Hoops Rumors is breaking down the 2021 offseason for all 30 NBA teams, revisiting the summer’s free agent signings, trades, draft picks, departures, and more. We’ll evaluate each team’s offseason moves, examine what still needs to be done before opening night, and look ahead to what the 2021/22 season holds for all 30 franchises. Today, we’re focusing on the Charlotte Hornets.
Free agent signings:
Note: Exhibit 10 deals aren’t included here.
- Kelly Oubre: Two years, $24.6MM. Second year partially guaranteed ($5MM). Signed using cap room.
- Ish Smith: Two years, $9.225MM. Second year non-guaranteed. Signed using room exception.
- Acquired the draft rights to Kai Jones (No. 19 pick) from the Knicks in exchange for the Hornets’ 2022 first-round pick (top-18 protected).
- Acquired Mason Plumlee and the draft rights to JT Thor (No. 37 pick) from the Pistons in exchange for the draft rights to Balsa Koprivica (No. 57 pick).
- Acquired Wesley Iwundu (from Pelicans), the Pelicans’ 2022 first-round pick (top-14 protected), the draft rights to Tyler Harvey (from Grizzlies), and cash ($2MM; from Pelicans) in a three-team trade in exchange for Devonte’ Graham (sign-and-trade; to Pelicans).
- 1-11: James Bouknight
- Signed to rookie scale contract (four years, $19,151,216).
- 1-19: Kai Jones
- Signed to rookie scale contract (four years, $13,421,215).
- 2-37: JT Thor
- Signed to four-year, $6.64MM contract. Third year non-guaranteed. Fourth-year team option. Signed using cap room.
- 2-56: Scottie Lewis
- Signed to two-way contract.
- Arnoldas Kulboka (No. 55 pick; 2018 draft)
- Signed to two-way contract.
- Terry Rozier: Four years, $96,258,694. Includes partial guarantee in fourth year. Starts in 2022/23.
- Bismack Biyombo
- Nate Darling
- Devonte’ Graham
- Caleb Martin
- Malik Monk
- Grant Riller
- Brad Wanamaker
- Cody Zeller
Other offseason news:
- Exercised head coach James Borrego‘s option for the 2021/22 season.
- Hired Norm Richardson as assistant coach.
Salary cap situation:
- Went under the cap, used their cap room, then used the room exception.
- Carrying approximately $116.9MM in salary.
- $410,000 of room exception still available ($4.5MM used on Ish Smith).
Lingering preseason issues:
- The Hornets have 16 players on guaranteed contracts and will have to trade or release one to get down to 15 for the regular season.
- Miles Bridges is eligible for a rookie scale contract extension until October 18.
- Jalen McDaniels is eligible for a veteran contract extension until October 18.
- Cody Martin will be eligible for a veteran contract extension all season.
The Hornets’ offseason:
A year ago, the Hornets made perhaps the most stunning splash of the NBA offseason when they signed free agent forward Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120MM contract. Hayward had an up-and-down first season in Charlotte — he played well, but injuries (which also marred his time in Boston) limited him to 44 games and sidelined him for the Hornets’ play-in game in May.
While the jury’s still out on the Hayward signing, the Hornets struck gold on their other major move of the 2020 offseason, nabbing LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 pick in the draft. Like Hayward, Ball missed some time due to an injury, but he displayed star potential when he was healthy, showing off incredible play-making skills and a more reliable jump shot than anticipated.
The Hornets ultimately lost that first play-in game and didn’t earn a postseason spot in the East, but the play of Hayward and Ball showed that the team has a couple key building blocks for a playoff squad — as long as they can stay healthy.
During the 2021 offseason, the Hornets once again had the ability to open up some cap room, but opted against taking another huge swing on the free agent market. Instead, having entered the summer looking to add depth at center and on the wing, Charlotte took a more conservative approach.
Rather than pursuing a top free agent big man such as Richaun Holmes or Nerlens Noel, the Hornets accommodated a salary dump, taking on Mason Plumlee from the Pistons and moving up 20 spots in the second round of the draft in the process. It was a nice piece of business for president of basketball operations Mitch Kupchak — Plumlee’s $9.25MM cap hit is hardly onerous, given his steady on-court play. And his contract won’t be a long-term burden even if his production falls off this season, since it’s only partially guaranteed for 2022/23.
In the draft, the Hornets took advantage of James Bouknight‘s slide out of the top 10, scooping him up with the No. 11 pick. Then, when Kai Jones slipped out of the lottery, the Hornets sent a heavily-protected future first-round pick to New York in order to get back into the first round to select Jones at No. 19.
Using the No. 11 pick on Jones would’ve been a bit of a reach, and drafting him to be the primary center would’ve been overly optimistic. But getting him later in the first round for a very reasonable price (the pick the Hornets traded will be top-18 protected in 2022 and top-16 protected in 2023 before becoming lottery-protected in 2024) was a nice get, and having him come off the bench behind a veteran like Plumlee makes more sense for his development as a rookie.
After acquiring Plumlee and signing second-rounder JT Thor, the Hornets still had about $14MM in cap room available and used it to complete a pair of moves — one that added value in the short term and one that was more focused on the long term.
Most of the Hornets’ remaining space went toward signing Kelly Oubre, a solid wing whose market didn’t develop the way he hoped. While Oubre may have envisioned signing a deal in the range of the ones Evan Fournier and Tim Hardaway got (four years, $73-75MM), he had to settle for a two-year, $24.6MM commitment with only one fully guaranteed season.
Oubre has been inconsistent from beyond the arc and isn’t an elite defender, so it wasn’t shocking that no teams were willing to invest big long-term money in him. Still, I expected him to get at least a couple guaranteed years in the $15MM range, like he did on his last contract. It’s a favorable price for the Hornets, especially if Oubre can hit three-pointers at the rate he did in 2019/20 (35.2%). He’ll join a pretty strong group of wings that includes youngsters Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington, and should provide some insurance if Hayward misses time again.
The Hornets used their last bit of cap room to accommodate a minor salary dump, taking on Wesley Iwundu‘s contract from the Pelicans. The acquisition was part of a sign-and-trade deal sending Devonte’ Graham to New Orleans — Charlotte netted a lottery-protected first-round pick in the trade and also received enough cash from New Orleans to cover Iwundu’s modest salary.
The Hornets could’ve comfortably re-signed Graham themselves, but Ball’s emergence, Terry Rozier‘s strong play, and the Bouknight selection lessened the need to do so. Faced with the possibility of not having enough backcourt minutes to go around for all the players who deserved them, the Hornets opted to move on from Graham, signing lower-cost veteran Ish Smith to provide depth as Ball’s backup at the point. Charlotte did well to land Graham with the No. 34 pick in the 2018 draft — perhaps the team can strike gold again with the first-rounder the Pelicans surrendered to sign him.
The last significant move of the offseason for Charlotte was a four-year, $96MM+ extension for Rozier, who had the best year of his career in 2020/21. It’s possible it will end up being an overpay, but Rozier has been terrific as a scorer (19.3 PPG), shooter (.396 3PT%), and play-maker (4.2 APG) since joining the Hornets.
Given how weak the 2022 free agent market looks, Charlotte would’ve faced stiff competition for the veteran guard next offseason if he kept up his strong play for another year. With no other big long-term contracts on the books besides Hayward’s, the Hornets were in a good position to commit to Rozier now without compromising their future flexibility too much.
The Hornets’ upcoming season:
After bottoming out in 2019/20, the Hornets appeared to be moving back in the right direction in 2020/21. That bodes well for the club’s chances of being back in the play-in mix in ’21/22 and perhaps even earning its first playoff berth since 2016.
Of course, it’s worth noting that a team’s growth isn’t always linear. Ball may struggle to take another step forward following his impressive debut. Hayward may battle more injuries. Rozier’s production may dip a little. Bouknight and Jones may not be ready to contribute right away.
Unlike a few years ago though, when the Hornets’ cap was loaded with big-money deals for the likes of Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marvin Williams, missing out on the playoffs wouldn’t be a disaster for this Charlotte team. There are enough solid building blocks in place to feel confident about the organization’s direction, even if the on-court results are still up and down for another year. And if the Hornets do break through and return to the playoffs, all the better.
Salary information from Basketball Insiders was used in the creation of this post.