The Charlotte Hornets entered the 2014-15 campaign riding high since they were coming off of a playoff berth and a rebranding that had their fans buzzing with excitement. However, the team recorded just 33 victories, missed the postseason and finished 11th in the Eastern Conference standings. The team’s front office spent the summer retooling the roster, but will it be enough to bounce back?
Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Charlotte Hornets.
Charlotte regressed quite a bit last season after making the playoffs in 2013-14, but they should be better this year. Lance Stephenson, who was terrible during his brief stint with the Hornets, is now gone, and the team has added some veterans who should help the squad win now such as Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lin and Spencer Hawes among others. Even though the team will very likely improve on last year’s 33 wins, it remains to be seen if they can crack the East’s top eight. I don’t think they will – I have Miami and Indiana getting into the playoffs with Brooklyn and Boston falling out – but I do think the Hornets will be just barely outside the playoff picture.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
Were it not for an ill-timed Al Jefferson injury a year ago, there’s a reasonable chance that the Hornets would have made the postseason. But that’s part of the gamble with Big Al and all Charlotte can really do moving forward is hope the same thing doesn’t happen again. Steve Clifford really is a solid head coach, and the addition of Nicolas Batum in trade was a good one for them (he’ll certainly be a better fit than Lance Stephenson was a year ago). Kemba Walker has the skill to be among the league’s most prolific scorers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a respected defensive stalwart and offseason additions like Jeremy Lin, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough and Frank Kaminsky help shore up the team’s bench. They’re deeper than a year ago, but they are, at best, a bubble playoff team in the weaker conference once again.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
The Hornets had all of the momentum heading into last season. The franchise was riding high off of a playoff berth and enjoying the excitement of its rebranding. The fan buzz surrounding the team was riding a wave of electricity. However, the team struggled to win just 33 games during the 2014-15 campaign and never seriously contended for a repeat trip to the postseason. Gone is the team’s marquee free agent signing last summer, Lance Stephenson. Longtime starting shooting guard Gerald Henderson was also shown the exit this past summer, as was last year’s lottery pick Noah Vonleh. From a purely talent standpoint the team didn’t significantly improve. However, the pieces on this year’s roster fit better on paper. Let’s see if this translates into more victories.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
The Charlotte Hornets showed who they believe the future of their team is by inking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a four-year, $52 million contract this offseason. Without Lance Stephenson, who they traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Hornets can have a fresh start on their hopes to return to the playoffs – as they did in 2013. The team added veteran big man Spencer Hawes and Nicolas Batum through trades, Jeremy Lin in free agency and Frank Kaminsky in the draft. Batum and Kaminsky in particular help the Hornets spread the floor, which is centered around anchor Al Jefferson. Many of their Eastern Conference counterparts improved this summer as well so the playoffs will be a challenge, but the look of the team is certainly an improvement.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Jessica Camerato
What can I say? I got love for Kemba Walker, representing my New York City proud. The entire city of Charlotte is hoping that he and Al Jefferson can find some sustained health this season and restore the team to respectability, and it’s difficult imagining the Hornets not at least fighting for a playoff spot. Nicolas Batum has long been coveted around the league, as he is a uniquely gifted swingman that impacts every facet of the game. Frank Kaminsky and Tyler Hansbrough will each make an impact for the Hornets and provide a bit of an insurance policy should Jefferson find himself on the shelf for any period of time. As the conference has gotten tougher, and partially out of respect for the Hawks, Wizards and HEAT, I can’t see the Hornets finishing any higher than fourth in their own division. The Central Division toughening up means that they will likely find themselves battling with the bottom-feeding teams in the conference to make the playoffs, but the opportunity will certainly be there. I’d consider the Hornets the epitome of a team “in the middle,” but could not argue against the fact that they have improved immensely this summer. I’ll be looking forward to how it all comes together.
4th Place — Southeast Division
— Moke Hamilton
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Al Jefferson
Jefferson heads into training camp just six points shy of 13,000 for his career, with three seasons of averaging 20-plus points per game on the resume. In a climate where true back-to-the-basket scorers are a rarity, Jefferson is a throwback to yesteryear when dumping the ball into the low block and letting your big man go to work was a necessity to win at a high level in the league.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Here’s some information to consider. The Hornets are 62-55 the past two seasons with Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting rotation and a woeful 14-33 without him during the same time period. While still a work in progress offensively, Kidd-Gilchrist has the ability to guard multiple positions and has the tools to make a push for an All-Defensive first team nod once he reaches his prime. The forward signed a four-year, $52 million contract extension this offseason. Some felt he could make more next summer in free agency, but Kidd-Gilchrist took the guaranteed money upfront – no doubt inspired by his injury history since entering the league.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
Naturally the first place you’d look is point guard for this distinction. But as floor generals go, Kemba Walker is far from a high volume assist machine with an average of just 5.9 dimes per 36 minutes for his career. Expect the Hornets to run a lot of their offense through Batum in order to capitalize on the diversity of his game. Walker may lead the team in assists at season’s end, but Batum will be highly efficient getting his new teammates involved in the offensive flow.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
When the game is on the line, the Hornets will place the ball in Walker’s hands to deliver the goods. From college to the professional ranks, Walker has consistently shown the ability to perform strongly in the clutch during the game’s tightest moments. Last season Walker had already nailed three game winning buzzer beaters before the end of January alone. Walker’s overall offensive efficiency can be erratic at time, but down the stretch the guard turns into an assassin.
The Unheralded Player: Jeremy Lamb
The Hornets’ acquisition of Lamb flew completely below the radar, which isn’t surprising since the guard spent his first three seasons with Oklahoma City struggling to get consistent minutes in the rotation. But consider this: Lamb has a career average of 11.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in games where he’s played more than 20 minutes. The good news for Lamb in Charlotte is that extended minutes are available.
Best New Addition: Nicolas Batum
This is the second straight season the Hornets enter training camp with a new addition at small forward. Last season’s experiment, Lance Stephenson, didn’t pan out and he was shipped to Los Angeles. Batum gives the team much needed versatility as he possesses the ability to score, rebound, assist and defend.
– Lang Greene
Who We Like
1. Steve Clifford: While his head coaching record (76-88) isn’t sparkling since arriving in Charlotte, there’s no questioning his ability to get players to buy into his system or his basketball mind.
2. Al Jefferson: Once thought to be just a guy who put up huge numbers on losing teams, Jefferson temporarily silenced those doubters during the 2014 season leading Charlotte to a playoff berth and being named All-NBA (third team). Jefferson remains one of the most productive players in the league today without an All-Star selection.
3. Rich Cho: The front office veteran has shown the ability to attract free agents, conduct meaningful trades and has had respectable draft selections while under his watch. Retooling on the fly is never easy, but the Hornets head into training camp with five new pieces that are expected to play significant roles in the team’s rotation from day one.
4. Nicolas Batum: The veteran is coming off of a down year, but those who followed closely know the forward gutted it out battling a variety of injuries. Charlotte is expecting Batum, in the last year of his current contract, to be a difference maker on both sides of the floor.
– Lang Greene
The Hornets head into the season much deeper than in prior years. At point guard, Jeremy Lin was signed as insurance for Walker, who has been battling injury woes the past two seasons. Lamb, P.J. Hairston and Troy Daniels will compete for shooting guard minutes behind Batum. At small forward Kidd-Gilchrist will get the start but Batum can also slide over to the wing. Look for veteran forward Marvin Williams to also be in the mix for minutes at the three. At power forward and center, Jefferson leads the pack but Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Tyler Hansbrough and Spencer Hawes will be expected to produce nightly.
– Lang Greene
The Hornets have two main areas to watch that could potentially derail or slow down their progress this season. The first is the team’s lack of a true rim protector on the interior. Jefferson, Zeller, Kaminsky, Hawes and Hansbrough have good size, but none of those guys strike fear into opposing players driving the lane. Secondly, the Hornets ranked at the bottom of the league last season in three-point shooting. The roster additions should help, but this is an area to watch.
– Lang Greene
The Burning Question
Is Al Jefferson in decline or is a return to form in the cards?
Jefferson averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting during his first campaign in Charlotte. Last season, the veteran averaged 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting. In season one, Charlotte made the playoffs. In season two, they struggled and missed the playoff festivities. The Hornets’ success (or failure) will largely be rooted in which Jefferson shows up for the entire season.
– Lang Greene
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.