Winning is never easy. Sometimes it can be difficult just to find a direction—a path to what the future holds. At the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 8, the Charlotte Hornets cleared a path, making big deals that sent PJ Washington and Gordon Hayward out of town and brought others in, including a homecoming for two players who grew up and played high school ball in Charlotte.
That the team made changes wasn’t any big surprise, as the team had only 10 wins in 50 games before the deadline with just 32 to go. After the team dealt longtime point guard Terry Rozier in January, more moves were expected.
The Charlotte Hornets’ abysmal record was the result of ill-fitting pieces and a slew of injuries that decimated the team. With star guard Lamelo Ball, starting center Mark Williams and the aforementioned Hayward each missing extended periods of time, there was just no hope that the team could perform night in and night out.
Coach Steve Clifford addressed that issue after a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 31.
“I can coach better, but the injuries have been devastating,” Clifford said. “You can’t win like this. Last year, our guys hung in there. We got a lot better and played better as the year went on. If we had everybody and were playing pretty good, to me, we could have been a fifth or sixth place team, but we’re not that now. In these two years, it’s not an excuse, but injuries have crushed us, and yet, I’ve got to find a way so we can play better. That’s my responsibility that we play better.”
During that press conference, Queen City Nerve asked Clifford what he does to manage the morale of players after so many losses.
“One thing about NBA players, if you want them to listen to you, you have to tell them the truth. They know there’s little room for error. I also tell them the facts,” he replied. “Our problems aren’t their effort, their work, how much they want to win. Our problem is we’re under-talented, and there’s nothing wrong with telling them that. And they do have to play well and we have no room for error, and we can’t make mistakes.
“Everybody has a different way to do it,” Clifford continued. “To me, if you want an NBA player to listen to you, there’s two things. One, you have to be able to help them win and get better. Two, you can’t lie to them.”
Charlotte didn’t lie to themselves thinking that the team was going anywhere as it was constituted before.
Rozier was the first to go, and following his departure to Miami he made a comment that had to be cringeworthy for any Hornets fan to hear when asked about the difference between losing in his new home vs. losing in Charlotte.
“In Charlotte, you’re kinda used to losing,” Rozier said. “It’s in the DNA, and it sucks to say that because of how much of a competitor I am. But over here, it’s the total opposite. Nobody wants to lose. Nobody is fine with it.”
Rozier would later say the comment was portrayed differently than how he meant it, but Clifford took no offense.
“I interpreted that as I think he was more talking about the pressure to win in Miami than it was here,” Clifford said. “I think he just made a statement. I love Terry. Everybody loves Terry. Terry loves our guys … I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
The Rozier trade brought back 37-year-old veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, though it was announced on Feb. 10 that the team had bought out his contract and would waive him, allowing him to sign with Philadelphia.
The key acquisition in that deal for the Hornets, however, was a lottery-protected first-round draft pick in 2027, and if it doesn’t parlay, an unprotected first in 2028, which could turn out to be huge. It was a good get for the Hornets.
But the Hornets were not done dealing. Come Thursday’s deadline, the Hornets were ready to make headlines.
What the Hornets pulled off at the deadline
First to be sent out was Hayward, who went to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Tre Mann, Dāvis Bertāns, Vasilije Micić and two second-round picks. Bertans has had limited playing time for the past three years but was a dangerous 3-point shooter. Micic, 30, played limited minutes with OKC after coming from overseas this year, but he was considered one of the best international players in the world, and Mann is a 23-year-old point guard who could get a look.
They followed that news up by dealing PJ Washington to Dallas, in return bringing back two players familiar with Charlotte in Providence Day School grad Grant Williams and Seth Curry, brother of Steph and son of Hornets color commentator Dell Curry. Charlotte will also receive a 2027 top-two protected first-round pick while sending two second rounders back to Dallas.
In terms of first impressions, the Hornets looked like anything but a 10-win team Saturday night against Memphis as they not only won the game 115-106, but saw a huge impact from their new additions. A smart, tough player, Williams had 15 points and eight rebounds in his debut, while Micic had a season-high 18 points and 9 assists. Mann added nine assists and nine points.
Playing behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with OKC didn’t give Micić many opportunities to operate with the ball. It was only one game, but watching him run the offense in the halfcourt makes me think he might be better at the “point” aspect of being a point guard than Ball. Bertāns added nine points in just 12 minutes while Curry sank his first 3-pointer as a member of the Hornets.
James Bouknight, Ish Smith and Frank Ntilikina were all released on waivers over the weekend following the trade deadline. Bouknight was part of the disastrous 2021 draft in which the Hornets traded a first-round pick to draft Kai Jones, whom they cut before the start of this season following a string of bizarre comments and posts on social media. The good news is that, due to the Hornets’ struggles, that top-14 protected first-rounder will likely turn into two second-rounders instead, one each in 2026 and 2027.
Then-president Mitch Kupchak was optimistic following the slate of deadline deals, saying, “We’re more balanced as a team if you look at the positions. We are hopeful that our bench will perform better than the bench we had. We’ve added veterans. Just as big as getting the players, and I’m lumping in the Terry Rozier trade, are the two first-round picks. Both have a tremendous amount of upside. They are out there a little bit (2027) with very little protection.”
Kupchak gave the new owners credit for the Hornets’ aggressiveness at the trade deadline.
“To sit back and just do nothing probably wouldn’t have been the wise thing to do,” he said. “I point to our owners Rick (Schnall) and Gabe (Plotkin) more than anybody. They wanted to be aggressive and didn’t want to just sit and assume that this team is going to be healthy next year. We didn’t think that was the way to go. Quite frankly, I think it was the thing to do and I’m glad we did it.”
Despite the praise, it appears Kupchak’s role with the organization will be downsized as Schnall and Plotkin look to bring their own guys in. It was announced on Monday that Kupchak will step down from his position as president and serve as an organizational adviser once a new president is hired.
Not burning Bridges
Despite plenty of speculation that he might be gone, Miles Bridges stuck around through the deadline, utilizing his right to veto any trade this season and retaining his Bird rights after signing a one-year contract last July.
Bridges has played well since missing last season and the first 10 games of this season due to a suspension that followed his 2022 domestic violence arrest. He’s averaging more than 21 points and seven rebounds a game and in the first week of February scored a career-high 41 points against the Raptors only to beat that with 45 points in the next game against Los Angeles.
While it’s too early to project, there is a good chance he’ll be back next year because of his own insistence on sticking with the team during the recent deadline as well as the possibility that other teams might not be excited to add him to their respective rosters only to also retain the scrutiny and controversy that comes with his recent charges.
Along with the mostly positive reception of the Hornets’ trade deadline moves from fans and professional analysts alike, one hopeful point in an otherwise dreadful season has been Brandon Miller.
Booed by some Hornets fans when selected instead of Scoot Henderson with the second overall pick, Miller has taken major steps recently, putting together his own slate of high-scoring games in early February, including a career-high 35 points against Indiana on Feb. 4 followed by 33 points the very next night against Los Angeles at home.
He’s averaging 25 points per game in the team’s most recent eight games. He’s also playing good defense and, for those critics that didn’t think he was athletic enough, he’s shown quite a bit of athleticism in some highlight plays he’s flashed throughout the season.
“We had high hopes for him coming into the season and he’s played even better than we could have expected,” said Clifford. “He’s a two-way player, he’s a great worker, he’s easy to play with. It’s nothing but positive.”
When we asked him about using Miller more as a secondary ballhandler, especially with Rozier gone, he responded, “Yeah, even now, we started to. I think it will be good for him. He’s very adaptable; he doesn’t need a lot of reps to learn things. And he can pass, which is another skill not a lot of younger players have so yea, for sure.”
With Kupchak out, it remains to be seen whether Clifford will be back leading the team next year? You can question some of Kupchak’s decisions, but Clifford has been dealt a bad hand.
Clifford doesn’t question his own ability to coach, insisting before a Jan. 31 loss to the Bulls that, “I have worked for some great coaches and learned a lot, so I do know what it takes to win in the league.”
However, a week later some of that confidence was starting to falter, as he admitted following a Feb. 7 loss to the Raptors that he has “failed pretty miserably” at making defense a priority for the team.
Clifford doesn’t appear to be the problem that plagues the Hornets, and now that they have fixed some roster issues and gained valuable draft capital for the future, he’ll have a second chance if he can get his new lineup to finish strong over the next 30 games.
It’s unclear if winning is on the horizon, but at least the fog has cleared so that now we all have an idea where this boat is heading.
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