Hornets' 2022 Free Agents, Targets and Draft Needs After NBA Play-in Game LossApril 14, 2022
Hornets' 2022 Free Agents, Targets and Draft Needs After NBA Play-in Game Loss
The Charlotte Hornets' season has come to an end after their play-in loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite not reaching the ultimate goal of winning a championship, this season was a huge step in the right direction for the franchise.
The 43-39 Hornets had their first winning season since 2015-16 (48-34), which was also the last time they made the playoffs. General manager Mitch Kupchak and the front office have done a solid job of building up this roster over the past two seasons.
LaMelo Ball falling into their lap with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NBA draft was certainly the best move they have made. Miles Bridges' development from a role player to dominant scorer gave them a viable No. 2 option to go along with their star point guard.
As the Hornets continue to build around Ball, here is a look at their list of impending free agents, potential targets during free agency and draft needs heading into the 2022-23 season.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Montrezl Harrell, PF
Isaiah Thomas, PG
Restricted Free Agents (Qualifying Offer Value)
Miles Bridges, SF ($7.5 million)
Cody Martin, SF ($2.23 million)
Arnoldas Kulboka, SF ($1.6 million)
Scottie Lewis, SG ($1.6 million)
Qualifying offer values via Spotrac.
Bridges is certainly the biggest name in this group. He was reportedly close to signing a contract extension with the Hornets before the start of the 2021-22 season.
Brian Windhorst reported on his podcast The Hoop Collective (h/t RealGM) in October that Bridges had a "baseline" offer from Charlotte worth $60 million over four years.
Bridges told Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated in February he was prepared to accept the Hornets' offer, but his agents talked him out of it.
The 24-year-old could be in line for a much more lucrative deal this offseason as a restricted free agent. He led the Hornets in scoring average (20.2 points per game), in addition to setting career-highs in rebounds (7.0) and assists (3.8).
Montrezl Harrell is the Hornets' most prominent unrestricted free agent. He was a solid performer with 11.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 25 appearances after being acquired from the Washington Wizards on Feb. 10.
The Hornets have a crowded frontcourt, including P.J. Washington and Mason Plumlee, that could make Harrell expendable. Plumlee has a $4.263 million partially-guaranteed salary that becomes a fully guaranteed $9.08 million if he is on the roster either 10 days after the conclusion of the 2021-22 season or 10 days before the start of the free-agent moratorium period (whichever comes first).
Isaiah Thomas had a solid showing in 17 games off the bench for the Hornets. The two-time All-Star shot 39.7 percent from three-point range. He could potentially return on a minimum deal.
Potential Free Agent/Trade Targets
The Hornets might be the team that comes to take Russell Westbrook away from the Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA reporter Marc Stein noted on April 7 in his Substack newsletter that people around the league consider the Hornets a "team to watch" in a potential Westbrook trade.
"All-Star guard LaMelo Ball is firmly ensconced as the Hornets’ face of the franchise and on-the-ball star, but one scenario making the rounds is a belief that the Hornets could emerge with Westbrook interest in the name of creating some financial flexibility," Stein wrote.
The financial flexibility part of Stein's report suggests the Hornets could look to unload some of their bloated contracts to acquire Westbrook. It's unclear if they would try to keep Westbrook or potentially buy him out. Westbrook has a $47.1 million player option on his deal for 2022-23, the final season of his five-year, $206.8 million contract.
Gordon Hayward is the highest-paid player on the Hornets roster. He is owed $61.575 million over the next two seasons. The 32-year-old has only appeared in 93 games over the past two seasons since signing with Charlotte as a free agent.
Terry Rozier is the only other player on Charlotte's roster set to earn at least $20 million in 2022-23 ($21.5 million). The Lakers are $41.99 million over the cap next season, so they would need matching salaries in order to facilitate a Westbrook deal.
The Hornets' biggest need this offseason is defense, both close to and away from the rim. They ranked 23rd in defensive rating (113.7) and 26th in points allowed (114.9), per Basketball-Reference.com. They allowed the eighth-highest three-point percentage (36.2) to opposing teams.
There aren't many viable defenders at center or on the wing in free agency. Serge Ibaka is no longer the defensive ace he was at his peak, but the 32-year-old could be a good buy-low option to provide some stability in the paint for the Hornets.
Another potential trade option could be Myles Turner. The Hornets were among the teams talking to the Indiana Pacers about Turner leading up to the trade deadline, but the seven-year veteran wound up staying in Indiana.
If Turner's foot injury heals properly, he could be an attractive trade chip for a Pacers team that looks to be in the early stages of a rebuild after going 25-57 this season.
Potential Draft Targets
Potential Draft Targets
Ochai Agbaji, G/F (Kansas)
Jeremy Sochan, F (Baylor)
Tari Eason, F (LSU)
E.J. Liddell, F (Ohio State)
The Hornets are projected to get the No. 13 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, though that can obviously change when the lottery takes place on May 17.
If we assume the Hornets are unable to find a starting-caliber wing in free agency, the draft will be their best bet to grab one.
Of course, a team with playoff aspirations betting on a rookie wing to have a profound impact, especially on defense, can be a dicey proposition.
The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor cited E.J. Liddell as a possibility. He returned to Ohio State for his junior season and improved as a shooter and perimeter defender.
"As a junior, Liddell came back a better perimeter defender than ever," O'Connor wrote. "Early in the season, he shut down Paolo Banchero all over the court, and then continued to bother players across positions. In a switching defense, he can handle any position."
Taking Liddell late in the lottery might be a little rich based on his talent level, but the Hornets are a team on the rise that could look to take a fully-developed college player to step in right away.
Jeremy Sochan might be the best pure defensive player in the draft. O'Connor compared his skill set to Ben Simmons, Aaron Gordon and Draymond Green. If he turns into anything close to them on defense, the Hornets hit an absolute home run.
Ochai Agbaji possibly pushed himself too high in the lottery after leading Kansas to a national title. His shooting prowess would be a perfect fit playing with Ball, and he's capable of guarding multiple positions.
LSU's Tari Eason was named SEC Sixth Man of the Year this season. He averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game with a 52.1 field-goal percentage. His length at 6'8" makes him a potentially impactful defender with a bit more polish and refinement.