A Commitment to Relevance | Baseline 2017 Hornets Offseason Preview

Rich Cho - Baseline 2017 Offseason Preview


Sometime around mid-afternoon on June 22nd, 2011, Charlotte Bobcats newly crowned general manager Rich Cho made his first significant roster move with the franchise.

Cho managed to contrive a scenario in which Charlotte moved up from the 19th to the 7th pick for the measly price of a disgruntled Stephen Jackson*. That’s twelve spots in a good Draft for essentially nothing.

The trade was a high level front office negotiation Charlotte fans were unfamiliar with since the days of Bob Bass. What Cho ended up doing with the fruits of his victory would exemplify the next half decade of his tenure.


Flash forward six years and the Hornets are stuck in the NBA’s middle. Pundits on either side of Team Tank have seen this coming for years. The franchise is consistently too good to finish in the league’s Lottery basement and not good enough to do significant damage in the postseason. Their Drafting strategy of hitting singles and doubles prevent the strikeouts of the past (Adam Morrison) but also eliminates any chance of unearthing the next Greek Freak mid-round.

Charlotte’s roster is stacked with high character guys on guaranteed contracts that range from veteran bargains (Kemba) to slightly above going rate (Batum). No All-Stars on Rookie scale wages, no albatross 35 year olds on max deals. Again, right down the middle. Vanilla.

In an era of extremes, many fans hate this. If you’re not going to be the best, you need to be the worst and hoard draft picks like a prepper fresh off an Infowars binge.

But as we’ve seen with the Suns, Sixers and Magic – three teams that have committed to “The Process” much longer than Charlotte’s single tank season of 2011-2012 – this path is extremely taxing. Longterm tanking shakes a franchise to its very core and the architects in charge rarely survive to see the payoffs (if there are any).

Charlotte never really had a choice in the matter. The city is on its second NBA marriage. Unlike the first, this one had been bad from the start. There was no love affair. No passion. No “good times” to fall back on. They were single, we were single, it looked good on paper. The Bobcats were a disaster from the jump.

The franchise took a sober look at their situation and picked the only direction that offered any reasonable hope of success. Relevance may not be the storybook ending sports fans dream of but it’s a hell of an upgrade from the embarrassment of an eventual second relocation.


It’s important to remember that the 2016-2017 season was disappointing precisely because the team had such high expectations going into it. Any longtime fan of the franchise understands that this was a foreign concept to all involved.

For a decade the only thing one could realistically expect from the Bobcats was to be slightly less bad than the year before. Suddenly, the Hornets were a roster full of competent NBA players on the verge of breaking through 50 wins and making it past the first round of the postseason.

None of that happened and we were all let down by a season of nagging injuries, depth disasters and late game giveaways. Now that the pain has had a chance to wear off, it’s important to remember that the reasons many of us were so high on Charlotte last fall remain intact today.

The Hornets starting five were fantastic whenever they were healthy enough to play together (depending on how you sort, the starters had somewhere between a Top 5 and Top 11 net rating in the entire league) and are all locked up to relatively reasonable longterm deals. The team’s coach is well-respected throughout the league and is entering his fifth consecutive season with the team (a feat only one other Charlotte NBA coach has achieved in nearly 30 years).

The Hornets don’t owe any future first round picks and, aside from a very questionable midseason trade for Miles Plumlee, have rather clean-looking books going forward.

Let’s breakdown the primary culprits for Charlotte’s 2016-2017 swoon:

  1. Health
  2. Depth
  3. Inability to Close Games

A roster can overcome nagging injuries with depth and overcome depth limitations with a healthy core. A roster cannot overcome both simultaneously.

Last season’s enormous cap spike combined with Charlotte’s plethora of unrestricted free agents left Cho searching the clearance aisle to find replacements for Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson. He found mostly junk.

Roy Hibbert, either through injury or play style, just couldn’t give Cliff what he needed from a backup five every night. Ramon Sessionsthree-point aberration in Washington proved just that. Marco Belinelli was the best of the bunch but his defensive limitations (combined with the team’s lack of rim protection) overshadowed some truly special offensive performances.

There’s also the fact that each of the departing rotation players (Big Al, Lee and J-Lin) could be counted on to give you late game buckets that Charlotte was desperate for all season.

From CBS Sports – “(the Hornets) were 8-14 in games decided by five points or less, lost all six of their overtime games and went 0-9 in games decided by three or less points, which is the worst record in such games in NBA history.”

And even though Cho faces less unrestricted free agent chaos this summer, the front office is armed with precious few ways to resolve the team’s lingering depth and scoring issues.


When the 7th pick was announced back in 2011, it marked the last time Charlotte swung for the fences in the Draft.

The story goes that Cho had scouted Bismack Biyombo extensively for years, well before Biz’s Nike Hoops Summit explosion that put him on the rest of the league’s radar. Having previously worked under Sam Presti in Seattle and OKC, Cho saw his own version of Serge Ibaka right in front of him; a shot-blocking centerpiece to anchor a defense around.

Never mind that Biyombo had few professional basketball skills. Never mind that Biyombo could barely catch a pass much less rain down corner threes like his Congo counterpart in Oklahoma. Cho was dialed in on this 19** year old’s potential.

Had Cho drafted either Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson with that pick (both players were Lottery projected and the ‘Cats needed a wing after trading both Jackson and Gerald Wallace in the previous six months), his legacy would be cemented as Greatest GM in Charlotte NBA history and he’d widely be considered one of the league’s best GMs today.

Instead, Cho’s Bismack Myopia – coupled with a few ping-pong balls the following June – cemented Charlotte’s middle of the pack future and overshadows his otherwise solid reputation amongst fans to this day.

The Biyombo legacy continues to shape the team’s guiding Draft philosophy. Drafting “busts” is simply not an option in the QC; the Hornets have made getting longterm contributions from top picks their utmost priority.

With the exception of Biyombo, every Lottery selection the team has made since 2011 has signed an extension with the team. The player who would’ve been eligible for an early extension this summer, Noah Vonleh, was traded for a key vet (Batum) who signed a new five year deal last July.

In brief, the team has made a commitment to extract longterm value out of their Lottery selections and this longterm value trumps any and everything else – including gambling on high risk/high reward projects.

And really, can you blame Charlotte for implementing this strategy? Between 2004 and 2011, the Bobcats owned seven Lottery picks. Just two of those picks signed extensions with the team after their rookie deals (Emeka Okafor, Gerald Henderson) and the rest either walked or were traded for nothing of longterm value (we can debate the Brandon Wright > J-Rich > Diaw/Bell swap another time).

Additionally, Michael Jordan’s own Draft trauma serves to only further cement the team’s conservative approach. After Kwame and AMMO, it’s doubtful the G.O.A.T. has it in him for another decade of Crying MJ memes mocking his talent evaluation.

HORNETS 2017 Draft Options

All of this points us in a likely direction for the Hornets to take in June. We know that they crave certainty, we know that they prioritize character, big collegiate program experience and are not above drafting for need. We know that Coach Clifford has at least some minor input into the process.

Couple all this with Charlotte’s cap constrictions and it leads me to believe that if they keep the pick, the Hornets will be motivated to land a guy who has a shot at making Cliff’s rotation as soon as possible.

And thus the dilemma. Two of the top players projected to be around when the Hornets pick at 11 are not rotation ready: Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and Strasbourg’s (France) Frank Ntilikina.

Collins flashes truly incredible skill for a seven footer but needs time to develop both physically and mentally on the court. Zach would also be the third 7 foot white guy Drafted by Charlotte in their previous four Lotteries. Does that mean anything on the court? Other than positional redundancy, no. But optics matter and I’m sure the organization has at least considered the negative fan response.

Ntilikina offers his own challenges. Aside from having many of the same developmental requirements as Collins, French Frank is a primary ball handler prone to Cliff’s least favorite hoops sin: unforced turnovers. The safe money is on Frank investing the first half of his rookie campaign in Greensboro.

Still, Ntilikina is in many ways the team’s best shot at nabbing a potential superstar at a position of need. Six-five point guards with 7 foot wingspans are the rarest of talents, especially those who can shoot, defend and are blessed with lead guard court vision.

Given their pasts, will Cho and MJ gamble on a high upside developmental pick? Or will they continue to play it safe? If they are bold, my prediction is that it’ll either be Ntilikina or Collins.

But if the franchise stays true to form and tries to find a rotation ready, “sure-thing”, I’d rank the rest of their Draft board in the following order:

  1. Donovan Mitchell, Combo Guard | Louisville
  2. Luke Kennard, Wing | Duke
  3. Justin Jackson, Wing | UNC
  4. Ike Anigbogu, C | UCLA

Of the four, I like Mitchell most. He’s a combo guard who can shoot and has the physical profile (6’10” wingspan, thick 215lb body) to finish at the rim and fight through screens. Donovan could play spot minutes at the one next to Batum when Kemba sits and alongside Walker when Cliff plays two points in the backcourt. Donovan also comes across as a very smart, grounded kid in interviews.

Shooting is why the team could go with a locally-sourced wing (Jackson/Kennard). I initially had them rated equally but as I watch them more, Kennard seems the better pro prospect. Luke is a year younger with a much faster, more consistent stroke over his career. He has very good court vision for his size and his ability to shoot, create off the dribble and move the ball with purpose make him an intriguing offensive prospect. But he comes with major defensive limitations; similar to Frank Kaminsky, opposing players simply go through him.

Jackson has better length and (theoretic) defensive potential but turned 22 in March – how much upside is left? Justin’s release is much slower, less consistent and his floor game (aside from a deadly, ridiculously beautiful looking floater) is behind Kennard’s.

Neither wing screams star but they’d have a chance to crack the rotation by at least the following season, when Marco Belinelli’s contract expires. The league has a wing deficit overall (see KCP and Otto Porter’s inevitable max contracts this summer) and Drafting even a middling talent could be one of the few ways of getting one on the cheap.

If the team decides to go with Anigbogu, I’d be a little surprised. The kid obviously has the potential to be a defensive beast – think Ian Mahimni or Hassan Whiteside without the baggage – but he’s got more than just a little Biyombo to his game and I can’t imagine Cho and Clifford going back to that well again unless they are certain he can become at least an average offensive player for his position.


Before we get into free agency or potential trade targets, let’s review Charlotte’s depth chart:

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions (TO), Briante Weber (TO)
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli
  • SF: MKG, Jeremy Lamb
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant (TO)
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee
    (TO = Team Option)

The bench has two primary issues to be remedied and one secondary. First, Marco Belinelli and Jeremy Lamb are largely redundant. Both are strictly twos and neither have the physical profile or defensive ability to guard potent, big wings like Paul George or Jimmy Butler should either Nic or MKG miss time or need a rest. Adding a backup wing with decent size is a major priority. Preferably one who can score. More on this later.

The other primary bench issue is at backup point. Hornets fans were spoiled a season ago when the team had a starting caliber lead guard as a backup. Jeremy Lin was more or less the prototypical backup to Kemba: big enough to play alongside Walker, good enough to start when Kemba was hurt and smart enough at both ends of the court that Cliff trusted him to close games. Few of those things could be said about his replacement.

I asked hoops stat savant and friend of the Baseline, Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird – a MUST Twitter follow for Hornets fans) to give me a stat or two that reflects why Ramon Sessions was either under-appreciated or rightfully maligned by fans. Here’s what he sent me:

(if numbers hurt your brain, jump to my summary)

Geisinger on Sessions: The Bad

Ramon’s shooting declined at all levels, including important areas for a guard who made a name for himself as a driver: restricted area (48.9 FG%), inside 10 feet (44.2 FG%), and attempts after 3-6 dribbles (31.3 FG%).

His field goal percentage on drives dropped from 46.6 FG% to 38.3 FG%; his field goal percentage on pull-ups dropped, too, from 39 FG% to 32.9%

FT rate dropped from 47.8% to 44.9%, and so too did his FTA per 100 possessions — from 8.3 to 7.3.

When looking at two-man lineup combinations, Sessions had a positive point differential with only one other player: 13 minutes with Brian Roberts. In those minutes, which occurred in garbage time, Charlotte still scored fewer than 1 point per possession.

They did score well with he and Kemba on the floor, though: 116.7 points per 100 possessions (121 minutes). But they still had a negative point differential.

Sesh was just one of just six guys in the NBA this season with more than 800 minutes, a usage rate above 20%, BPM below -3, and a FG% less than 40% (it’s not good company).

(*All of these season comparisons are from 2015-16 to 2016-17. That doesn’t really do Ramon too many favors, because 15-16 was the best season he had in years. The drops wouldn’t be quite as jarring if looking at 14-15 or 13-14.)

Geisinger on Sessions: The Good

Pick-and-roll shooting dropped from 43 FG% to 36.8 FG%, and he dropped from the 74th percentile in PNR efficiency to the 59th percentile. But he still scored 0.82 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, which is pretty good. He drew a shooting foul on 17.8% of these possessions — good for the fifth best rate in the NBA amongst players with at least 150 PNR possessions.

Now back to the studio. Thanks Brian!

In summary, Sesh regressed beyond even Bobcat Ramon levels and was a slightly below average backup point when he was healthy. The Hornets hold a team option for $6.3m next season and it seems inevitable that they’ll decline it, right?…Right?


As I mentioned before, Cho has done a nice job of locking in a quality starting five. That’s the good news. The bad news is that after the midseason addition of Plumlee, the team is effectively capped out.

Baseline Hornets Salaries May 7 2017

Once Charlotte signs their Lottery pick and exercises team options on Briante Weber and Johnny O’Bryant (both expected), they’ll be around $6 million over the league’s $102 million salary cap.

Add in a full Midlevel offer (which jumps to $8.4 million starting salary this season) and you’re up to $110 million. Pickup Ramon’s team option and you’re at $123 million. The Luxury Tax is $121 million. No, the 36-win Charlotte Hornets are not paying the Luxury Tax.

This would seem to only reinforce Charlotte’s motivation to decline Sesh’s team option, right? RIGHT?!!! (C’MON!!! FOR THE LOVE OF-)

Hey kids! Here’s an exercise you can try at home today: head over to Hoopshype’s free agent page and check out July’s available point guards. Now filter out all the ones who would laugh at the Midlevel Exception. Now sort for fit, experience, cost to value ratio, etc. Here’s what I ended up with:

BASELINE FA PGS: Darren Collison (Full Midlevel), Yogi Ferrell (Restricted, Full Midlevel), Michael Carter-Williams (Restricted, Partial Midlevel or Biannual), Langston Galloway (Partial Midlevel or Biannual), Raymond Felton (Vet Minimum)

BARF. Other than Collison and Ferrell (the Mavs would match that offer in a microsecond), do we know that any of these guys are definitively better options than Ramon? I don’t. Nor would I feel comfortable offering Collison, MCW or Galloway longterm contracts.

If Charlotte is going to upgrade their backup point guard situation it will need to happen via the Draft (Mitchell, Ntilikina or trade up for NC State’s Dennis Smith) or via the trade market. If they can’t find an upgrade via either route, don’t be surprised if Ramon’s option is picked up for next season (No…no…NOOOOO!!!!).


The same Hoopshype > Filter/Sort > Vomit experiment can shed some light on the confusing Plumlee trade as well. Have a look at the following MLE or below centers available this summer:

BASELINE FA BIGS: JaMychal Green, Cristiano Felicio, Alex Len.

Some decent intrigue there to be sure. And yeah, maybe one of them would take the midlevel. Here’s the problem, all three are restricted free agents so, aside from maybe Len, the chances of them actually landing on Charlotte’s roster is slim to none. Sure, there’s always a chance the unrestricted big market peters out and someone like Amir Johnson would take $8m a year but sometimes it peters out and you’re left with Roy Hibbert.

Cho*** likely saw the upcoming big crop, looked at the team’s lack of cap flexibility and decided that it was better to give it a go with Miles. I still hate the trade (especially with Plumlee’s subsequent calf strain and knee surgery) but at least this shows that there was some thought process behind it however flawed.


If the Hornets do use their midlevel this July, expect it to be on a wing. Once you calculate year to year raises, the new, full MLE will be around 4yrs, $37m. Hardly the sort of windfall guys like Allen Crabbe saw last year but with the cap plateauing, it’s feasible that a decent young veteran could lock in to this type of deal.

BASELINE FA WINGS: Ben McLemore (Restricted), Ian Clark (Unrestricted), Shabazz Muhammad (Restricted)****

The above list is essentially a “Second Draft” – young vets coming off rookie contracts who may have some untapped potential to mine. Clark has had some big scoring games with the Warriors but did not receive a qualifying offer from Golden State and one wonders whether or not his limited success was due to the organization or the player (AKA The Ezeli Effect).

McLemore has long been rumored as a potential Hornet trade target and it’s doubtful the Kings would be motivated to bring him back now that Buddy Hield has become their single building block of note.

Of the three, I like Muhammad the best. While he’s nothing like a lockdown defender, he’s strong enough to make big wings work and could offer Charlotte a valuable scoring presence off the bench (think Rudy Gay or a wing version of Big Al). Shabazz is still just 24 and the Wolves upcoming salary situation point to them not matching any offer sheet.

If the team decides to go with a more established wing via the MLE, I could see guys like Thabo Sefolosha or CJ Miles getting a call from the 704.


Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. Longtime readers will know that Bobcats Baseline Fake Trades used to be a near monthly fetish of mine. Lemme shake off the rust and see if I still got any game left…

Miles Plumlee for Brandon Knight

The first of three “Dump Plumlee” scenarios, this one exchanging one crappy contract with another. Charlotte looks at the Draft and decides that they like Collins, Anigbogu or either of the wings more than the PGs.

Knight is still just 26 and could turn it around under Cliff. If Phoenix decides to let Alex Len walk, Plumlee’s second tour in the Valley of the Sun could fill a need behind the aging Tyson Chandler and shed some cash off the Suns’ books in each of the next three seasons.

Miles Plumlee, Jeremy Lamb + Protected 2018 First Rounder for Brook Lopez

Not sure if you’ve heard but the Nets are really bad and don’t have any Draft picks. Getting a Top 10 Protected 1st for Brook (who has just one more year left on his contract) would seem like a decent value at this point for the former All-Star center.

There are risks: Lopez turns 30 next April and foot injuries cost him a couple of seasons earlier in his career. His next contract is certain to be pricey.

But the trade could also work out wonderfully. Charlotte has long needed a second primary scorer to pair with Kemba and Brook has transformed himself into a three zone threat. Lopez connected on 134 three pointers this past season and his stroke passes the eye test.

A Lopez/Zeller platoon would give Clifford a ton of flexibility and variety at the five. If the Hornets are committed to being good now (more on this later), then making this type of splash could be their best bet.

Miles Plumlee + Protected 2018 First Rounder for Jeremy Lin

Don’t like Lopez? Miss J-Lin? Why not?

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for Courtney Lee

Let’s bring the band back together! Hell, if Josh McRoberts declines his player option maybe we can… (OK, I’m just trolling now)


Let’s take a break from the fake trades for a moment and focus on The MKG Situation. I’ll say this first, I have no idea what Kidd-Gilchrist’s value is – either to the Hornets or to the rest of the league. A wing who can’t (and won’t) stretch the floor in the modern NBA is offensive kryptonite. That kind of player has to be so special that you’d be willing to shoehorn an entire roster around them and MKG is no superstar.

He’s never lived up to the lockdown defender reputation he had out of Kentucky and the progress he made with his stroke under former assistant coach Mark Price has mostly regressed. Kidd-Gilchrist’s skillset is more suited for power forward in the modern game but his frame doesn’t seem like the kind that could put on the required mass to take a beating every night. Five seasons into his career, MKG is rarely on the floor to close games due to his offensive limitations.

All that said, we’re talking about a guy who doesn’t turn 24 until September (yeah, that freaks me out too). A player who is likely a top three rebounder at his position in the league. A player whose intangibles remain off the charts. And a player who is 1/5th of that very good starting five.

Who knows? Maybe MKG is a late bloomer? Gerald Wallace was well into his mid-twenties before he learned how to shoot threes. That’s the rosy scenario. Or maybe MKG is Jeff Green, a well-liked, talented Lotto pick who is destined to never find his place in the modern pro game.

Ok, one more fake trade and then we’ll wrap.

Frank Kaminsky + Jeremy Lamb for Jahlil Okafor

A 2015 Draft do-over. The Sixers need to surround Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with shooting and the Hornets need volume scoring off the bench.

Having engineered a Top 10 defense around Big Al for three years, Steve Clifford could work his magic and turn Okafor’s career around in the process. Charlotte would also shave off around $4.3 million in salary in this scenario.


Given everything above, let’s outline a few potential depth charts to start next season:


  • PG: Kemba Walker, Briante Weber, Frank Ntilikina (or Donovan Mitchell)
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Shabazz Muhammad
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee


  • PG: Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Briante Weber
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Shabazz Muhammad
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Zach Collins (or Ike Anigbogu)


  • PG: Kemba Walker, Darren Collison, Briante Weber
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Luke Kennard (or Justin Jackson)
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee

If Charlotte trades for a center (Lopez or Okafor), Depth Charts A and C stay mostly the same with Cody sliding back to the second unit for Brook and starting over Jahlil.

I can see the tweets now: “that roster ain’t gonna win sh$t, Cavs gonna destroy Bobcats HAHA MJ IS TRASH!!!”

Yes. There is little chance that this collection of talent will challenge the Warriors or Cavs – which places them in the exact situation as 27 other teams.

In the meantime, it would be an amazing feat for the organization to win 50 games and win a round in the Playoffs. Keep in mind that the Queen City hasn’t experienced such things in over fifteen years.

Look at the Wizards. They rose, they fell, then they put it back together and nearly made the Conference Finals for the first time since the 1970’s. DC fans were energized. A long dormant fanbase was given reason to care again. Same goes for the Raptors. Just because you don’t have a superteam chocked full of Hall of Famers doesn’t mean there are no rewards for trying.

Seeing it Through, Building a Foundation

The Hornets made a commitment to Relevancy over a half decade ago and they need to see this through. Get to 50 Wins, Win a Playoff Round, try and make a Conference Finals.

These are giant steps for a once dysfunctional organization incapable of even sniffing respectability. Cho, Cliff and MJ haven’t been perfect in their tenures but collectively, they’ve made the best moves this franchise has experienced in ages. See it through, gentlemen.


*and a little used journeyman backup PG named Shaun Livingston
**yeah, right
***I would be surprised if the Miles trade originated as Cho’s idea
****I’m omitting guys like Jonathan Simmons and Tony Snell from this list because they are RFAs whose teams would likely match an MLE offersheet the instant it was signed


Bonus Geisinger: Just How Good Were Charlotte’s Starting Five?

For lineups with 300+ minutes, the Hornets starters were No. 10 in Net Rating according to NBA.com. But if I set the minimum number to 400 minutes, the starters jump to No. 8. It’s top 5 in terms of net rating for lineups with 500+ mins, too.

Of 500+ mins, the only NBA lineups better than Charlotte’s Starting Five are Golden State, the Clippers, Houston and Washington. Which is why it was such a bummer when Cody Zeller was out and the bench dipped. The Starting 5 allowed 100.7 points per 100, which would rate as the No. 1 team defense in the NBA (Spurs were No.1 — 100.9).