For the Charlotte Hornets, Relevance has Never Been More Expensive
As crazy as it sounds, a few teams can stumble and fumble their way into a winning product. Take the Los Angeles Lakers for example. They put a hideous product on the court for the better part of four years and still managed to come out of the other side with their fanbase intact. As for their pride...that probably took a hit or two, but time has healed those wounds. All is right in La La land again however, as the Bron/Brow duo showed up to save the day and they haven't looked back. Last year's adventure ended in a championship celebration and they show no signs of letting up so far in the follow up. As of this writing, they are 14-6 and rank in the top ten for offensive and defensive efficiency.
Winning a championship in the midst of tragedy involving the late, great Kobe Bryant is the sort of fairy tale ending you'd be hard pressed to conjure up for a major motion picture. Four straight season of failing to reach 28 wins (which really isn't that bad compared to certain franchises) netted them the best available free agent on the market and arguably the best overall player in today's game during the Summer of 2018. Credit the Lakers for drafting well during that time, but for almost any other team, constant losing would not net a reward even close to the ilk of King James.
Consider the fortunes of the Charlotte Hornets for a moment here. They have performed a fair bit better than the Lakers did during their era of misfortune and had very little to show for it going into this season. All-Star Kemba walker roamed their sidelines and the court for many years, putting on dazzling performances along the way and he even became their all-time leader in Win Shares with 48.5. Recent drafts have been up and down with solid additions like Michael Kidd Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and PJ Washington. The first two turned out to be nothing more than capable role players, despite their lofty draft status and the third is carving out a role, although "star player" doesn't seem to be a likely ceiling for him at this time.
They balked at the thought of paying Kemba Walker his incoming max deal, offering him even less than the reported normal max deal at the time ($188 million), let alone the supermax. They proceeded to trudge through last season devoid of any real motivation, besides securing a solid lottery pick and ended up with flashy highlight extraordinaire, LaMelo Ball. Amazingly, max money was no longer a sore spot for them going into the 2020 offseason, as they ponied up around $120 million for Gordon Hayward.
It's odd that Charlotte suddenly had a change of heart when it came to their deep pockets, but the one possible motivation for their investment actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Maybe we need to think about the Hornet's rational in terms that extend beyond basketball. They rank 22nd out of 30 when it comes to biggest markets and probably have one of the smallest TV deals in the league. They don't get much National coverage or screen time either. They only amassed three Nationally televised games during last season. It could be that Buzz City was starved for attention. They needed players who would help make them watchable on a large scale...Ball and Hayward fit the bill.
Still, it's hard to justify spending $40 million per season on what is most likely a depreciating asset. Hayward is will be 31 this season and he has already been snake bitten by injuries the past few seasons. According to No Trade Clause, he will make $28.5M, $29.9M, $30M, and $31.5M over the course of his deal. Throw in the remaining money from Nicolas Batum's old deal and that's another $9M on their cap sheet through 22-23. They did not have the cap space to make the deal possible without waiving + stretching Batum to open up space for this season. Not ideal.
This is the treadmill that the franchise always finds themselves trodding upon. If it's not one low value deal mucking up the numbers, it's another. They took a similar gamble on Batum back in 2016 for a similar $120 million ironically enough. Suffice to say, this isn't the first time Charlotte has rolled the dice in pursuit of players that could make them relevant again. It's just that it will cost them more than ever this time around.
In spite of all that, the team can be encouraged by the fact that Hayward has provided his new team with some outstanding production through one quarter of the season. It's abundantly clear that this is the best Hayward has ever played. Yes, even better than his hallmark 2016-2017 All-Star campaign with the Utah Jazz.
Hey, Basketball Reference never lies! He's taking more shots and converting them at a higher clip from every area of the floor so far this year. His stellar play even gives him room for slight regression, which is probably on the way, especially if he suffers another injury at some point.
So let's examine how he has been so effective with Charlotte. His free throw attempts are slightly down, but don't let that fool you into thinking he's been hesitant to attack the rim. He's taking as many shots at the rim as he has in six years. He's sitting at 30% frequency there, which ranks in the 61st percentile for his position. His willingness to use his 6'8" frame and smooth moves to create opportunities in the restricted area has always been impressive.
As an added advantage, he's fairly ambidextrous, finishing this tough layup over Simmons with his left hand. You can't take your eyes off of him in transition/semi transition situations. He seeks out space and exploits it whenever possible.
Oh and if you thought he was one of those high usage players that just calls for the ball and becomes immobile when he doesn't have possession, you are sorely mistaken. He's not afraid to make things happen off of the ball. Notice how he takes advantage of RJ Barrett here as soon as he opens up to his right.
When he is not able to get all the way to the bucket, he takes quite a few attempts from the mid range and he absolutely loves to operate there. For most, the mid range is a "no fly zone" serving as a dead zone of sorts that features shots more difficult than at the rim, but provide less value for a three pointer. In general, that is a fair philosophy to live by. However, things work out a bit differently in this case. Hayward currently ranks in the 86th percentile for mid range frequency, but also in the 80th percentile for accuracy there. Watch him convert a buttery smooth floater, and a fadeaway preceded by a savvy juke that would make MJ proud:
The really cool thing about how he gets his buckets, jumpers or otherwise, is that fact that he doesn't need much time to make decisions. He is an extremely opportunistic scorer that always seems to be in the right place at the right time. According to NBA.com/stats player tracking information, 49% of his shots come under two seconds from the time he gets the basketball. Additionally, a quarter of his shots are threes that are launched within two seconds. Much like Klay Thompson, he refrains from dribbling the air out of the ball. 41% of shots come with no dribbles taken. It might be easiest to think of him as an reverse Carmelo Anthony. You don't have to worry about him being a ball stopper at any point during a game.
Expanding out to the three point line, his utter scorching of the nets continues. He can create good looks for himself and use off ball actions such as pindowns to get free for open long balls. For reference, he shot 40% from three his last season in Utah, and has been at an average of 41% the past two years. You absolutely cannot afford to go under screens when he's controlling the action. Kyle Anderson learned this the hard way.
Or lag behind as goes baseline for a quick down screen in the left corner. Kevin Knox is the primary culprit here.
When the defense does wise up and closes out harder on the perimeter, that's when he can take advantage to get better looks inside the arc. He's not a super elite passer, but has more than enough ability there to make good reads out of kick out and dump off situations that are created as a result.
So what does all of this data and film tell us then? Well, when it comes to wings in today's NBA which are relied upon to be swiss army knives of sorts more than ever, Gordon Hayward is more than capable enough to occupy that role. The other Hornets, many of whom are offensively limited in multiple ways can look to Hayward for reliable scoring and sound decision making. His talent goes a long way towards giving Charlotte an adequate draw for TV audiences and local fans itching to check out their team, whenever the city allows it again. Ball could be a very special player, but that doesn't mean much in the here and now.
Even in the face of all Hayward has done so far, he is not worth $40 million, which is the type of money players like Kawhi, LeBron, Giannis, and Anthony Davis command. Drop the price tag to $30 million and it becomes a fair discussion. Luckily, the spending power for this team could still be decent next Summer. Cody Zeller comes off of the books and they could easily renounce the rights to Malik Monk, who has barely been playing anyway. An avenue to as much as $30 million in cap space exists for them, so it's not like Hayward takes them out of Free Agent negotiations completely.
Either way, this team is no stranger to opening the pocket book to acquire B Level talent. This latest shopping spree may have netted them someone that can carry them to...mediocrity? They're still not a lock for the playoffs, as a 8th to 10th seed finish is still pretty likely.
But maybe that's not the only goal in all of this. Maybe it's also about putting a better product on the court after losing Kemba Walker. If we adjust our focus a bit, maybe popularity is worth something...even if we don't agree with how much that might be.