This year it had to be Zion Williamson season. Not Zion Williamson’s season. Zion Williamson season in the same way that it is duck or rabbit season. Before he missed the entire 2021-22 season rehabbing a foot injury, the talk going into the year was “Will Zion give up his rookie max extension to sign with the Knicks?”
We know how that came about, with Williamson smartly opting for money and security because his body can be the kind of sculpture that can’t be repaired once shattered. New Orleans also acquired CJ McCollum, made the play-in, after the playoffs, and looked dangerous against top-seeded Phoenix.
Well, it’s a year before the final season of LaMelo Ball’s rookie deal, and the infrastructure in Charlotte looks as shaky as the New Orleans foundation did a year ago. Bobby Marks reported that Ball would be eligible for a five-year, $202.5 million deal. If it happens, he would be the first rookie to receive a max extension since Michael Jordan. That says as much about the Hornets/Bobcats draft history during the Jordan era as it does about Ball, but the fact remains that if Ball is worth that kind of money, it will be the pace.
The designated rookie rule gives teams the right to offer a five-year extension in the final season of a rookie contract, essentially giving the player a six-year deal they can’t get anywhere else because of the CBA. If a rookie is good enough to be offered, they usually take it because the financial incentives can’t be overcome elsewhere. Zion passing it would be a huge black eye for New Orleans, as it essentially signals that it is a garbage fire bordering on an inferno.
I understand the concern from Ball’s critics. Charlotte hasn’t made the strides fans hoped for a year ago, going from 33-39 in Ball’s pandemic-shortened rookie season to 43-39 last year. The usual problems remained, if not worsened. It’s obvious that Gordon Hayward’s body can’t last more than 20-30 games at a time. The defense went from 13th in points allowed per game to 25th in James Borrego’s last year on the bench. It was the kind of aimless wandering that prompts existential questions from players.
During the offseason, the Hornets’ advances toward Kenny Atkinson were rebuffed and they ended up re-signing Steve Clifford. The move shows all the imagination of a controller and it will be interesting to see how long his side enjoy victories en route to perhaps a play-in game.
The main focus from a roster standpoint over the summer was figuring out what to do with Miles Bridges, who was involved in a disturbing, heinous incident of domestic violence during which he allegedly beat his girlfriend. Bridges is not on an NBA roster and, if convicted, could face nearly 12 years in prison. (He pleaded not guilty.)
From a basketball perspective, that takes away Ball’s favorite partner and the Hornets’ leading scorer a year ago. So, heading into the penultimate year of his rookie deal, Ball has a slightly used coach, no first pick, a bad second pick and a scary Terry Rozier. The team’s highest-paid players, in order, are Hayward, Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee.
LaMelo sprained his ankle in the preseason, and while it’s not ideal, an injury-plagued campaign from Ball is perhaps the Queen City’s best hope to retain its crown. Even then, they’ll still need the rest of their roster to show potential like the Pelicans. And that’s in addition to trading for a borderline, yet-to-be recognized all-star. Good luck convincing another franchise to take on the final two years of Hayward’s deal ($30 million this season, $31 million next year), or Rozier, who is in the first year of a four-year, $96 million deal dollars.
Barring James Bouknight or Kai Jones breaking out in ways no one can imagine, this could be a very long season for Hornets fans. Ball couldn’t have taken a more talented roster into the playoffs a year ago, and the team is objectively worse.
Prevailing logic says that all rookies sign their max extensions. That’s why people were near hysterics when Williamson gave open-ended answers about New York. Whether he wanted to or not, he was challenged by concerns about health and organizational capacity.
Skill isn’t synonymous with the Hornets, whose biggest move was using the desperation tactic of signing the brother of a star player who doesn’t deserve the NBA. It’s nice to see that LiAngelo left China, ok. I just don’t know if it will convince a guy who considers himself a brand to renew with the club.
While it’s unclear whether Ball is capable of being the centerpiece of a contender, he has shown a rare kind of game that has general managers and coaches falling over themselves to sign him. Could he become the transcendent point guard people saw in their crystal balls? It’s a possibility in a good situation, but right now, Charlotte is worlds away from that.