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NBA PM: A Sneak Peek At The Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets acquired Dwight Howard this offseason. Buddy Grizzard analyzes Charlotte’s roster and how Howard might fit in.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Charlotte Hornets made a huge gamble this offseason by trading for Dwight Howard, a polarizing player who has departed every NBA franchise he’s played for under a cloud of controversy. The Hornets easily won the trade with the Atlanta Hawks, as removing the three years and $37.5 million guaranteed left for the unproductive Miles Plumlee was a win in and of itself.

However, recent comments by Howard indicate that he believes reuniting with coach Steve Clifford in Charlotte will give him an opportunity to recapture past glory. Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer apparently feels it’s a foregone conclusion that Howard will replace incumbent Cody Zeller as the team’s starting center. But is that the best idea?

The Hornets were 33-29 when Zeller played but just 3-17 without him. Had Charlotte maintained the same .53 win percentage with Zeller absent, the team would have won seven or eight more games, possibly reaching the fifth seed in the East. Zeller also joined Kemba Walker as the two greatest difference makers on the Hornets’ roster. Zeller’s +5.4 net rating led the team, just ahead of Walker’s +3.6. The team was 10.6 points per 100 possessions better with Walker on court compared to off, and +9 in net rating differential for Zeller. Their nearest teammate in net differential was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (+3.3).

As we gear up for the 2017-18 NBA season, we dig into the Hornets’ roster, one of the teams expected to make a move in the weakened Eastern Conference. Players are listed in descending order of salary for this season.

Dwight Howard, $23.4 million

“I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando,” Howard told Adrian Wojnarowski for an ESPN piece published Friday. “I’ve been in this system before, and I know how dominant I can be.”

Howard was referring to the similarities between Clifford’s system in Charlotte and the system Stan Van Gundy ran in Orlando when Clifford was an assistant. The biggest take away from Howard’s comments, however, is that he’s not looking to age gracefully in a more supportive role. He’s still looking to turn back the clock and sees the Hornets as a vehicle for that end.

On the plus side for Charlotte, both Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are better at executing the pick and roll than Dennis Schroder, the starting point guard for last season’s Hawks. Howard scores a supremely-efficient 1.2 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls but used fewer than 100 such possessions last season. It’s unclear if this resulted from a lack of proficiency in executing the pick and roll by Schroder or resistance from Howard to making the play a staple of his offense.

If Howard still believes that most of his offense should come from post isolation, it will be a bad sign for Charlotte. Howard scores about 50 percent fewer points per possession in post isolation than he does as a roll man. Year after year, Howard remains among the NBA’s least efficient post scorers.

Nicolas Batum, $23.4 million

Batum is a natural small forward, but so are Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom join Batum among Charlotte’s four highest-paid players. Williams has morphed into a stretch power forward since joining the Hornets while Batum starts at shooting guard, Charlotte’s position of least depth. Aside from Batum, the only other experienced shooting guard on the roster is Jeremy Lamb, whose issues we’ll discuss below. The Hornets paid a hefty price to steal Batum from the Trail Blazers. His ability to stretch the floor and set up Howard will be huge keys to determine if the new lineup can be a success.

Marvin Williams, $13.1 million

Williams has been a reliable shooter and defender for Charlotte, but his -0.5 net rating last season was worse than every Hornet to play at least 800 minutes except Lamb (-1.1) and the departed Ramon Sessions (-4.8). It will be critical for Williams to remain consistent as a three-point shooter if Howard does indeed replace Zeller as the starting center. Zeller is a more dynamic offensive player while Howard typically remains glued to the paint. The more Williams can continue to stretch the floor, the more it will insulate Charlotte from the spacing issues that significant minutes from Howard will generate.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, $13 million

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of adding Howard to the Hornets’ starting lineup is the prospect of pairing him for significant minutes with Kidd-Gilchrist, another non-shooter. Even if Walker, Batum and Williams remain steady contributors from the three-point line, there will be major spacing issues any time Howard and Kidd-Gilchrist share the floor. MKG is among the better defensive small forwards in the league, but his presence will make it impossible for Charlotte to deploy the type of four-out lineups Howard became accustomed to in Orlando. Look for Kidd-Gilchrist to play increased minutes with the second unit alongside Zeller. You may also see Williams play increased minutes at small forward with Frank Kaminsky standing in as the fourth shooter in lineups with Howard.

Cody Zeller, $12.5

Zeller, after battling injuries, became one of the breakout players from the last NBA season. No Hornet will have to sacrifice more if Howard is to receive the increased offensive role he’s seeking. The biggest question is, if inserting Howard as a starter doesn’t lead to wins, will the chemistry fracture if he’s asked to swap places and allow Zeller to resume his role as a starter?

Kemba Walker, $12 million

That Walker, an All-Star, has only the sixth-highest salary for Charlotte shows what a massive bargain he is, especially with two guaranteed years left on the deal. Walker is the Hornets’ engine and it will be on him to make new lineups work. Charlotte should have improved depth at point guard so, ideally, Walker won’t be counted on to shoulder quite as heavy a minutes load as last season.

Jeremy Lamb, $7 million

Among the nine Hornets to play at least 800 minutes last season, Lamb had the second-worst net rating. The former first round pick for the Houston Rockets has had a disappointing career to date but will be among the keys for Charlotte to improve this season. He’s the only natural shooting guard on the roster with the size to guard larger wings, if you accept that Batum is a natural small forward. Lamb posted a career-best 17 PER last year, well above the league average of 15, and it has trended up every season. However, Lamb shot a career-low 28 percent from three. The Hornets will hope for a bounce-back shooting season from Lamb, which, combined with his excellent rebounding for his position, would translate to a huge boost for Charlotte.

Malik Monk, $2.9 million

According to Cole Zwicker of NetScouts, Malik Monk was the most efficient college freshman on shots off the dribble since 2006, posting a spectacular 1.01 points per possession. However, Monk remains a mystery since we haven’t seen what he’ll be able to do against NBA defenses. Can he handle well enough to spend minutes as a backup point guard? Can he defend well enough to spend significant minutes at shooting guard despite his under-developed, 6-foot-3 frame? These are questions that remain to be answered, and we were denied a sneak peek since he was sidelined during NBA Summer League due to injury. Monk could end up the steal of the draft or he could struggle to find a position in the NBA. His range of outcomes is very wide, and the Hornets will need that outcome to be positive to bolster the team’s efforts to join the contenders in the East.

Frank Kaminsky, $2.8 million

Kaminsky was one of only five Hornets to post a positive net rating last season among players with at least 800 minutes. As mentioned, his outside shooting will take on a greater importance this season with Howard’s arrival impacting the team’s spacing. Kaminsky has shot 33 percent for his career from three, which is below league average but still good for a big man. If he can improve on that percentage while also improving his rebounding (4.5 per game last season) and maintaining something close to the 11.7 points per game he scored last season, he will remain an integral part of Charlotte’s rotation and a bargain as he is still on his rookie deal.

Michael Carter-Williams, $2.7 million

MCW was a good get for Charlotte on a one-year deal at $2.7 million, but his lack of shooting makes this move a question mark, given the new team dynamics. In an ideal scenario for the Hornets, Carter-Williams could spend minutes in the backcourt with Monk where his size allows him to guard larger wings. The ball will be safer in Carter-Williams’ hands on offense than Monk’s, and the presence of Zeller with the second unit could lead to vastly-improved depth. That’s if everything works out the way it’s supposed to. If any of Charlotte’s pieces stray off script, it could prevent the team from reaching its full potential.

Aside from Carter-Williams, Shams Charania of The Vertical is reporting that the Hornets are expected to sign point guard Julyan Stone if he’s able to receive clearance from FIBA. Stone is 6-foot-7 and could also bolster the team’s wing depth. And the team has also signed second round pick Dwayne Bacon — who has received comparisons to Joe Johnson — to a minimum deal. Bacon looked excellent in Summer League, leading the Hornets with 15.7 points per game, including 29 in the finale against Orlando

The Hornets have a brutal November schedule, with a stretch starting Nov. 10 that includes games in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto, interspersed with home games against the Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards and Spurs. That means Charlotte will have to figure things out right away. There won’t be a light early schedule to ease Howard into the rotation, so we should know before the year is out if adding him was the right move.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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