Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 21
Last Season: 36-46
Notable Additions: Miles Bridges (draft-night trade), Tony Parker (free agency), Bismack Biyombo (trade), Devonte’ Graham (draft-night trade)
Notable Subtractions: Dwight Howard (trade), Michael Carter-Williams (free agency)
Vegas Over/Under: 35.5
Team MVP: Kemba Walker
Best-Case Scenario: For the first time since its seven-game first-round series against the Miami Heat in 2016, the franchise takes a concrete step forward just in time to re-sign Walker next summer.
For the past few seasons, Charlotte has been floating in a space between good and bad, competent and inadequate, hopeful and hopeless. It’s as if the entire Eastern Conference arrived at a fork in the road, and every team were forced to choose between racing for pole position in the wake of LeBron James’s departure or sitting out the next couple of years to rebuild. Only the Hornets (and perhaps the Heat and Pistons) remain in the dust kicked up by the teams already on their way. It’s hard to care about or keep up with a group that’s perpetually on the outside of the playoff race looking in, even one with an All-Star point guard. Slowly but surely, though, Charlotte is showing signs of change. Mitch Kupchak was hired to run the front office; Kupchak hired former Spurs assistant James Borrego to take over for Steve Clifford as head coach; Borrego, if all goes to plan, will overhaul the entire system.
Outside of point guard, every starting position is up in the air. “We’ve got one All-Star,” Kupchak said last week, “and a whole lot of players who are going to have to find their way or separate themselves in training camp.” Everyone has something to prove this season. Walker is on a contract year. After bombing his rookie season, Malik Monk is out for redemption. Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb (also a free agent this summer), and Dwayne Bacon are all fighting for time at the wing. Frank Kaminsky is approaching restricted free agency. Borrego is a first-time head coach. Kupchak, the longtime Lakers GM, is trying to show he’s still got it.
High stakes are necessary to break a team out of limbo. So is bringing the offense into the modern era, which is where Borrego comes in. He plans to focus on increasing ball movement (and getting players to make quicker decisions in general), keeping a high pace, and taking advantage of opportunities in transition. If he’s lucky, the winning culture that’s escaped the Hornets for so long will follow. Parker, their most important offseason addition at the age of 36, tagged along with his former Spurs assistant coach to add stability and depth in a crowd full of maybes. There are enough stray pieces on the roster for Borrego to tinker with to create a better environment for Walker to thrive in. Shaping the team around the 28-year-old is his only option, but it’s also a leap of faith. Walker could sign elsewhere after eight seasons with the franchise (and likely only two trips to the playoffs), ripping the stitches out of Borrego’s patchwork. Kupchak might not be willing to take the gamble. A midseason trade is the actual best-case scenario for the team if Walker were to decide to walk away. It could set Charlotte up with options in the future and prevent its usual habit of getting left behind.
Worst-Case Scenario: The needle doesn’t budge one way or the other. For the third straight season.
Borrego has a low bar to clear in terms of guiding the team through a “successful” season. This is a franchise that can define “success” over the past 14 seasons as having the opportunity to lose to a Florida team in the first round of the playoffs. All Borrego has to do in Year 1 is show any indication that things are moving in a new direction. (Of course, real success would include a playoff berth—and perhaps making it past the first round for the first time in 17 years.) But all the front-office window dressing won’t make up for the roster Borrego has to work with.
Replacing Howard around the rim won’t be easy. (Though, as usual, many were happy to see him go, and Dwight’s insistence on playing with his back to the basket would only slow down Borrego’s mission.) For all of Howard’s flaws, he was at least consistent, something that can’t be said for the rest of the Hornets’ frontcourt rotation. Cody Zeller is a liability to stay on the court; he played only 33 games last season because of a knee injury. If the Hornets go small with Kaminsky at center, they will risk forgoing rim protection altogether. (The same is true, to a lesser degree, with Willy Hernangomez, who, to his credit, showed out in summer league.) Biyombo was acquired in an offseason carousel that saw the Hornets trade Howard for Timofey Mozgov, who was then flipped for their once-and-future Congolese enforcer (considering each player’s talent-to-contract ratio, it was a lot like trading in a 1995 Honda Accord for a same-year Toyota Camry). Biyombo returns to his first team wiser (and much, much richer). His defense has improved since they were last together; his offense hasn’t.
Walker is the only player locked into a starting position because he’s the only player who has made the most of his potential. The rest—even those with star upside, like Monk—need heavy development to break through Charlotte’s ceiling. Borrego’s m.o., like any new coach, is making the most of what he has right now. “The long term isn’t really my job,” he said earlier this month. “My job is to go after this thing, to maximize the season and go try to win every game possible.” Borrego noted that there would be plenty of opportunity through 82 games to put Monk in the rotation and “to play Bridges on a night after he sat four in a row,” but also stressed the importance of the G League. Borrego, like his team in general, will be asked to balance development with cold, hard results. Charlotte’s crop of young players likely won’t help immediately, but at some point Borrego will have to prioritize their future ahead of what wins he can cobble together this season. They’re the agents of change (along with Borrego himself) that Charlotte needs to eventually break out of its funk. It’s reasonable to expect that Monk, Bridges, and Graham won’t be ready this season. But along with that comes the knowledge that the Hornets won’t be, either.
TL;DR: Charlotte’s offseason front office changes alone have already pumped more oxygen into the Hornets than anything had in years—but it might not hit the bloodstream in time to re-sign Walker.