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Charlotte Hornets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Charlotte Hornets are something of an enigma. They have the right mix of veterans to be really good, but it might be the young guys that make them worth watching. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Charlotte Hornets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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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

STRENGTHS

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

WEAKNESSES

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

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