s yet to turn 20 years old. Batum has one year left before hitting unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.

Henderson led the team in minutes last season and helped guide them to a respectable -0.2 net rating when he played. With Hendo on the bench, Charlotte got outscored by a hefty 7.8 points per 100 possessions. Only Kidd-Gilchrist had better on/off court numbers, and Henderson was far more reliable in playing 80 games.

Moving on from Vonleh is a decision that’ll land somewhere between curious and indefensible when all the dust settles. Vonleh may have shown little in his rookie season, but the sample size available to evaluate him is laughable. He’s just 19, and it’s very possible Charlotte has seen enough behind closed doors to feel comfortable moving on from the power forward. As a macro strategy, however, cutting bait on teenage lottery picks for expiring contracts is a dangerous game.

Assuming he can bounce back from a more than forgettable 2014-15, Batum could be a nice upgrade over Henderson on the wing. But even without Stephenson, Charlotte still has little to no upside as a second-round playoff team. It seems pretty unlikely that Batum will re-sign in next year’s salary cap bonanza, meaning Charlotte likely gave up its apparent top prospect for largely meaningless short-term gains. Even if Vonleh never pans out, it reflects poorly on Charlotte’s front office to select an 18-year-old ninth overall and seemingly give up on him just one season later.

The Hornets compounded this dilemma by confidently selecting Frank Kaminsky with the ninth pick in last month’s draft. Kaminsky is largely considered a “stretch 5” who won’t offer much on defense, making him a more than odd choice for a team with Jefferson, Hawes and Zeller. Bismack Biyombo, the team’s only rim protector last season, walked in free agency. Making matters worse, Boston reportedly offered a verified war chest of picks to move up and select Justise Winslow ninth. Charlotte stood firm on that offer to get its hands on Kaminsky.

Next year’s team will look a good deal different. Batum instantly slots in as the team’s second wing next to Kidd-Gilchrist. He’ll fill the void left by Henderson, the team’s leader in minutes last season. Jeremy Lamb, acquired for Barnes, figures to get time on the wing as well. Vonleh barely played as a rookie and it’s likely Kaminsky faces a similar struggle to crack the rotation, at least early on. Hawes should garner a bigger role and fit in a little better with the shooting-starved Hornets than he did in Los Angeles. Jeremy Lin will provide some depth in the backcourt at a cheap price.

However, there simply isn’t an obvious avenue for the type of improvement Charlotte is desperately seeking with these moves. Losing Stephenson and gaining Batum are a big enough swing that they should win a handful more games than last year’s putrid 33. The most likely scenario is a slightly worse lottery pick, another largely unhappy season and Batum walking, leaving Charlotte with nothing.

The Hornets’ flurry of moves this summer feel like something a bored NBA 2K player would do in franchise mode. The 2013-14 playoff appearance seems like a mirage, in retrospect. Charlotte has mortgaged the future — or at least real potential — for the chance at short-term gains that won’t move the needle at all. And unless Kaminsky surprises nearly everyone, they remain stuck in a cycle of largely poor drafting. It’ll be interesting to observe next season unfold in Charlotte. It’ll probably be less so to follow the seasons to come as the team likely plunges deep into the NBA’s abyss yet again.

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