Charlotte Hornets 2024 NBA offseason preview: Team health and organizational direction are the keys

2023-24 season: 21-61

Highlight of the season: The “aha” moment around late-December when the organization realized Brandon Miller could be good enough to become the leader of the team moving forward.

Oddly. The season was in many ways lost due to the long-term injury to LaMelo Ball (22 total games played due to an ankle injury), and yet there is excitement about the play from Miller, the rookie from Alabama selected second overall in last year’s draft. Miller not only justified his own draft slot, he also looks like a potential franchise star, which should be good news for a team that has seen Ball out on the floor for just 58 total games over the past two seasons.

As for the season itself, the Hornets were not good. Nor particularly interesting to watch. They ranked 28th in offense, 29th on defense and 19th in pace. They didn’t play fast, they didn’t play efficiently and they frankly failed to collectively compete to an extent in which the season felt over by early November.

The organization did finally move on from both Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, both of whom were wasting their time on a team that was clearly in the process of starting over. The Hornets replenished their draft cupboard somewhat, but more importantly cleared up their cap sheet by pivoting off Rozier, meaning they will be well prepared for when Ball’s $204 million extension kicks in this July.

As for what’s next, it’s a step-by-step process that starts with this June’s draft, when they’ll hold a high selection. The beauty of today’s positionless NBA allows teams to work with multiple ball-handlers, or multiple wings, and given the frequency of injuries to Ball, the door should not be shut on a playmaker. The Hornets have quietly done well in the draft lately — after years of whiffing on high selections — so that first step will likely be the easiest.

Free agency will be a different beast, as the organization will also have to manage the pending free agency of Miles Bridges, whom they played 37.4 minutes this year, serving as one of their most important players. After sitting out all of last season because of domestic abuse charges, Bridges signed a one-year qualifying offer, meaning he is now an unrestricted free agent this summer.

An overlooked player for next season, and beyond, is Mark Williams, who played just 19 games this season due to a back issue. If he’s able to enter 2024-25 healthy, the Hornets will have three, potentially four, pieces for the future, which does go a long way for a rebuilding team. Williams averaged 12.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in just 26.7 minutes per game and could anchor Charlotte’s defense for years to come — pending availability.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 31: Brandon Miller #24 of the Charlotte Hornets watches his shot while guarded by Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers in the third quarter during their game at Spectrum Center on March 31, 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
The Hornets appear to have a keeper in Brandon Miller. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

With the Hornets ranking so low on both sides of the ball, the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” applies thoroughly here. They are in no position to go after fit over talent at this stage. However, should the stars align, to where the best player available is also a high-quality shooter with good positional size, such an archetype should absolutely be prioritized. They could also stand to add a power forward with more offensive upside than Grant Williams, whom the team acquired at the trade deadline from Dallas.

The Hornets are still in the process of a wide-ranging coaching search after veteran head coach Steve Clifford stepped down from his post. This will mark the second big personnel decision for Charlotte's new ownership group, which hired 35-year-old Jeff Peterson from Brooklyn to lead the Hornets' new basketball operations. Whoever joins this leadership team on the sidelines will have three building blocks that few young, rebuilding jobs typically offer in Ball, Miller and Williams — the former Duke center who gives those two playmakers a steady pick-and-roll partner and rim protector when healthy — plus another expected top-five pick in this upcoming draft after Charlotte won a coin flip against Portland to enter May's lottery with the third-best odds at the top selection.

All that youth and optimism and the long view that's ruling the day in Charlotte makes the Hornets' options with their $22.5 million in cap space a little interesting. This draft is so absent a clear premier prospect, it's too difficult to project what position (ideally a two-way guard and a playmaking four-man to help fill the gaps of its fledgling core) Charlotte will prioritize at whatever selection it lands. Bridges could simply soak up a lot of that room. Charlotte had several suitors — most seriously Phoenix, sources said — for Bridges at the trade deadline, but opted to hold him for the chance to bring the Michigan State product back. That still won't stop his representation at Klutch Sports to look for the highest dollar elsewhere. Bridges' outcome with the Hornets will likely stand as the key event of Charlotte's summer. — Jake Fischer

Charlotte scored big with Miller last year and has lots of options in this draft inside the lottery. UConn freshman guard Stephon Castle is shooting up draft boards after a strong showing in the NCAA tournament. They could also add some size in the lane with UConn's Donovan Clingan or G League Ignite forward Matas Buzelis. — Krysten Peek

Draft picks: Nos. 6 and 42

With Ball’s extension kicking in this summer, and the cap hold of Bridges still on the roster, the Hornets aren’t in a position where they can spend frivolously. They will have what roughly amounts to the non-tax mid-level exception in cap space, meaning it might make more sense for them to act as an over-the-cap team, as to retain the actual non-tax MLE.

Of course, whomever they target has to make sense for them. There is no reason to go out and sign in-prime veterans when they’re so far away from being competitive. That is unless the powers that be believe a healthy season of Ball and Williams, with Year 2 of Miller in a weakened Eastern Conference, could make some noise. But that would be optimistic. If anything, the Hornets should engage teams in sign-and-trade scenarios with Bridges, if they aren’t interested in retaining him. That would require his willingness to do so, but if it benefits him financially, it should be an easy sell.

Key free agent: Miles Bridges (UFA)

Get healthy and stay healthy. Following that, it’s time to identify which players are keepers and which aren’t. That may sound like a simple process, but that isn’t necessarily the case when you’re forced to shuffle players in and out of lineups due to injuries and trades. The Hornets need a season where they settle themselves, take a breather and once and for all figure out how to build their roster moving forward. And to do that, they need more data. More data comes from higher player availability.

The primary focus for the Hornets is ensuring Ball is healthy. His repeated ankle injuries have been a setback, causing him to miss more than 65% of games over the past two seasons. As the Hornets' franchise player and, recently, a consensus first-round pick in fantasy, his availability is crucial to Charlotte's resurgence from the bottom of the Eastern Conference. I'd expect Ball's average draft position to fall to the third round by next season because of his injury history. However, he could be a value pick (similar to Kawhi Leonard this year) if he can stay healthy. Getting Williams back in the lineup would also help fortify the frontcourt. — Dan Titus