The Charlotte Hornets appeared to be on their way to another mediocre season and low-to-middling playoff seed. Point guard Kemba Walker made a somewhat-surprising, yet deserved All-Star appearance, but the team was only 3-17 in games breakout center Cody Zeller missed due to injury. In the offseason, Charlotte took a massive risk by trading for center Dwight Howard, who has departed his last three NBA stops under a cloud of controversy. Coach Steve Clifford was an assistant during Howard’s previous stops with the Lakers and Magic, and undoubtedly had input on the decision to add Howard. Both Cho and Clifford will be on the hot seat this season if the move doesn’t result in a return to the playoffs.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, the Hornets have a big, imposing front line. On paper, Howard seems to be the type of player that could excel playing with Kemba Walker, but I think Walker’s game still has another level or two to go to before I’d consider him a dynamic playmaker. I’d also have to admit that I would have thought that Howard would have had an easier time finding a consistent niche in Mike Budenholzer’s offense than I think he will in Steve Clifford’s, so I do certainly have some concerns about his fit in Charlotte.
Malik Monk will form a natural backcourt with Walker, but a team built around a scoring backcourt will only go so far in today’s NBA (ask the Trail Blazers about that). Still, with Frank Kaminsky coming on, if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Michael Carter-Williams can each stay somewhat healthy, I like the Hornets’ odds of returning to the playoffs this season. They finished 11th in the conference last season but got a few pieces that should help, plus with the Hawks, Pacers and Bulls perhaps falling out, it would seem the Hornets should be the beneficiary.
3rd Place — Southeast Division
— Moke Hamilton
After missing out on the playoffs last season, the Charlotte Hornets addressed their biggest need upfront in hopes to get themselves back in the postseason mix this year amongst a weakened Eastern Conference.
Charlotte added former all-star center Dwight Howard via trade, and then drafted scoring specialist Malik Monk in June’s draft lottery. In two moves, the Hornets delivered their roster some much needed help. Howard addresses the lack of an inside presence that Charlotte struggled with last season; his broad shoulders should be more than capable of pulling down double digit rebounds next season. Monk, on the other hand, provides another legitimate scoring threat to go alongside Kemba Walker.
Steve Clifford looks to have a squad capable enough of making a run at postseason play this season, and their offseason acquisitions are going to be a big part of that.
3rd place — Southeast Division
— Dennis Chambers
With the Eastern Conference taking a massive hit and Charlotte being one of the few middling East teams to actually improve this summer, it sure looks as if they’ll end up in the bottom half of the East’s playoff seeding this coming spring. Dwight Howard isn’t the All-Star that he used to be, but he’s a huge improvement at the center position, while rookie Malik Monk should add a lot to the backcourt in terms of bench scoring. Kemba Walker is still the star of the show, however, and he’s at a place in his career where he’s ready to take his big scoring numbers and translate that into actual team success. If not now, when?
2nd Place – Southeast Division
— Joel Brigham
The Charlotte Hornets are one of the tougher teams to make a prediction for this season. Last year, the Hornets fell well below my own expectations for them and they are bringing back mostly the same group. The addition of Dwight Howard could have a serious impact for this team, especially given his previous success working with Steve Clifford. However, Howard’s physical limitations in previous seasons are something to be concerned about and could continue to plague him this upcoming season as well. Despite this, the Hornets still have Kemba Walker and plenty of other talented players that collectively could perform at a higher level than they did last season. I am optimistic that this team can bounce back from last season, but I would not be surprised if they fall short of expectations again.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
After a year where many (this pen included) had them projected as a much better team than they ended up being, the Hornets are flying relatively under the radar in the East. They definitely aren’t talked about as part of the group of true contenders or even pseudo-contenders like Milwaukee, and they definitely aren’t part of the wasteland that occupies the bottom of the conference. Could this team surprise some people a year late? It’s always possible – they bring back a very similar roster to last season, only with the addition of Dwight Howard and new draft pick Malik Monk, and they’ll be hoping a few things around the margins go a bit better. Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller are all still very serviceable or better players, and youngsters Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky could be ready to contribute a bit more. The Hornets will compete with the HEAT for the second seed in the Southeast, and could surprise a few people.
2nd place – Southeast Division
— Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Walker is Charlotte’s engine and Howard is the major addition that could make or break this team, but the player that could have the greatest influence on this year’s eddition is Nicolas Batum. Cho scored a coup by obtaining Batum from the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 2015, then signed him to a massive five-year, $120 million contract the following season. In his first season in Charlotte, Batum had career highs in points (14.9) and assists (5.8), adding 6.1 rebounds, but last season his three-point shooting fell well below his career average to 33 percent.
With the addition of Howard — who presents significant spacing issues — Charlotte will need a bounce-back season from Batum from deep. More importantly, the Hornets will need Batum to employ his best quality — playmaking — to help incorporate Howard into Charlotte’s offense. Batum hasn’t lived up to the billing as a number two scoring option, but if he can help turn Howard into a consistent pick and roll threat, it could be as valuable as his role as a scorer.
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
Walker is an absolute beast and one of the most exciting players in the NBA, which is saying something. Unfortunately, with Batum’s shooting struggles and the spatially-challenged Howard now teaming up with the spatially-challenged Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in Charlotte, the Hornets do not have the ideal personnel to compliment Walker. Lanes to the basket will be extraordinarily difficult to find and a return to the All-Star game may prove difficult as well. As much as Batum’s proficiency at getting others involved will be a key to unlock this season’s Hornets, Walker is the unquestioned leader. It will fall to Walker to keep the team organized on the floor and ensure that the chemistry doesn’t fracture with Howard stealing some of the emergent Zeller’s thunder.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Every year Hornets observers ask the question: Will this be the year Kidd-Gilchrist breaks out and becomes something more than a defensively-exceptional role player? It’s probably time to accept that Kidd-Gilchrist is what he is. Clifford recently announced at a media luncheon that Kidd-Gilchrist will remain a starter, citing his competitiveness and feel for the game. Howard is expected to supplant Zeller as the starting center, although things can obviously change in training camp. Every minute Howard and MKG spend on the floor together could be ugly basketball, with teams collapsing in the lane to take advantage of Kidd-Gilchrist and Howard’s inability to stretch the floor.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
You could easily go with Walker here, but Batum’s greatest feature as a player is his ability to involve his teammates. Even with Batum struggling offensively, most team stats improve when he’s on the floor because of his all-around talent and ability to improve the flow of an offense. With Howard and Kidd-Gilchrist expected to share significant minutes, Charlotte has never needed a player like Batum more.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
While it is hoped that rookie combo guard Malik Monk will eventually become a player the team can turn to when it absolutely has to have a bucket, Monk continues to be slowed by an ankle sprain that kept him out of NBA Summer League. For now, in must-score situations, Walker will have to call his own number.
The Unheralded Player: Michael Carter-Williams
Cody Zeller is a player advanced stats geeks love, and few NBA fans who don’t specifically follow the Hornets realize how good he was last year. But as much as Charlotte fell off a cliff in games when Zeller was unavailable due to injury, point guard depth was just as much of an issue. Ramon Sessions had his own injury issues last season and contributed little when he was available. Charlotte had nobody to pick up the slack when Walker needed a rest. Thus, this season’s unheralded player is former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who signed with Charlotte on a one-year, $2.7 million free agent deal this summer. Unfortunately, MCW could miss the season opener while recovering from a knee procedure. Charlotte really needs him to get healthy and contribute to shore up the backup point guard position.
Best New Addition: Malik Monk
Monk enters the NBA as possibly the best high-volume, off-the-bounce jump shooters to leave college in the last decade. His slow recovery from an ankle injury has been frustrating, as Hornets observers are eager to see what he can become. Can he give Charlotte minutes as a backup point guard? His slight frame will make it difficult for Monk to guard NBA wings, so it will present significant challenges if his role is ultimately confined primarily to scoring. If Monk has the handle to at least bring the ball up against NBA defenses, incorporating him becomes much easier. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.
— Buddy Grizzard
WHO WE LIKE
Walker is obviously a player any true NBA fan should love. He’s clutch and he’s fearless. When he gets it going, Charlotte is a team worth watching. You also have to appreciate the fact that Rich Cho hasn’t sat on his hands as a GM. He went out and got Batum, made sure he would be with the franchise long term and made a huge gamble in trading for Howard. It could all blow up in his face, but you have to appreciate an executive with the guts to go for it.
You also have to appreciate an owner who hires the right people and puts them in a position to succeed. Michael Jordan is known for declining media interviews during the season. His preference is to stay in the background and give his people room to work. This is both a blessing and a source of pressure to perform for both Cho and Clifford. And, as mentioned, Cody Zeller is an advanced stats darling. It will be fascinating to see if the team turns to him to right the ship if the Howard experiment fails to produce wins.
— Buddy Grizzard
SALARY CAP 101
The Hornets are near the NBA’s $119.2 million luxury tax threshold, at $116 million locked in to 13 guaranteed players. Non-Guaranteed Treveon Graham, T.J. Williams and Isaiah Hicks are hoping to round out the roster at 15, which could put Charlotte on the brink of the tax. That likely limits the team’s incentive to use their remaining Room Exception at $4.9 million and Bi-Annual Exception at $3.3 million.
Charlotte needs to pick up Frank Kaminsky’s team option for 2018-19 before November. The Pelicans should be well above next summer’s salary cap (with a $102 million projection), heavily invested in Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Kemba Walker – all earning eight-figure salaries.
— Eric Pincus
The greatest strength for the Hornets is new found depth. Although the backup point guard position remains unsettled due to injuries to additions Carter-Williams and Monk, Cho has taken steps to address what was one of the biggest issues for last season’s team. Additionally, while chemistry remains a huge question mark, there’s no doubt that adding Howard has dramatically improved the depth of Charlotte’s power rotation. Kidd-Gilchrist, Batum and Marvin Williams have all started at small forward. Depth at power forward shouldn’t be an issue.
— Buddy Grizzard
Chemistry, however, could be this team’s Achilles heel. Howard blames the Hawks for not giving him a large enough role in the offense. Zeller, who had the Hornets playing at an above-.500 pace last season, must now sacrifice to open that role for Howard. And until all the pieces finally get healthy, injury issues will remain a limiting factor for Charlotte.
— Buddy Grizzard
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Howard experiment work?
The best way to answer this question is to ask, did it work in Los Angeles? Did it work in Houston and Atlanta? You can argue that Howard had some success in Houston with the Rockets making a conference finals appearance. But every time Howard departs a franchise, there’s a cloud of controversy and an endless stream of finger-pointing. Clifford knows Howard well, having coached him as an assistant for the Lakers and Magic. If anyone can help Howard turn back the clock it, it’s him. But the reality is that the NBA has passed plodding post players like Howard behind. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
— Buddy Grizzard
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