Out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season, with a roster that is restricted to improve in free agency, Charlotte enters the offseason with many questions, including the future of All-Star Kemba Walker.
Now that Charlotte is eliminated from the postseason, let's look ahead to the free-agency, draft and trade decisions facing the Hornets.
The future of Kemba Walker
The business of the NBA at times interferes with the product on the court. No case is more of an example than Walker. He's a player in the prime of his career who wants to be in Charlotte for the future, but he could be a cap casualty entering the final year of a $48 million rookie extension.
Charlotte management -- expected to be led by former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski -- finds itself in a delicate place. The Hornets can bring back a franchise player for his final season with the hope that the current team (with no flexibility to add in free agency) resembles that of a playoff team. Walker could eventually be persuaded to sign a long-term pact in 2019, which would at least double his current salary and limit the team's flexibility in the future. The Hornets would then run the risk of losing Walker for nothing if they head back to the lottery.
However, moving Walker presents obstacles. A player on an expiring contract is proven to have little value unless there is a long-term commitment to the acquiring team. While extension-eligible, Walker can receive only a 120 percent increase on his current deal without available cap space, and a $14.4 million salary is a nonstarter. One feasible scenario: Identify a team, such as Phoenix, that needs a point guard and has assets such as draft picks and young players, as well as the space to renegotiate the $12 million salary. Then Walker could potentially commit to the Suns for the future with a more appealing contract.
The case for Steve Clifford
An outside observer would look at Steve Clifford's 194-213 record with only two playoff appearances over the past five seasons and see a coach who has the Hornets trending south. But his success isn't accurately reflected in the standings.
The Hornets were known as a downtrodden franchise before his arrival in 2013. Clifford transformed the team that won seven and 21 games the two seasons before he got there (2011-12 and 2012-13) into a team that won 43 games in 2013-14 with the same roster from the 21-win season. Two years later, the Hornets won 48 games.
Although the defense has slipped from his first season (going from No. 5 to No. 16 in efficiency), the offense has ranked in the top 15 in efficiency the past three seasons.
Clifford is also healthier and in a more stable condition after he stepped away this season due to the effects of sleep deprivation.
Now it is up to new management to decide if it wants to continue with the stability of Clifford or go in a different direction.
The balancing act of the luxury tax
Charlotte is in rare territory when it comes to the luxury tax.
Not since entering the NBA as an expansion team have the Hornets been in the tax and paid a penalty. In fact, Charlotte is one of only two teams heading into next season that have never been in the tax. (New Orleans is the other.) Charlotte will need to make sacrifices to continue that streak.
The Hornets return 11 players on guaranteed contracts that combine to be worth $117.9 million, roughly $5 million below the tax line. Add their lottery pick slotted at $3.3 million, and the Hornets are $1.5 million below, with at least two roster spots to fill.
The math to stay below the tax does not add up if the same team returns.
While Jeremy Lamb is the obvious choice to be dealt, based on his $7.5 million expiring contract, the 25-year-old coming off his best season should not be fodder for cost-cutting. However, if management is confident that former lottery pick Malik Monk could be part of the rotation next season, Lamb could be the odd man out.
The summer of Malik Monk
The easy thing to do is dismiss Monk as a missed opportunity, especially when Donovan Mitchell was selected by the Jazz two picks after Charlotte grabbed Monk.
Behind the learning curve before the season started because of an injury during a draft workout, Monk did not come close to resembling the player we saw at Kentucky, a dynamic scorer with explosiveness to play above the rim. What Monk did show during his rookie season was a player who lacked consistency, had trouble with decision-making and often had trouble creating against NBA defenders -- three weaknesses that scouts worried would plague him in his rookie season.
While Monk has struggled for most of the season and played sparingly, there have been positives to build off heading into the offseason, including shooting 43.2 from 3 and averaging 14.4 points in the past five games. This stretch also includes a 62.1 true shooting percentage and the Hornets posting a 111.4 offensive rating with him on the court, per NBA Advanced Stats. For the season, Monk averaged 45.7 (TS%) and an offensive rating of 98.4.
Despite the positives, Charlotte and Monk are heading into a critical offseason of player development. If Monk transforms into a rotational player and eventual starter, Charlotte will have justified the selection. If not, the 2017 draft will be remembered as a missed opportunity.
Summer cap breakdown
You can justify a top-10 salary when you are championship-level or a team that can compete for a deep playoff run. The Hornets do not check either box.
Charlotte will be in a similar position as it was in the summer of 2017: a team with limited flexibility in free agency. Besides their lottery pick, the Hornets will have to rely on the $5.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception in free agency. However, using this exception will come at a cost. The Hornets, a projected luxury tax team based on $121 million in guaranteed salary, will incur a $7.5 million tax penalty if they use the full amount.
Dates to watch
Even with luxury tax concerns, there is no risk associated if Charlotte elects to give Treveon Graham a qualifying offer. Although the $1.7 million qualifying offer represents a $400,000 salary increase from this season, Charlotte can withdraw the offer by July 13. When given an opportunity, Graham has proven that he can be a rotation player in the NBA. Now the Hornets have until June 29 to decide if they want to put the restricted tag on the small forward.
Besides Graham, the Hornets have until Aug. 1 to make a decision on the $1.7 million contract of backup guard Julyan Stone. Having played only 91 minutes, Stone is likely to be a waiver casualty. Although the Hornets will have to replace Stone with a similar contract, Charlotte would not only save $150,000 but also be locked into a guaranteed contract with a player who had no role this season.
The free-agent focus
Similar to last offseason, Charlotte will be in a holding pattern when it comes to free agency.
Faced with only three roster spots available and pressed against the luxury tax, the Hornets will need to do bargain shopping with the minimum exception. Charlotte has a $5.4 million exception available but will use it only if there is a cost-saving trade that reduces payroll.
Even with limited spending, one area of focus in either the draft or free agency is backup point guard. The Hornets are thin with Michael Carter-Williams hitting free agency and Stone on a non-guaranteed contract.
The Hornets have seven extension-eligible players, including Walker and former lottery pick Frank Kaminsky. Walker would become super max eligible by earning All-NBA honors this season, but that is unlikely to happen, given a deep pool of guards.
When it comes to Kaminsky, the new front office should take a wait-and-see approach. Since coming into the NBA in 2015, Kaminsky has proven to be a rotation player but hasn't shown that he can start on a consistent basis. Overall, his production since his rookie season has flatlined. Locking up the forward to a long-term contract would further put Charlotte into salary-cap purgatory. With only $75 million in committed salary in 2019, a new front office will have the opportunity to reshape the roster as its see fit, with or without Kaminsky.
The draft assets
Here's how ESPN's Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz have Charlotte picking in the 2018 draft:
The Hornets retain all their future first-round picks, but second-round assets were reduced when they acquired Hernangomez from the Knicks. As part of the trade, Charlotte sent a 2020 and 2021 second to New York.