May 24, 2021

Charlotte Hornets Are One Center Away From Being a Playoff Contender

After laying a massive egg in their play-in game against the Pacers, the Hornets enter the offseason with a bad taste in their mouths. 

But even though they failed to make the playoffs, the Hornets' future is bright in Buzz City. Charlotte has a very talented and relatively inexpensive team on the books for next season. 

Charlotte has a three-headed attack of talented guards, headlined by the likely 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year in LaMelo Ball along with electric forwards, led by Gordon Hayward and Miles Bridges.

The Hornets, however, are missing one BIG piece on their roster: a starting center. 

Throughout the current campaign, Charlotte employed a below-average center rotation consisting of two soon-to-be-free-agents Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo

Thanks to their cheap core, Charlotte has cap space to burn this summer and they'll need to do whatever it takes to find a frontcourt star who can take the Hornets to the next level. 

Let's take a look at who the Hornets could pursue this offseason to become serious contenders in the Eastern Conference. 

Free Agency

Richaun Holmes

Snagging Richaun Holmes would be a grand slam this offseason, especially since he’s an unrestricted free agent, meaning the Hornets wouldn’t have to trade anything of value in order to acquire his services. Amid a lost season in which the Sacramento Kings extended their league leading streak of missing the postseason, Holmes was one of the few bright stars.

Holmes is just 27 and he’s coming off the best season of his career with averages of 14.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 63% from the field and 79% from the free-throw line. Holmes doesn't possess a consistent three-point jumper yet, but he’s such a dynamic paint-scorer and active defender that he doesn’t need to drain from deep.

Holmes excelled in many key big-man duties. He ranked in the 85th percentile in isolations and produced 1.3 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-roll, which is a staple play for all bigs.

Holmes isn’t just an offensive menace. He also locked in on defense despite the Kings’ status as the league’s worst unit. Opponents shot 3.5 percentage points worse than their averages when guarded by Holmes, and held enemies to a just 51% shooting at the rim, one of the best marks in the league.

If the Hornets can convince him to sign, that’s likely their best offseason outcome.

Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel is never going to be a scoring beast because he can’t shoot and doesn’t have a go-to post move, but his defense has consistently been among the best at his position. Noel’s presence was a huge factor toward New York’s No. 4 ranked defense this season thanks to his incredible length and willingness to meet players at the rim and stuff their shots like a Thanksgiving turkey.

The dude is like a pogo stick out there. The Hornets were a middle-of-the-pack defense all season, and their offense was just fine, so they could really use Noel’s services next season if other options fall through. He’s also an excellent rim-runner who is a constant threat to hammer home a lob, meaning opponents inevitably give more leeway against guards as they try to protect themselves from being posterized on alley-oops.

Serge Ibaka

While it’s hard to imagine Serge Ibaka leaving sunny Los Angeles and a title contender, just remember that money talks in free agency. Ibaka has been injured for a good chunk of the season, and he’s not getting any younger, but there’s no denying what he brings to the table when healthy.

Ibaka is one of the few big men in the league who can credibly defend the rim and space the floor by knocking down open three-pointers. If he can bring it on both ends of the court, he transforms the Clippers into something greater.

Any team with a remotely stiff big-man rotation would be lucky to add Ibaka on a one- or two-year deal that limits their long-term exposure. While Charlotte might be scared about investing lots of money into two injury-prone players in Ibaka and Hayward, the rewards could be worth the trouble.

Trade Market

Kristaps Porzingis

Well, wouldn't this be a shocker?

The Mavericks have given no public acknowledgment that they’re interested in trading Kristaps Porzingis, but they were reportedly willing to pull the trigger for the right price earlier in the season. Of course, they denied this, but it’s reasonable to expect their front office brass has grown weary of Porzingis’ constant injury woes.

That being said, adding another injury-riddled player on a big contract probably isn’t high on Charlotte’s to-do list this summer. 

Perhaps a deal centered around DeVonte’ Graham and a future first-round pick could intrigue the Mavs, who owe Porzingis $94 million over the next three seasons.

While Dallas boasted a formidable record with Porzingis in uniform this season, and his combination of shot-blocking and three-point shooting is rare, just imagine the damage the Hornets could do with Ball-Porzingis pick-and-pops flanked by lethal creators in Hayward and Rozier, plus either Washington or Bridges ready to hammer home an open dunk.

Mason Plumlee

Mason Plumlee would certainly be a step back from some of the other names on this list due to his lack of an elite skill, but he’s still a well-rounded center who would be an immediate improvement over Zeller and Biyombo.

Plumlee is solid at a lot of facets of the game. He’s a plus rebounder, has superior passing vision while being a willing screener and finisher at the rim. He’s also an ace at put-back attempts, one of the most overlooked skills among big men. Plumlee produces 1.1 points per possession (75th percentile) on put-back attempts.

Is he an elite rim protector? No. Can he splash three-pointers? Also, no. But he’s set to earn $8.1 million next season, which is almost half of Zeller and Biyombo’s combined salaries in 2021. That would be a good value for Charlotte. 

Moving Forward

No center will completely solve all of Charlotte's conundrums, but if everyone comes back healthy, and the ascending stars take the next steps in their development, the Hornets really could be a frontcourt upgrade away from making some serious playoff noise.

They were already a fun and outright explosive offense at times this season, so there’s a foundation to build on entering what should be a pivotal offseason. 

Photo: Getty Images