Languishing in the middle of the pack is known as being in the NBA’s version of purgatory. The Charlotte Hornets have been residents here since 2014. Being just good enough to remain in the playoff chase the past five seasons, but nowhere strong enough to seriously contend among the league’s elite.
Back to back 36-46 finishes led to the ouster of veteran head coach Steve Clifford during the offseason. The team also offloaded future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard. Enter new general manager Mitch Kupchak and new head coach James Borrego with a mission to aid Charlotte’s ascent up the league’s hierarchy.
The Hornets will enter the 2018-19 season with major contributors up and down the roster that could hit free agency next summer. Adding this to a new front office regime while also incorporating a new coach could lead to some early turbulence and uncertainty.
Charlotte has an interesting mix of young prospects, a stockpile of draft picks and could have up to $51 million in cap space next summer. There are three ways to improve in the NBA – the draft, trade market and free agency. The Hornets are strongly positioned to take advantage in all three areas and could finally free itself from the grips of purgatory.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
There are specific things to like about the Hornets. Kemba Walker has turned himself into a lethal point guard despite being undersized. Malik Monk and Miles Bridges have upside and could become foundational players for Charlotte. They have experienced veterans who should make the team competitive on just about any given night in the Eastern Conference. But the ceiling is very limited for this roster. It’s hard to imagine Charlotte making it past the Celtics, Raptors or 76ers in the postseason and there isn’t much reason to believe this team can make any deals that substantively change this dynamic. This is an expensive roster that doesn’t have the upside to justify such a hefty price tag. This may be the season where the front office decides to start selling off its top players, even Kemba Walker, for prospects and other assets. To be clear, this team could easily be in the playoff mix this season, but making it past the first round seems less than likely.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Will we look back on the summer of 2018 as the one that signaled a changing of the tides in Charlotte? The outlines are certainly there, but there are also some contrary signs. The Hornets found new names for both their coach and GM positions, bringing in James Borrego and Mitch Kupchak, respectively. They became the latest team to move on from Dwight Howard. They also nabbed Miles Bridges in a draft day trade with the Clippers, plus are very high on early second-rounder Devonte’ Graham as a future piece. By the same token, the Hornets still have several pricey veterans on the roster, plus signed Tony Parker as a new backup point guard. All of which leads us to the elephant in the room, actually one of the team’s smallest players: Star Kemba Walker. Walker is in the final year of his contract before hitting the unrestricted market in 2019, and whether the Hornets will be able – or even willing, for that matter – to lock him up at his market price is the biggest question in Charlotte. If they get the idea the answer is no, will they look to shop Walker before the trade deadline? All eyes are on Kemba for a franchise that tops out as a middling playoff contender in the East.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
In his first year as a head coach in Charlotte, James Borrego has an opportunity to take the Hornets to the next level, which they haven’t been able to reach in the past two years. There is always playoff potential when you’re in the Eastern Conference, and with Kemba Walker entering the prime of his career, it’s more than plausible for it to happen this season. Promising upstart Willy Hernangomez is poised to have a breakout year, which will push Cody Zeller to step it up in order to keep his starting spot. Sophomore guard Malik Monk could be in for a big season himself. Veterans like Nic Batum and newcomer Tony Parker will help in the locker room. It’s only year one, but they’ll be hovering around the postseason race.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
Here’s how to describe the Hornets: To determine whether a team is good, all they have to do is compare themselves to Charlotte. If the team is better than the Hornets, then that team is good. If it’s worse, then that team is bad. That’s what the Charlotte Hornets are. The living embodiment of mediocre. Even if they wind up snagging a playoff spot, what would be the point? Outside of Kemba Walker, the roster is nothing special. The best-case scenario for them would be a competitive first-round series, and that’s if everything goes their way. Even with their coaching change and some intriguing young talent, don’t expect too much from Charlotte this season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Matt John
The Hornets are middling at best. That’s tough to say because the hiring of James Borrego was solid. They have some promising young guys, and there is enough talent on the roster to think they are good enough for the post-season in the East. The problem is there isn’t anything about the Hornets worth believing in. You want to believe Kemba Walker will break out (again), but historically he’s been injured. You want to believe the guys they invested huge contracts into are going to bounce back, but they too have either been injured or not playing to the level that got them paid. The Hornets are a mess, and it’s hard to put a lot of stock into a team that’s a mess. Maybe they bounce back … Maybe.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
First things first, Walker is the Hornets’ career leading scorer. The 28-year-old guard has missed only six games the past three seasons, has recorded back to back All-Star appearances and notched three consecutive campaigns averaging more than 20 points per contest. Walker, an unrestricted free agent next summer, is entering his prime and will be in high demand if he hits the open market. Trade rumors have been swirling around Walker for a year and it remains to be seen if the former UCONN product is truly in Charlotte’s long-term plans under Kupchak.
Walker will enter the season as Charlotte’s number one offensive option. Walker shot 31 percent from three-point range as a rookie in 2012, but hasn’t shot below 37 percent from distance the last three seasons, which is a testament of his offensive growth. The Hornets’ next leading returning scorer from last season behind Walker is guard Jeremy Lamb and he averaged nine points less in 2018. It’s safe to say as Walker goes, the Hornets go offensively.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
While their respective offensive games leave much to be desired, Kidd-Gilchrist and veteran center Bismack Biyombo have the raw talent to be defensive stalwarts. However, Kidd-Gilchrist ranked 32nd among small forwards last season in defensive real plus minus. Biyombo didn’t fare much better, landing at 73rd overall for qualifying centers.
Still, Kidd-Gilchrist is a very reliable wing defender with the ability to guard at least three positions. To put it simply, defense is Kidd-Gilchrist’s calling card and it remains his primary role with the Hornets.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
Batum remains one of the most versatile players in the league. The 10-year veteran consistently contributes all over the nightly box score, but his ability to facilitate Charlotte’s offense also allows backcourt mate Kemba Walker to shoulder a heavier scoring workload. Heading into the season, Batum currently sits 10th all-time on the Hornets’ career assist list.
There has been talk of Batum moving back to his natural small forward position under Borrego and this could impact his playmaking, so it is a situation to watch heading into training camp.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
When the lead is five points or less with less than five minutes to go in regulation, the ball will be in the hands of Walker. Period. Walker averaged 3.4 points in these situations last season. The next returning Hornets player, Nicolas Batum, averaged 1.2 points.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams
Williams will never live up to the expectations of being the guy selected before point guard Chris Paul in the 2005 draft, but Williams has become one of the most consistent players in the league during his tenure. With Williams you know exactly what you’re going to get; a pinch of double-digit scoring, solid rebounding for his position and decent defense. In two of the past three years, Williams has posted 40 percent shooting seasons from three-point range, further showing his versatility. This season, assuming good health, Williams should surpass the 1,000 regular season games played mark and the 10,000 career points milestone.
Best New Addition: Tony Parker
Finals MVP. Four-time NBA champ. Six-time All-Star. Four-time All-NBA performer. What’s not to like about the signing of veteran guard Tony Parker this past summer? Sure, the Hornets aren’t getting a prime Parker and he has showed signs of aging in recent years. But Parker is very familiar with Borrego from their time in San Antonio together, which is exactly the type of safety blanket a new coach could use while getting fully acclimated.
With Walker’s impending free agency, Parker could also be used as a stopgap option if Charlotte elects to trade him before the deadline or loses him in free agency next summer. Unlike some other aging future Hall of Fame talents around the league, Parker has seemingly embraced his role as the old graybeard.
– Lang Greene
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego
The Hornets have received criticism over the years for playing it safe when it comes to front office and head coaching hires. But Charlotte swung for the fences with their latest additions. Kupchak won four titles as a general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers and three titles as a player. Borrego broke the barrier by becoming the first Hispanic full-time head coach. Borrego served on the San Antonio Spurs’ staff the past three seasons but also was an interim head coach for the Orlando Magic in 2015. Both hires signal a new direction for Charlotte and it will be interesting to see if the franchise elects for a true rebuilding project or more of a retooling effort on the fly.
2. Stockpile of second round draft picks
The Hornets will enter the season with a payroll exceeding $120 million. With the team up against the salary cap, Charlotte has been stockpiling additional draft picks for leverage to acquire new talent. The team has six second round picks through 2021 and the needed flexibility to acquire younger and less expensive talent until the cap situation improves.
3. Malik Monk
Monk averaged 19.8 points per game in his lone collegiate season at the University of Kentucky. The guard, only 20 years old, had an uneven rookie campaign but showed flashes of potential. Monk’s upside is the most intriguing. In the Hornet’s final five games of the season, Monk averaged over 20 points per game. During this stretch, the guard shot 48 percent from the field. For the entire season, Monk’s field goal accuracy was just 36 percent. Monk has the potential to become a high volume scorer in the league. With incumbent starting shooting guard Jeremy Lamb headed to free agency next summer, Monk may have more runway this season to perform.
4. Miles Bridges
In a draft night trade, the Hornets acquired Bridges from the Los Angeles Clippers. In recent years, Charlotte’s draft history has been questionable. While Monk shows upside, forward Frank Kaminsky hasn’t panned out as the team once hoped.
Bridges holds the distinction of being one of the most explosive athletes from this year’s draft class and he has shown the ability to score, facilitate and rebound. With Lamb on his way to free agency and Batum’s past health issues, Bridges could be in line to receive extended minutes at some point during his rookie campaign.
– Lang Greene
Point guard and the wing positions are areas of strength for the Hornets. Walker is poised for another 20-plus point per game campaign and his third consecutive All-Star appearance. The addition of Parker gives the team much needed depth behind Walker and is an immediate upgrade over the departed Michael Carter-Williams. The trio of Batum, Bridges and Kidd-Gilchrist should also be productive and provides head coach Borrego flexibility in his nightly lineups.
– Lang Greene
Interior play and rebounding will be a struggle for Charlotte this season. Say what you will about departed center Dwight Howard, but he has always been a glass cleaner – averaging 12.5 in his lone season with the Hornets. The next returning rebounder in Charlotte is Cody Zeller who pulled down 5.4 boards per game in 2018. The next three rebounders were Willy Hernangomez, Batum and Williams. Kaminsky averaged 24 minutes per game and pulled down just 3.6 per outing.
The hope here may be to leverage the newly acquired Biyombo to assist on the boards, but offensively the team will struggle at times with him on the floor compared to Zeller. Biyombo has never averaged more than six points per game in his seven year career.
– Lang Greene
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling?
The Kupchak-Borrego era begins. But are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling? The answer to this question remains unclear heading into training camp. The team has enough talent to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, but they aren’t contenders by any stretch of the imagination.
The next few months will shed light on what direction Kupchak envisions for the franchise. Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The team could potentially lose their all-time leading scorer for nothing in return at the end of the season. This makes the prospect of a trade before the deadline feasible – at the very least.
Outside of Walker there are other free agency concerns brewing. Biyombo ($17M), Williams ($15M) and Kidd-Gilchrist ($13M) all have player options for the 2019-20 season and could become free agents. Parker, Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon all have non-guaranteed deals for next season while Kaminsky could enter restricted free agency.
Charlotte has the luxury to pursue either path, but the team is up against the salary cap and another middle of the pack finish will result in another late lottery pick.
– Lang Greene
How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports
The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.
Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.
Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.
And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.
The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.
Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.
The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.
NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe
Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.
Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.
No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.
And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.
“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”
While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.
Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).
He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).
It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”
Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.
And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.
A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.
“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”
Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.
And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.
The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.
“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”
Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.
“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”
Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”
So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.
NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future
David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.
One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.
House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.
He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.
“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”
This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.
Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.
When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.
Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.
“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”
Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.
In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.
“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”
Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.
In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.
“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”
As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.
The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.
“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”