It’s time for the Charlotte Hornets to face the music. The teal and purple have seemingly lost their defensive identity that was the trademark of last year’s surprising team, seem disorganized too frequently on the offensive end and lack a consistent number two scorer behind Kemba Walker. The result is a sub-500 record for a Hornets squad clinging to the last playoff seed in the middling Eastern Conference.
The Hornets have dropped 11 of their last 15 and appear destined to be paying closer attention to ping pong balls this Spring than basketballs. If Charlotte does indeed land in the draft lottery again, it would all but confirm last year’s four-way tie for third in the East was a fluke. After all, it would be the Hornets’ tenth appearance at the lottery in the last 13 years, a period that included a shuffling of six head coaches.
Speaking of coaches, current coach Steve Clifford has his guys sitting at 23-25, the exact same mark they donned a year ago at this time. The caveat here is that after Charlotte lost at Portland January 29 of 2016, they went on an absolute tear, winning 15 of their next 18. To expect a replication of this incredible midseason turnaround this year is naïve and foolish, especially considering the formidable upcoming slate of opponents (POR, GS, UTAH). Oh, and don’t forget about that 7-game roadie starting in mid-February either. Let’s just say the Hornets have their hands full.
So, how’d we get here? Why haven’t the Hornets taken the next step and who is at fault? If you’re as exasperated as I am with the perpetual mediocrity on display at the Spectrum Center, then look no further than the Hornets brass: General Manager Rich Cho and Assistant GM Chad Buchanan.
If we’re going to use words like “depth” and “talent” to document the dire straits of this Hornets team, then we need not look further than the dudes in charge of acquiring “depth” and “talent”. A graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law, general manager Rich Cho is definitely an intelligent guy. Given his extensive law and mathematics background, many believe he is at his best negotiating contracts and interpreting the NBA’s intricate collective bargaining agreement. Cho has appeared quite savvy on the trade front as well, including his swaps for Nicolas Batum and Courtney Lee most recently.
But the draft has ultimately been a different story. In 2012, Cho opted for athletic Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist over rising stars Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond. MKG may indeed be a star one day, but at present he is a sturdy defender with a shaky shot, who also struggles to stay healthy. Only time will tell if he is worthy of the number two pick, but in hindsight the decision seems precarious at best.
Then in 2013 the Hornets brass, led by Cho, selected First Team All-Big Ten forward Cody Zeller at fourth overall. Though Zeller has been a consistent contributor and an all-around hustle guy, many argue CJ McCollum would have been the preferred choice for a team so desperately lacking a secondary scoring option. Also, don’t forget about the Greek guy taken at 15 overall (though, to be fair, nobody saw this coming).
If the condemnation of Rich Cho and the Hornets brass was a trial in the Supreme Court, then the selection of Frank Kaminsky in 2015 would be Exhibit A. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Kaminsky and think he will be a valuable floor-stretching big for years to come. But the issue here is the trade-off in selecting the Wisconsin product at 9th overall. Justise Winslow, chosen by the Miami Heat at 10th, looks like an all-around stud in the making, despite an injury plagued sophomore season. Then at 13, the Phoenix Suns landed Devin Booker, a 20-year-old scoring machine who was born to get buckets. (Did I mention the Hornets need a second scoring option?)
When the dust settles, Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller embody what is currently wrong with the Charlotte Hornets. On draft night, they were the safest picks – proven big men who won a lot at marquee collegiate programs. Charlotte continues to play it safe in the draft, and it has resulted in a bottleneck of modestly-talented guys whose game doesn’t translate smoothly to the modern NBA. It’s time for a change in how the Hornets approach the draft, and perhaps a change to who is making the picks altogether.
Christopher Kreider | @krydr1