The 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets were 54-28. To date, it’s the best single-season record in franchise history. Unfortunately, it resulted in an unimpressive 4th place finish in the Central Division, a playoff 6-seed and ultimately, a first round sweep courtesy of the New York Knicks. The narrative is telling. Try as they might, the Hornets have never escaped the mediocrity that defines their 27-year history and it appears the foreseeable future will yield similar results.
Part of the problem is owner, Michael Jordan, and his nepotistic hiring history. A list of current and former basketball-related employees is a who’s who of Jordan’s family and friends, including Curtis Polk (Current Vice Chairman), Buzz Peterson (Current Assistant GM), Rod Higgins (Former President of Basketball Operations) and Dickey Simpkins (Current Scout). Jordan’s two brothers, James and Larry, and his daughter, Jasmine, also hold current positions in the Hornets’ front office.
In 2011, problems with this internal structure surfaced in the form of a “contentious environment” between Rod Higgins and GM, Rich Cho. Jordan’s decision to give Cho more power resulted in Higgins’ departure. What followed was the worst season in Charlotte’s history, an embarrassing 7-59 finish.
Since then, Cho has “rebuilt” the Hornets, returning the team to its former level of mediocrity consistent with their history.
|Table 1. Hornets’ Recent Versus Historical Success|
The problem in Charlotte is the baseline that was set at the beginning of Cho’s tenure. Compared to a 7-59 record, almost any result classifies as forward progress. In reality, the Hornets have oscillated around .500, the worst possible place for a team looking to transition from rebuilding to contending. The Hornets are basically caught in NBA no man’s land.
In turn, they’ve been rewarded with no pick higher than ninth since 2013. This may result in serviceable players like Frank Kaminsky, but serviceable does not make a contender. Combine this with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller being chosen with the highest picks (2 and 4, respectively) Charlotte has had since their epic Adam Morrison failure in 2006 and it’s easy to see why the struggle to ascend the Eastern Conference ranks continues.
Free agency has only further complicated things. Their lone 2017 pick up, Michael Carter-Williams, hardly makes sense for a team in dire need of a backup PG that can keep the offense humming in Kemba Walker’s absence. According to nbawowy.com, the Hornets had an offensive rating of 113 with Kemba and 103 without him in 2016-17. Meanwhile, Carter-Williams had an Offensive Box Plus Minus* of -4.1, 4th worst among PGs who logged at least 750 minutes. * (Offensive Box Plus Minus is a box score estimate of the offensive points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a league-average player.)
In 2016, the Hornets free agency solutions consisted of overpaying Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, while taking fliers on Roy Hibbert, Brian Roberts and Ramon Sessions. The latter three contributed a lowly combination of 2.9 Win Shares in 16-17 while both Batum and Williams ranked in the bottom half of their respective position’s True Value Rankings* on spotrac.com. * (According to spotrac.com, True Value Rankings are a mathematical comparison of a player’s current salary against their cumulative “production points”.)
And then there’s the revolving door of centers. A combination of young, unfulfilled potential and aging, tapped out veterans, fill the roster. The recent Dwight Howard acquisition is no exception to the rule. With a 2016-17 defensive resurgence in Atlanta, Charlotte thinks they have something. The first problem is Howard turns 32 in December. The second problem is he’s proved himself a traveling circus more concerned with his personal brand than winning basketball games. Apparently, the Hornets have a short memory when it comes to quality character and didn’t learn from their 2014-15 Lance Stephenson experience.
At the end of the day, Charlotte just can’t seem to get out of their own way and with very little cap flexibility in the next two years their immediate options are limited. Hopeful optimism is tempered by the reality they face; the Hornets are what they are, and have been, for quite some time now: The very definition of NBA mediocrity.
photo via llananba