As easy as it is for me to get hyped about the upcoming season – and let me tell you, I’m extremely hyped – there are legit reasons to be skeptical about the 2016-2017 Charlotte Hornets. You may have already heard some of these reasons voiced by league prognosticators and network pundits. And listen, I get their concerns, really I do.
Sure, last year’s team finished the season tied for third in the Conference – propelled by a Top 10 Defense (now a Steve Clifford hallmark) and, surprisingly, a Top 10 offense.
Sure, the team returns the bulk if its core roster and respected coaching staff.
Sure, half of the team’s top eight rotation players are 26 or younger.
But…things can go wrong…right?
Peaks and Plateaus
FACT: Half of last year’s rotation experienced either a career year or a bounceback season. Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker: all but Kemba were in contract years and each received massive raises in the offseason.
In all, Steve Clifford’s career rejunvenation system was responsible for roughly $300m in new contracts (including Al Jefferson’s deal with the Pacers) signed in the month of July. The Hornets have to hope that their two returning free agents (Williams and Batum) were no flukes – that the fires that fueled both players’ exceptional seasons will remain.
Walker’s motivation has never been questioned but last season’s peak was defined by an incredible increase in shooting percentage and overall efficiency – two areas in which Kemba has struggled with since arriving in Charlotte five seasons ago.
So, the question remains: was last year’s Kemba the “new” Kemba? KW annhilated his traditional and advanced shooting numbers (which had settled in at a vomit-inducing 39%/33% FG/3PFG% and 48% TS%) by hitting 42%/37% FG/3PFG% and 55% TS%. These are by no means say, Chris Paul numbers, but at least elevated Kemba’s previously horrific averages into the respectable Mike Conley tier.
Players have hit new sustainable plateus before. Kyle Lowry is another barely six foot lead guard who dabbled in mediocrity until he found a perfect fit in Toronto.
But Lowry is burly with a game that is as much power as speed. Kemba’s slight frame and lightning quickness require that he work at full athletic capacity – making his offseason knee surgery (the second surgery on the same knee) more than a little worrisome.
How long can a player of Kemba’s size and playing style function at a high level? Can Kemba build off of last season and become an All-Star? Or will he regress to the low efficiency, head-down lead guard of Bobcats past?
Replacing Two-Ways with One-Ways
Rich Cho did a tremendous job retaining and restocking talent given his unique free agency challenge back in July. The roster is arguably just as strong overall and potentially stronger if Clifford’s rejuvenation magic can continue. There is however, one potential area of concern.
With Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, the Hornets had perimeter players who could be counted on at both ends of the court. Lin’s ability to defend twos (Dwyane Wade notwithstanding) and Lee’s ability to switch onto threes was a huge reason for the Hornets late season surge. Last season’s Hornets could field “mismatch” proof lineups full of defensively sound, mobile defenders who could switch on to nearly anyone.
FACT: the Hornets replaced Lee and Lin with Ramon Sessions and Marco Belinelli. Ouch. Both players have ranked in the bottom tier of guards in defensive rating at their position over their careers.
Keep in mind that Clifford’s rotation featured just two defensive liabilities last season: Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lamb. Big Al’s role was minimized and he was ultimately allowed to walk in free agency. Lamb has one foot in Clifford’s doghouse and the other on the trading block. Maybe the pundits are right – this could be bad, right?
Now the good news: neither Marco nor Ramon suffer from the same defensive unawareness as Lamb (although Jeremy’s shown signs of improvement during the preseason). And their physical limitations won’t hurt Charlotte quite as much as Jefferson because they’re not in charge of protecting the paint. Also, they’ll likely have that other guy playing next to them…
*IF HE CAN STAY HEALTHY
Only four teams have ranked in the Top 10 in defensive efficiency over the past three seasons: The Spurs, the Warriors, the Pacers and Steve Clifford’s Bobnets. Amazingly enough, Charlotte has achieved this distinction without a single All-NBA defender on the roster.
That could change this year. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can crack 70 games this season (it would be his first since his rookie campaign), expect him to get a first or second team All-D nod.
Anchoring a Top 10 defense while consistently matched up with the opponents’ best perimeter scorer will place MKG in the All-D conversation; averaging double digit rebounds could seal it.
With no Big Al to soak up defensive boards and with rebound-phobes like Roy Hibbert and Frank Kaminsky manning the middle, expect Clifford to give MKG a free pass to crash the glass and push the ball all season – boosting his stats while covering up a potential weakness.
Clifford’s teams have led the league in defensive rebound percentage since he arrived – his first without Jefferson will be a challenge if MKG, now the team’s strongest rebounder, can’t stay on the floor.
In fact, if Kidd-Gilchrist goes down with another major injury, it could be the difference between this particular Hornets roster challenging for homecourt or barely sneaking into the postseason.
Ceiling and Floor
Speaking of which, what exactly is the team’s ceiling this season? Suppose the roster stays relatively healthy and no other Eastern Conference team loses a major superstar. How far can the Hornets rise? Let’s look at the East in Tiers:
TIER ONE | Elite
They’ll win just enough games to nab the one seed and enter the Playoffs rested and healthy.
TIER TWO | Homecourt Teams
Great coach, roster continuity, rotation guys mostly in peak prime years. This team has averaged 50 wins over the last three seasons. I’m done doubting them.
Great coach, tons of flexibility to add talent during the season, deep, somewhat unfinished roster. Would be dumb to bet against them.
TIER TWO POINT FIVE | Potential Homecourt Teams
Great coach, savvy late-career vets (Korver/Millsap), potential Dwight rebound year, could also nosedive thanks to Teague/Schroeder, Horford/Howard downgrade.
Great coach, deep roster, young vets who could break out, free agent losses could weaken bench.
THIRD TIER | Playoff Teams
(6) Washington, (7) Detroit, (8T) Chicago, (8T) Indiana
Again, barring catastrophic injury, the odds of Charlotte (or any other East team) topping Cleveland are nil. It’s safe to assume both Toronto and Boston will be locks for homecourt. Which means one of Charlotte or Atlanta is most likely to nab both the Southeast Division crown and the final homecourt spot.
IMO none of the Third Tier teams listed has the combination of roster or coaching continuity, depth or talent to challenge for homecourt this season. Although I’m sure I’ll receive hate-tweets from deluded Pacers fans questioning my sanity.
So let’s assume Charlotte’s Ceiling is an Eastern Conference Top Four seed and a SE Division banner. 48-52 wins sounds about right.
Alternatively, let’s say Kemba misses 20 games, MKG misses another 20, Hibbert and Belinelli flame out as has beens while Batum and Marvin regress from last year’s highs. What does that season look like?
I’m betting high 30’s, low 40’s as the team’s floor – things would really have to break bad for that to happen but it’s certainly a possibility.
Clifford in 2014-2015: What Went Wrong?
In fact, things have only broken bad once in Cliff’s tenure as coach. The rebrand year or, infamously – and perhaps more accurately, The Lance Year is so far the only stain on Clifford’s resume.
There were injuries: Kemba, MKG and Big Al missed big chunks of time. But those same players missed even more games last season and Charlotte enjoyed their most successful campaign since relocation/expansion.
Ultimately, it was roster construction that sealed the team’s fate. Lance Stephenson was a horrible fit next to Kemba and Big Al. The team needed a “connector” after losing Josh McRoberts. Lance and PJ Hairston brought weird vibes to a previously joyous lockerroom.
Why rehash this now? If this year’s Hornets team underachieves it will not be because of what sabotaged them two seasons ago. The roster pieces, while not perfect, all fit.
TraderCho’s Midseason Bargains
So what could make this season’s roster more “perfect”? At every trade deadline since 2013, Rich Cho has made a low-cost, under the radar move that has turbo-charged the team’s finish:
- 2013: Sends Hakim Warrick to ORL for Josh McRoberts. McBob plays well, re-signs and starts the next season, propelling team to a Playoff birth.
- 2014: Sends Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien to MIL for Gary Neal. Neal’s scoring punch pushes CLT to the postseason.
- 2015: Sends Neal to MIN for Mo Williams (and Troy Daniels). Mo steps in for an injured Kemba Walker, nearly salvages a lost season – winning Eastern Conference player of the week in the process.
- 2016: Sends PJ Hairston and two 2nd Round picks to MEM for Courtney Lee. Lee’s acquisition propelled Hornets to the league’s third best record after the All-Star break.
So what bargain basement move will Cho make this season to boost the team’s Playoff push? Only Cho Knows!
The Charlotte Hornets have no superstar. There, I said it. Now we can move on.
What they do have is an All-Star caliber PG (Kemba), an All-Defense caliber forward (MKG), three Top 100 NBA players playing next to them (Marvin/Batum/Cody) and…wait for it…a two time NBA All-Star center anchoring a deep platoon.
Yes! Roy Hibbert is a two time All-Star. And he’s just thirty years old. So what if the game has passed him by. At least the Hornets finally have a guy who can stand a chance at guarding Hassan Whiteside or DeMarcus Cousins.
And really, Hibbert’s availability in special matchups highlights the first of Charlotte’s main strengths:
DEPTH: The team’s 10th and 11th men – Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes – are good enough to be rotation players on an average NBA team. Charlotte can throw four different looks at you at the five – and each of those looks are seven footers.
SHOOTING: Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Kemba Walker and Marco Belinelli can all get hot from behind the arc. MKG is improving from distance. As a team, the Hornets improved their 3P% from worst in the league to 8th last season and I expect that to continue even with the departure of Lee.
DEFENSE: Again, Clifford’s teams have ranked in the Top 10 since his arrival – and that was with Big Al patrolling, er should I say, perusing the paint. Add in Hibbert and MKG and Cliff may be able to push this team into the Top 3.
CONTINUITY: A Charlotte NBA team is entering it’s fourth consecutive season with the same head coach!!! WHAT?! I know, I know. It’s bizarre given the Bobcats coaching merry go round we had grown accustomed to. Cliff installed his base defense in year one and built around it with new and returning personnel since. Last year he revitalized the offense. Compared to Vincent, Dunlap and Kvetchy-B (Larry Brown), Cliff may as well be our Pop.
DIVISIONAL WEAKNESS: The Miami Heat stink now! Atlanta may have downgraded two starting positions. The Wizards backcourt not-so-secretly hate each other. The Magic’s GM is throwing poop at the wall. The Hornets finally have a legit shot at winning their division (remember, they are guaranteed to play each of these teams four times). Three SE Div teams tied with 48 wins last season and CLT is the only team in the Division to return both its Top 3 players and coaching staff.
THINGS I’M EXCITED TO SEE
A random list; compiled in no particular order:
- Frank at the Five
Kemba/Nic/MKG/Marvin/Frank lineups have got me extremely intrigued as a late game offense-first unit. As Spencer Percy and Nate Duncan discussed on their Hornets preview pod, the current core’s ceiling is in many ways tied directly to Frank’s development at the center position. If he can become a legit two way stretch five on a rookie deal, the Hornets will be free to invest their resources into finding another All-Star either in free agency or via trade.
- Center Rotation
Given Cody’s injury situation, Hibbert will start the opener – what happens after that is anybody’s guess. Cody is a solid B- at basically every facet of the game so can’t kill you when he plays. Frank can work in some matchups. Roy is too slow to guard stretch fives. And what about Hawes? He still has too much value as an NBA player to rot at the end of the bench.
- Backcourt Rotation
Speaking of rotation, how will Cliff run his backcourt now that Lin and Lee are gone. Batum will slide over and take Courtney’s spot. Marco will eat up some of Lin’s minutes next to Kemba. Ramon will run the second unit but will he play next to Kemba? Will Lamb get PT? Will Cliff stagger MKG and Batum’s minutes so that they can each play more SF?
- Jeremy Lamb
Speaking of which, it’s a make or break year for Jeremy in CLT. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman had less conflict than Cliff and Lamb last season. Given the potential high value nature of his contract, only good things could happen if Jeremy finally figures it out. So far in the preseason he’s shown improvement. The team would love to have another dependable offensive creator off the pine – the key word with Lamb, of course, is “dependable”.
Is he Andre Iguodala 2.0? What is MKG’s true potential? Is this the season we finally find out?
That’s all I got for now. Enjoy the season, Hornets fans…