The Charlotte Hornets ride a specific set of principles into battle every night. They abandon second-chance opportunities to hustle back in transition, lord over the defensive glass, and take care of the ball. It was this discipline that helped them burst into the upper middle class of the Eastern Conference last season with 48 wins.
But sound strategy only gets a team so far without top-tier talent to back it up. While Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are both having career seasons, neither is in the league's top five at his position, and the Hornets won't be acquiring a top-20 player anytime soon. Meanwhile, they're struggling. The last time they beat a team not named the Brooklyn Nets was way back on January 20, a blowout of the Toronto Raptors. They're 1-10 in their last 11 games and wouldn't qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today.
In fact, you could argue that no team stands further away from the Larry O'Brien trophy right now—not the New York Knicks, not the Sacramento Kings, not even the Nets.
It isn't that the Hornets are a bad team or that their coaching staff is incompetent. Instead, Charlotte's recent string of awfulness shines a light on the larger mistakes of their front office. It's important to acknowledge that not every organization wants to win a championship—some view a consistent playoff ticket as more valuable than high-variance fluctuations that make legitimate runs for the crown possible. The Hornets aren't the only franchise that recently decided to step on the NBA treadmill of mediocrity, but they might be the only one that can't get off.
Charlotte is in a much worse position than, say, the Indiana Pacers or the Chicago Bulls, two teams that can either cash out on their franchise player and rebuild from the ground up, or catch a lucky break and add another All-Star to the one they already have.
The Hornets don't have a Jimmy Butler or a Paul George. Walker is a deserving All-Star, and his net impact on the Hornets has more than doubled since last season (from +4.3 points per 100 possessions to +11.0, per Basketball-Reference), but his position is too deep to command much market value. Batum is quietly having the best all-around year of his career, but he's also 28 years old and his contract doesn't expire until 2020 (with a $27.1 million player option in 2021).
No one else on the roster is coveted elsewhere in the league, and Charlotte isn't exactly a free-agent destination. Even if they were, the Hornets probably won't have the money: After inexplicably trading Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert to Milwaukee for Miles Plumlee, the owner of a top-five terrible contract, Charlotte is likely capped out for the next two summers.
As for the draft, there's not much hope there, either. Charlotte's picks aren't that valuable because they aren't bad enough to make the lottery, and they don't have anyone else's. The opportunity to draft a blue-chip prospect who can alter the course of this team has come and gone.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Frank Kaminsky were supposed to be those guys, but MKG is launching way too many jumpers and struggling to finish in the paint, while the nearly 24-year-old Kaminsky has yet to find his footing as a dependable contributor at the NBA level. The latter in particular is a modern basketball tragedy: Charlotte selected Kaminsky ninth overall, ahead of Justise Winslow, Myles Turner, and Devin Booker, and at the same time reportedly turning down the small treasure chest Boston would have offered for the pick. It's easy to imagine an alternate universe where the Hornets made that deal with the Celtics and lived happily ever after. Instead, Kaminsky is in Charlotte, and it's a huge reason why the Hornets are where they are.
Kaminsky is ostensibly a pick-and-roll threat whose outside shot can force a defense into uncomfortable decisions, but opposing teams don't seem to care how open he is on pops behind the three-point line, and bigs don't have much trouble recovering back to stop him on hopeless dives to the rim. Most of the time, he either turns it over or forces a tough shot outside the restricted area.
This isn't all Kaminsky's fault (and to be fair, Walker has been far more efficient with him on the floor this season). Charlotte's struggles also stem from a deteriorating three-point defense that surrenders 31.3 attempts per game, a 23.3 percent increase that currently leads the league. Health issues have been a factor, too—Cody Zeller injured his quad, and the Hornets are 2-14 when he doesn't play. Once he returns, they could bounce back into playoff contention.
Still, making the postseason doesn't make Charlotte a great team. Add it all up and what we now have is a franchise that lacks any conceivable path to the Finals. This year and next are definitely out of the question, and good luck in 2019, when Kaminsky, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Walker are all up for new contracts. A full-on tank job is hard to sell to fans who just five years ago watched this team lose out on the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but at least that would push the Hornets off the treadmill. As it stands now, the team is stuck. Greatness is out of reach and there's no rational reason to believe that can change—something that should be more worrisome to this front office.
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