As splashier offseasons from some of their Eastern Conference competitors stole most of the summer headlines, the Charlotte Hornets quietly went about their business.
They replaced outgoing Jeremy Lin with understated veteran Ramon Sessions at a much lower price tag, plus grabbed one of the standouts of NBA Summer League in high-upside big man Christian Wood on a team-friendly deal. They fleeced the rest of the market in re-signing two incumbent unrestricted free agents, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, who now check in at moderately and comically underpaid, respectively. To cap it off, they used some of the extra space from Williams’ bargain deal to nab forgotten rim protector Roy Hibbert on a cheap deal, replacing outgoing Al Jefferson with a more defensive-minded anchor.
Much like their on-court product the last couple seasons, the moves predictably fell mostly under the radar as other contenders flashed their expensive feathers. Those who did give the Hornets a second look focused more on offseason departures like Lin, Jefferson and Courtney Lee, all of who were nice pieces but were nonetheless a bit overrated as drivers of Charlotte’s success. Lin and Lee both saw the team perform better when they sat than when they played, and Jefferson’s fit in the modern NBA grows worse and worse by the year. Smart additions to fill whatever holes were left, plus the return of plus-minus star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a season mostly lost to injury, make worries surrounding outgoing players a bit overdone.
A group that technically finished third in the conference last year in a four-way tie is commonly being picked at the back of the East’s playoff picture or even out of it altogether. Have their competitors behind Cleveland – including teams the Hornets were clearly better than last season with the same core group – truly distanced themselves that much in such short order, or is Charlotte being shortchanged?
Basketball Insiders previews the Charlotte Hornets’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Hornets had a sneaky good (though not perfect) offseason. Retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams were big wins considering how important they are to the team’s overall success. Batum’s playmaking skills complement Kemba Walker’s well and allow him to play off the ball at times. Also, the additions of Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert help to, at least partially, offset the losses of Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson. I will say that I wasn’t a fan of the Hornets trading the 22nd pick in this year’s draft to the Sacramento Kings for swingman Marco Belinelli. Belinelli has been very inefficient since leaving the San Antonio Spurs and that was a steep price to pay for a player who has been a net negative on the court recently. Having said all of that, the biggest change next season for the Hornets will be the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Though shooting has never been a strength for Kidd-Gilchrist, his relentless perimeter defense, versatility and slashing ability makes him one of the Hornets’ most important players. Charlotte is simply a much better team when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the court, so hopefully he can avoid the injury bug this upcoming season.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
While the Hornets didn’t do a lot to drastically improve this offseason, they are plenty talented enough to win a weak Southeast with essentially the same group that made such a big step forward last season. Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson are out, but Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert are in. Not to mention, getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back healthy is obviously big too. Kemba Walker is really, really close to being an All-Star, and Nic Batum and Marvin Williams are proven commodities at this point. With this lineup and Steve Clifford at the helm, the Hornets look poised for a strong year.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
This past summer, the Hornets lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin. The three were important pieces of their team, and some might say the team will take a step back. Of course, they could, but if there is one thing that the Portland Trail Blazers taught us last season, it’s that there are exceptions to the rule. Those departures will create more minutes for the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can return to being the player he was prior to his injury, then the additions of Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions will actually count for something. It’s pretty well documented that I’m a big believer in Kemba Walker. I first met him the night he was drafted and quickly became convinced of his potential as a professional. I think he is realizing it. He and Steve Clifford have a great relationship and, based on their performance and experience last year, I think the best is ahead. I wouldn’t be shocked if they walked away with the division this year, but on paper, I’d still favor the Wizards because of their superior talent and improved coaching.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
Steve Clifford is a fantastic coach and there is a lot to be excited about for the Hornets. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is huge for this team, and their offseason additions were solid (although I would’ve liked to see them re-sign Courtney Lee). While I have the Atlanta Hawks winning the Southeast Division, I believe Charlotte will take a step forward this year and win a lot of games during the regular season. Whether they’re ready to make any noise in the playoffs remains to be seen, but I do think the Hornets are poised for a strong season and are heading in the right direction.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Hornets reached the playoffs in 2014, but then crashed back down to earth and missed out on the festivities in 2015. Then, Charlotte managed to return to the postseason in 2016. Do you see a pattern here? The Hornets lost three productive veterans in free agency this summer with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee headed to new destinations. Charlotte managed to address their backcourt by bringing in veterans such as Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, while also introducing former All-Star center Roy Hibbert into their frontcourt. The East has improved, but there’s enough uncertainty going on in the conference that Charlotte should be able to break free from their recent trend and reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
Walker is the unquestioned offensive captain for this team, fresh off a career year in which he easily led the Hornets in usage percentage and attempted nearly 500 more shots than second-place Nicolas Batum. His playmaking-to-turnovers ratio is the best in the NBA among volume guards, as noted previously in this space. Major progression with his open jump-shooting allowed for a big leap in his three-point percentage last season, one that feels at least mostly sustainable if the quality of his looks maintains.
A big part of this is Batum, whose presence or absence next to Walker last season came with a pretty noticeable swing in Kemba’s production – especially as a shooter. Walker shot over 41 percent from deep on a diet of mostly open looks while he and Batum shared the court, a figure that dropped precipitously to just over 28 percent when Batum sat and took his gravity with him. Space on the floor for Walker disappeared without the French marksman, a fact hammered home by Kemba’s increased turnover numbers during these minutes and nearly a five point reduction in his overall field-goal percentage. Any significant absence for either player is probably the biggest realistic worry for this team, and perhaps the only occurrence that should really threaten their playoff hopes.
With both healthy, though, Walker is primed to again approach All-Star level. He’s an underrated headache for defenders, running them enough to affect their performance on the other end of the floor. Now squarely in his physical prime, Walker should be in for a very nice year once again.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
If one of the elite offensive wings in the NBA, a recent top-three draft pick, had missed all but seven games with a non-career-threatening injury in his age-22 season, the summer preceding his return would likely be filled with ravings about his recovery and potential impact, right? Guys that age are often still improving, particularly if they’ve lost a year of development, and the expected added value for his team could be massive after they got so little production the year before.
Why, then, is Kidd-Gilchrist’s slated return drawing so little relative buzz?
Maybe some of it is a collectively faulty memory. It’s easy to forget how devastating a defender MKG was in his last healthy year – a 2014-15 season in which he trailed only two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards. (Not to mention, he was among the top 15 most impactful overall defenders in the league here, despite DRPM generally favoring big men). He has the quicks and length (a seven-foot wingspan) to check point guards as well as the strength to bang with many power forwards, and he’s arguably the strongest non-Leonard option in the league against stars at the shooting guard and small forward positions in between.
Critics point to his offensive game, a legitimate concern that nonetheless hasn’t had nearly the effect one might expect on his on-court impact. Kidd-Gilchrist’s presence or absence has consistently produced the sort of gap in team efficiency typically reserved for borderline star-level players at his position, and brief appearances last year were no exception. And if he’s this impactful as one of the worst offensive rotation wings in the league, what happens if he does what many talented 22-year-old NBA players do and improves even slightly on that end?
Health remains by far his largest concern after missing time in each of his first four seasons, but folks are sleeping on Kidd-Gilchrist if he can log 70-plus games. Along with incoming free agent Hibbert, he markedly raises the defensive ceiling of a team that was already in the league’s top 10 last year.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
Batum is the catalyst who allows Walker and the rest of the scheme to operate at peak levels. He’s the perfect Kemba complement: Not in Walker’s stratosphere as a ball-handler, but a strong shooter and off-ball cutter who slices into the high-leverage areas of the floor and doubles as an underrated passer. Batum actually assisted on a higher percentage of Charlotte baskets while on the floor than Walker last season, with the two combined accounting for over 45 percent of the team’s dimes overall. Walker initiates more plays, but it’s Batum who often finds the incisive pass after moving the defense around with his gravity.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
This pick reflects the likely reality, but perhaps it’s not actually the optimal approach. Walker attempted nearly double the shots of any other Hornet during crunch time last year, but did so in a mostly fruitless manner – he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 27 percent from deep. He spent the entire year (and much of his career) as a relatively ineffective isolation option, per Synergy Sports, so it’s no surprise he had issues during iso-heavy clutch minutes. At the same time, the approach seemed to work: The Hornets were the league’s fifth-best per-possession team in the final five minutes of close games, though some of this certainly speaks to their defense.
Not a lot has happened with this roster to suggest big changes here, but perhaps coach Steve Clifford should consider some minor tweaks. Batum was even worse from the field than Walker down the stretch last season, but certain members of the supporting cast (Williams in particular) were actually really effective – suggesting the possibility that a more team-oriented approach might be even more useful. This can be tougher in practice than in theory, of course, and there will be times where they simply have to rely on Walker or Batum to make things happen themselves.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams
Williams has finally found his perfect niche under Coach Clifford: a stretchy power forward who does just enough defensively and is a huge spacing asset for a team with shooting imbalances in strange places. He was the team’s best high-volume spot-up shooter outside of Walker, and the fact that over 90 percent of his looks from three were classified as “Open” or “Wide Open” by SportVU data indicates just how often he was used as a safety valve when teams collapsed on the likes of Walker and Batum. The only major risk for Williams’ productivity is the chance that his body begins to break down in the power forward role as he crosses age 30, but he’s been very durable the past few years and doesn’t have to shoulder any huge offensive burden that might tax him further. He remains a vital complementary piece on a fantastic new contract.
Top New Addition: Roy Hibbert
It’s tempting to include Kidd-Gilchrist here after he played just 205 minutes last year, but Hibbert’s under-the-radar signing is more organic. Not even 18 months removed from a time when many still considered him among the league’s elite interior defenders, Hibbert has seen his reputation slide into the gutter after a year in the NBA’s worst defensive culture. Are we really already prepared to write him off after one throwaway season under Byron Scott with nothing to play for? This feels premature. It’s possible Hibbert’s best days are behind him at 29 years old, but with real defensive players and a real defensive scheme around him once again, this is a guy primed for a resurgent year. He’ll work well with a floor spacer like Frank Kaminsky in second units that can both stretch the court and protect the rim, and could even enter crunch time lineups to help protect leads when necessary.
– Ben Dowsett
WHO WE LIKE
- Cody Zeller
Zeller will turn 24 years old in a couple weeks and is mostly a finished product at this point in his career, though he’s made solid improvements around the margins in recent years (lowering his turnovers, improving his scoring efficiency). He’s settled in as an above-average defensive center who makes up for a negative wingspan with strong instincts and good lateral mobility. He’s a very effective dive man in pick-and-roll sets, shooting nearly 60 percent on these plays and drawing a boatload of fouls as Charlotte’s most prolific rim runner. His 1.22 points scored per roll-man possession ranked fifth in the league last year among guys with at least 100 attempts, per Synergy. He’ll continue to serve as Walker’s most reliable screener and a solid, more-versatile-than-you-think defender.
- Steve Clifford
Clifford has quietly been one of the most productive systems coaches in the league since arriving in Charlotte. His schemes have gotten the most out of Walker, Williams and others offensively while simultaneously covering career-long defensive warts for someone like Jefferson. His Hornets teams have been in the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency each year he’s been in town, and he preaches a ball control-centric offense that’s posted the lowest turnover rate in the NBA for those same three years running. Charlotte doesn’t give the opponent anything easy, and the system really started to hum when Williams and Batum came aboard and opened up the floor for Walker. The Hornets were one of just five teams to finish in the NBA’s top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency last year, typically a mark of a contender. They should be in the same neighborhood this year.
- Ramon Sessions
Those looking past the Hornets this year are doing so in part due to concerns regarding Jeremy Lin’s departure, but are perhaps a step or two ahead of themselves. Sessions was a more efficient offensive player in Washington last season despite arguably a worse supporting cast during his minutes, and he comes at a much cheaper price tag (signing Hibbert almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if the Hornets had retained Lin at his eventual Brooklyn contract figure). He’s a downgrade on Lin defensively, to be sure, but additions like Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist should help cancel this out. Sessions is a perfectly acceptable backup point guard who can function mostly as a caretaker while Walker rests, and the need for two-point-guard lineups that featured Lin last year is greatly diminished with MKG’s return.
- Frank Kaminsky
Year two will be a big one for Frank the Tank, who had mostly a negative on-court impact as a rookie, but has several skills that could be vital for bench units now that Jefferson isn’t around to eat his share of possessions on the block. A slight uptick in Kaminsky’s three-point shooting could allow him to pair with Hibbert for a strong two-way lineup; defensive strides could allow Kaminsky himself to play center more often to juice spacing and bits of improvement in the post could make him more of a stand-alone option when Walker is off the floor. Kaminsky won’t check all these boxes at once, of course, but if he can nail one or two and stay healthy, he’ll be an asset. If not, he could lose minutes to Spencer Hawes, Hibbert or even youngster Wood.
– Ben Dowsett
SALARY CAP 101
The Hornets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to acquire Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions, before re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. Now over the cap, Charlotte still has their $2.9 million Room Exception. The team has 13 guaranteed players, with five players fighting for two available roster spots (Aaron Harrison, Mike Tobey, Treveon Graham, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andrew Andrews).
Next summer, the Hornets could have $21 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up Frank Kaminsky’s rookie-scale option before November. It also presumes Spencer Hawes opts out before next season, and that the team declines options on both Christian Wood and Sessions.
– Eric Pincus
The Hornets under Clifford are built on discipline, smart systems and maximization of talent. Guys know their roles or they don’t play. This is most likely to show through on the defensive end this year, where Kidd-Gilchrist and Hibbert raise the ceiling significantly. The former in particular almost certainly gives Clifford his largest collection of defensive talent since taking over in Charlotte. The Hornets were also the best defensive rebounding team in the league last year despite starting a small lineup and not employing anyone with a reputation as a monster on the glass, which is another tribute to Clifford’s demand of attention to detail.
They should remain solid if not spectacular offensively barring key injuries, with shooting as a crux point. There’s certainly a chance guys like Walker or Williams see slight negative regression, but it’s also far from out of the question that Kaminsky or Kidd-Gilchrist improves some. Even Batum has been a shade below his career averages the last couple years – he’s not too old to creep back up toward the mean. Belinelli’s addition should also help (another candidate for a moderate resurgence in a productive culture), and there’s enough here for another borderline top-10 finish.
– Ben Dowsett
Things get a bit dicey offensively if Walker or Batum misses any time, and overall margin for error in that regard is relatively thin in Charlotte. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t been very durable in his four NBA seasons. Depth and shot creation could quickly become a concern if a couple guys go down or heavily disappoint, and this is where Lin or Jefferson could be missed. The Hornets punt the offensive glass as much as virtually any team in the league, a tactic that shouldn’t change with Williams entrenched at starting power forward. If there’s an area truly poised for regression with this team, it’s their surprisingly strong showing in crunch time minutes last year.
– Ben Dowsett
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can Charlotte carry over their quiet success with improvements elsewhere in the East?
It’s a tough question, and for many the natural inclination is to look at larger surface changes to the Hornets’ competition and assume they’ve fallen behind.
Continuity doesn’t always mean stagnation in this league, though, particularly not with a strong coach and culture. Concerns regarding departures could be overstated, as we’ve discussed, especially if Kidd-Gilchrist has an impact anything like his age-21 season. A group that clearly has chemistry and a desire to win together – enough to get Batum and Williams back to a small-ish market for a bargain, at least – runs it back with a bit more talent in certain areas and another year of familiarity. They weren’t far at all from the East’s elite last season, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least come close again.
– Ben Dowsett
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