The Charlotte Hornets were once on track to graduate beyond the play-in tournament this postseason, and now enter Wednesday night's do-or-die battle against Atlanta with a list of questions looming over an intriguing summer.
On Thanksgiving, Charlotte stood as high as fifth in the conference. Its high-powered offense, spearheaded by rising All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball and fourth-year breakout forward Miles Bridges, drew praise as the most exciting team in the league. Up until late January, the Hornets were firmly in the fight for the East's sixth seed. That's when Gordon Hayward sustained a foot injury and Charlotte dropped nine of 10 games in a difficult stretch.
The trade deadline acquisition of Montrezl Harrell did help fortify Charlotte's frontcourt, and Hornets staffers credit point guard Isaiah Thomas for providing integral veteran leadership for a young group. Charlotte closed the regular season winning 11 of its last 15 games.
Perhaps some perspective is needed. When Kemba Walker departed in free agency in 2019, Hornets staffers were prepared for the franchise to take a step back. Advancing beyond the play-in tournament—especially after last season's flameout in the elimination game against Indiana—would be progress for Charlotte's rebuild.
But this is the fourth season for Charlotte's current regime, dating back to April 2018 when Hornets owner Michael Jordan named Mitch Kupchak, now 67, the franchise's general manager. Kupchak, like others who have passed through Charlotte's doors during Jordan's stewardship, played college ball at North Carolina.
Upon his hire, Kupchak selected James Borrego to be the Hornets' head coach on a four-year deal that included a team option in the final season—this 2021-22 campaign. That contract was the same length as Kupchak's original deal, sources said, yet only Borrego was able to complete a multi-year extension prior to this season.
The uncertainty surrounding Kupchak has sparked the latest round of whispers in and around Charlotte that this may be Kupchak's final year helming the Hornets' front office. But to be fair, word of Kupchak's potential departure—or a transition to more of an advisory role—has echoed among league personnel for each of the past few seasons. Still, there would seem to be more credence to the rumors this summer without an extension in place.
There have been plenty of rumored potential replacements over the years, but the two most commonly discussed names are Buzz Peterson, Jordan's college roommate at UNC and the Hornets' assistant general manager since 2014, and Chicago Bulls general manager Marc Eversley, who began his career at Nike, the parent company of the Jordan Brand. Eversley interviewed for the general manager position in 2018, but the role went to Kupchak instead.
The unclear future of Charlotte's basketball operations extends down to the Hornets' coaching staff. Any change in a front office would naturally cast doubt upon the incumbent head coach, even with Borrego having just signed an extension while leading the Hornets to 10 more victories than a season ago, and despite a second-straight campaign in which midseason injuries derailed Charlotte's early momentum.
By all accounts, Borrego maintains a strong connection with Charlotte's key players, most Ball and Bridges. He's widely respected by his peers in the NBA coaching community, and considered to be well-organized, detail-oriented and inclusive with staff. In a business often driven by ego, Borrego doesn't seem to care about being the loudest voice in the room.
He's also driving admirable results: despite losing Devante Graham in free agency to New Orleans, and Hayward being limited to just 49 games, the Hornets' offense improved to eighth in the league this season after shifting Ball into more of a primary ball-handling role.
There is some speculation among league coaching figures that a failure to advance to the playoffs in this third post-Kemba season could result in Borrego's ouster, yet there's a heavier dose of optimism both outside and inside the organization the Hornets' coach is likely to remain in Charlotte after his recent extension in August—which one source said was for two years with a third-year option.
"It would make no sense to fire him," one assistant general manager told B/R. "I know the NBA is a results-oriented business, but if you believe in him to be your coach, if you believe in him growing alongside LaMelo and Bridges, you've taken a step forward each of the last two seasons, you just extended him. Why would not making the playoffs with a young roster suddenly change that?"
The Hornets' late-season success came with a far different lineup than Borrego used at the start of the year. Entering the deadline, rival executives spotlighted PJ Washington as a strong trade candidate before he becomes extension eligible this summer. Now, Washington has served as a versatile starting power forward alongside Bridges' at the three, while Kelly Oubre has provided a valued punch off the Hornets' bench.
The final stretch also provided a glimpse of what Charlotte might look like without Hayward on the roster. The emergence of Bridges, not to mention Ball's high usage rate, meant fewer playmaking opportunities for Hayward within the Hornets' offense. Word has circulated amongst rival front offices that the 32-year-old swingman would be interested in a change of scenery this offseason, although a source close to Hayward told B/R he's primarily focused on recovering from his injured foot.
Bridges is clearly the present and future wing Charlotte wants to develop alongside Ball. After Bridges' camp declined a four-year, $60 million contract offer last fall, sources confirmed, he is expected to command a maximum salary that could total five years, $173 million this summer. League personnel believe the Hornets will match any offer sheet for Bridges. That could either dissuade teams from making an earnest attempt at signing him, unnecessarily tying their hands for 48 hours. Or it may encourage a rival suitor to force Charlotte to pay his full max, as the Brooklyn Nets once did with Washington and Otto Porter.
Either way, the Hornets' roster is about to get pricey. Moving Hayward now would start to clear Charlotte's books for more critical contract decisions. In addition to Washington's contract status, Ball will become extension-eligible in 2023, and third-year forward Cody Martin's free agency looms this July.
The idea of moving Hayward's $30 million salary and additional contracts—such as Kelly Oubre or Mason Plumlee and a third, smaller deal—to Los Angeles for Russell Westbrook's expiring contract has taken hold among league executives, as first reported by Marc Stein. Westbrook would be owed $47 million in 2022-23 if he picks up his player option, which would create significant financial flexibility for the Hornets in the summer of 2023.
But the idea of Los Angeles adding another expensive player with extensive injury history may be too much for the Lakers to stomach. And while the Hornets explored acquiring Westbrook, a Jordan Brand athlete, from the Rockets back in 2020, that was before Ball's star turn. Hayward still offers a strong fit next to Charlotte's growing core when healthy, and his contract only lasts one season longer than Westbrook's.
The Hornets could also use Hayward and his contract to finally land a solution at center. Charlotte nearly landed Marc Gasol from Memphis prior to the 2019 trade deadline, and has flirted incessantly with Indiana to acquire Myles Turner ever since. Kupchak's front office instead opted for stop-gaps rather than investing in a long-term answer at the position. While free agent centers such as Richaun Holmes and Nerlens Noel were under the impression Charlotte would provide a lucrative center landing spot last summer, the Hornets pivoted to swing a draft-night deal with the Pistons to nab Plumlee.
Indiana has long harbored interest in Hayward, and nearly sent Turner to Boston in a sign-and-trade for the Butler product back in 2020. It's unclear whether the Pacers will truly entertain moving Turner this summer after sending Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento, but prior to Turner's ankle injury in January, Indiana was asking for two first-round picks, or one first-rounder and a promising rookie-scale contract player.
Would Hayward and draft capital still be enough? He could present a veteran swingman to pair with Tyrese Halliburton, but the Pacers are also frequently mentioned as another possible Westbrook trade partner—where Indiana would send the Lakers' and Rob Pelinka's well-known target, Buddy Hield, along with Malcolm Brodgon.
League personnel do expect Charlotte to explore adding a true rim protector like Turner to help fortify this Hornets roster's glaring weakness. Charlotte finished the 2021-22 regular season 22nd in defensive efficiency.
"They don't defend," said one team scout. "You gotta find a defensive identity."
For all his flash, Ball has impressed Hornets personnel with his professionalism and low-maintenance approach to superstardom. Bridges has emerged as a bonafide co-star. Borrego has their trust. The future of Charlotte, and the next step in this rebuild's progression, seems centered on the Hornets' front office, and who will be spearheading the team's roster construction moving forward.
Jake Fischer has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2019 and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.