Despite their highest winning percentage since 2015-16, the Hornets are sitting at home before the playoffs begin for a second consecutive season.
The failure to reach the playoffs would seem to indicate a shaky foundation and a roster stuck in neutral.
However, that is far from true.
Charlotte has done everything right (draft, free agency and trades) in how the roster has been constructed, but that has not been good enough to find a way into the top six of the Eastern Conference.
This season’s Grizzlies proved that wholesale changes are not needed for a team to go from play-in to the top six. For the Hornets to have the same success as Memphis, they need to find consistency in an 82-game season. Charlotte endured 10 multi-game losing streaks this year, including dropping six in a row in early February. In games decided by five points in the last five minutes, the Hornets ranked in the bottom 10 (No. 22).
The Hornets also need a healthy Gordon Hayward. The forward has averaged 15.9 and 19.6 points in his first two seasons with Charlotte but has failed to finish the season healthy in both seasons. He has missed 58 games because of various injuries.
The roster returns 11 players and, because of the loss in the play-in tournament, the Hornets have a lottery pick in June (they also have two seconds). They also could have an additional first if the Pelicans reach the first round of the playoffs.
That seemed unlikely in 2018, when general manager Mitch Kupchak was more criticized than applauded for selecting Bridges with the No. 12 overall pick. Charlotte moved up one slot in a draft night trade with the Clippers and bypassed selecting guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. While many (including this writer) thought that Gilgeous-Alexander provided an insurance policy for then Hornet guard Kemba Walker, Kupchak elected to take Bridges.
Now entering the offseason, Bridges has paid off the Hornets’ faith in him and is in line for a substantial pay increase off his current $5.2 million salary.
Bridges posted career highs in points (increasing his average by 7.6 from a year ago), rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He has nine 30-point games this season, triple his total from his first three seasons. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Bridges is shooting 53% on drives this season. That ranks in the top 10 among 52 players to attempt 250-plus shots off the drive.
“My biggest growth is my decision-making and my playmaking,” Bridges told Marc Spears during the season. “Me trying to make the right play, when to score, when to pass. I feel like I got better at that. But I can always get better at my defense. My defense and my rebounding gets me going throughout the game. I got to do a better job coming out from the first quarter and getting better from there.”
Bridges is not only a front-runner for NBA Most Improved Player this season but is on the precipice of seeing his name on an All-Star team in the future.
After the All-Star break, Bridges averaged 21.2 points on 52% shooting and 40% from 3. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, he is one of five players posting 20 points per game on 50% shooting and 40% 3-point shooting since the break. The other four are Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker.
Despite all that, restricted free agency has taught us that the Hornets hold leverage because they have the right to match on what the next contract for Bridges could be, especially with only five teams having substantial cap space (Detroit, Indiana, Orlando, Portland and San Antonio).
Still, the Hornets could make an aggressive offer to the forward at the start of free agency, eliminating the risk of Bridges signing a less-than-appealing offer sheet or the threat of him signing the one-year $7.9 million qualifying offer and becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.
As Brian Windhorst reported in October, the Hornets offered a baseline extension of $60 million over four seasons that Bridges and his agent Rich Paul wisely declined.
“We love Miles Bridges,” Kupchak told reporters on Oct. 20. “We did have conversations with his representative up until the last minute. The decision was made to wait and see how the season plays out and we’ll approach it again in the spring.”
Bridges was smart to bet on himself and should see a new contract that doubles what was offered last offseason.
A contract that starts at $24 million per season (five years, $139 million) would keep the Hornets below the luxury tax in 2022-23, allowing them the financial flexibility not to be a taxpayer in the future even accounting for P.J. Washington signing an extension this offseason and LaMelo Ball doing so in 2023.
The Hornets cannot afford to overplay their hand and use the threat of a shrinking market to leverage Bridges. While the Hornets have leverage now, that will not be the case if Bridges gets turned off by a hardline stand in the negotiations and asks out or does the unthinkable and signs the qualifying offer.
The Hornets are in a unique position because Washington deserves strong consideration for a new contract but is also one of the top players they could move in a trade to shake up the roster. Washington provides the Hornets with the ultimate insurance policy and has adapted to any role thrown at him.
He has gone from backing up Bridges and Mason Plumlee to being the starting power forward alongside Bridges because of the injury to Hayward.
After Feb. 15, when Washington was inserted into the starting lineup, the Hornets ranked 11th in defensive efficiency. Prior to that Charlotte was in the bottom 10.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Washington has held opponents to 42% shooting as the closest defender, the fifth-lowest percentage among players to defend 200 shots. For the entire season, he is one of three players to record 800 half-court matchup vs. guards, forwards and centers. The other two are Scottie Barnes and Robert Williams.
From a financial viewpoint, if Bridges signs a new contract, the Hornets project to have $100 million in salary in 2023. Add in the $17.4 million free agent hold of Washington and their 2022 first-round pick has Charlotte at the salary cap but well below the tax threshold.
Although Ball will be in the last year of his rookie contract and will see a substantial pay increase in 2024, the Hornets will offset the cost because of the $31.5 million salary of Hayward is set to expire.
Offseason cap breakdown
Charlotte has $93 million in guaranteed contracts, do not expect the Hornets to act as a room team this offseason. First, there is the $16.3 million free agent hold of Bridges that counts against the cap. Second, the $12 million and $9.1 million partially guaranteed contracts of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee are expected to be guaranteed in June. The $38 million in salary now has them right at the $121 million salary cap. The use of the full $10.3 million midlevel exception is dependent on the starting salary of Bridges.
Resources to build the roster
Own free agents: Miles Bridges and Montrezl Harrell
All-Star PG: LaMelo Ball
Draft: Lottery pick and two seconds
Tradable contracts: 10 players between $21.5 million to $1.8 million
Exceptions: $10.3 million midlevel and $4.1 million biannual
Cash: $6.3 million to send or receive in a trade
Dates to watch
June 21: Plumlee was acquired in a draft night trade and went on to start 63 games, averaging 6.6 points and eight rebounds. There is currently $4.3 million guaranteed of his $8.5 million salary with the balance becoming guaranteed if he is not waived by June 21. The salary for next season is below the average player salary and midlevel exception.
June 29: Charlotte has until June 29 to exercise the $1.9 million team option of Jalen McDaniels. The former second-round selection averaged 6 points and 3.2 rebounds in 16.9 minutes per game this season. If the Hornets pick up the option, McDaniels will become an unrestricted free agent in 2023. The contract also has an Aug. 1 guaranteed date if the option is exercised. If the option is declined, McDaniels will become a restricted free agent if Charlotte tenders him a $2.2 million qualifying offer by June 29.
June 29: The Hornets also have until June 29 to tender Cody Martin a $2.2 million qualifying offer. Martin is coming off a career year when he averaged 26.7 minutes and 7.9 points and shot 40% from 3. He started 11 games, averaging 36.8 minutes and 10.6 points.
June 30: The Hornets kept open their flexibility for 2023 when Oubre signed a two-year $24.6 million contract. Although this past season was fully guaranteed, only $5 million the $12.6 million owed for 2022-23 is protected. The remaining amount is guaranteed if he is on the roster past June 30. The forward averaged 15 points in 26.4 minutes this past season.
The $1.8 million contract of Nick Richards is non-guaranteed. The former second-round pick played in 46 games, averaging 7.7 minutes and 3.3 points. He scored a season-high 12 points in a December loss to Philadelphia.
Gordon Hayward has a 15% trade bonus in his contract. The bonus is valued at $9.2 million and is evenly split added to his $30.1 million and $31.5 million cap hit. The Hornets are responsible for paying the bonus.
Only the amount guaranteed for Plumlee ($4.3 million), Kelly Oubre Jr. ($5 million) and Richards ($0) can be counted as matching salary in a trade. Because Jalen McDaniels has a team option, he cannot be traded in a deal until his option is exercised. His matching salary counts as $0 until Aug. 1 when the contract becomes guaranteed.
The Hornets sent out a lottery-protected first to New York at last year’s draft. The first is now in the hands of the Hawks and because there is protection in the next three seasons (top 16 in 2023, top 14 in 2024 and 2025), Charlotte cannot trade a future first-round pick until two years after the first to Atlanta is conveyed.
Charlotte received $2 million from New Orleans as part of the Devonte Graham sign-and-trade deal. From now until June 30, the Hornets are restricted to receive no more than $3.78 million in a trade.
McDaniels is extension eligible but only if the team option in his contract is guaranteed and his salary for 2022-23 is guaranteed. McDaniels averaged a career high 26.3 minutes and 11 points in eight December games this season. The forward is eligible to receive up to four years and $61 million. He will become an unrestricted free agent next offseason.
Hayward, Plumlee and Richards also are extension eligible. It is unlikely any of the three players will receive a new deal.
The Hornets traded a 2022 conditional first to New York last July as part of the deal to acquire Kai Jones. The Knicks eventually sent the protected first to Atlanta as part of the Cam Reddish trade. Because the pick was top-18 protected this year, the Hornets will retain it. The first will now roll over to 2023 (top-16 protected) and is top-14 protected in 2024 and 2025 if not conveyed in any of the prior years. It will turn into 2026 and 2027 second-round picks if the Hawks do not receive it.
The Hornets acquired a top-14 protected first from New Orleans as part of the Devonte’ Graham sign-and-trade deal. If New Orleans advances out of the play-in tournament, they will receive it. If the Pelicans lose in the play-in tournament, Charlotte would get 2022 and 2024 second-round picks from New Orleans.
Here’s how ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz have Charlotte selecting in June:
No. 13 (own): Jeremy Sochan, PF, Baylor
Sochan has a chance to be an instant NBA contributor defensively as he’s comfortable switching out onto guards, tracking big wings and has at least shown the willingness to slide up to the small-ball 5. He doesn’t quite have the sheer reach and bounce to be a full-time protector at the 5, but the instincts are there (2.0 steals and 1.1 blocks per 40 minutes), and he’s a solid positional rebounder who gravitates toward the ball and isn’t afraid to mix it up in traffic. Being able to shift up to the 5 also makes him a far tougher cover offensively. — Schmitz
No. 41 (via NOP): Jake LaRavia, PF, Wake Forest
LaRavia is an easy fit at the highest level because of his versatility as a 6-8 modern 4. While Wake Forest isn’t exactly known for its defensive intensity, LaRavia can shift between 1 through 4 for stretches, sliding with guards and wings alike while using his solid frame to battle on the interior. He can stand to get a little tougher on the defensive glass, isn’t blessed with great length, and doesn’t quite project as a true defensive stopper, especially against NBA-caliber perimeter players. But he plays hard, has great instincts, and knows where to be off the ball, making him a value-add on the defensive end of the floor, even in the NBA. — Schmitz
No. 44 (own): Dalen Terry, PG/SG, Arizona