After losing some of their sting last season, the Charlotte Hornets made the right moves this offseason to put themselves right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Two years ago, the Hornets were one of the NBA’s hot young team’s on the rise. Kemba Walker led the club to 48 wins and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference while scoring nearly 21 points a night. Last year, Walker took another step forward, bumping his scoring output up to 23.2 points per game. However, Charlotte failed to make a second consecutive playoff appearance due to some obvious holes in their roster.
With the little wiggle room they had entering the offseason — nearly $8 million over the 2016 cap — the Hornets managed to swing some salaries, bolster a position of need, move up in the draft and reunite a former star with an old coach in one fell swoop.
On June 20, Charlotte sent Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee, and the No. 41 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Atlanta Hawks for Dwight Howard and No. 31 pick.
As a result of the transaction, the Hornets shipped off just over $44 million in salary between Belinelli and Plumlee and took on the remaining $47.3 million on Howard’s deal.
Adding Howard to the mix, despite the fact that he’s no spring chicken, gives the team an inside presence that they desperately missed last year. Moving up in the second round gave the Hornets a shot at drafting Florida State product Dwayne Bacon, adding him to their rookie collection that included No. 11 overall pick Malik Monk. With Monk and Bacon, Charlotte brings two players aboard capable of scoring the basketball. While Monk will have a much larger role in that capacity next season, Bacon should still see his chances.
But the main addition for the Hornets next season is without a doubt Howard. Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford spent time as an assistant during Howard’s tenure with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. The team’s new big man is a familiar face to their head coach.
“I know what he has to do to play well,” Clifford said following the trade. “He understands that I know him. I know his game. Being around him in different settings I have a feel for what he likes to do… There is no reason he can’t get back to playing at a really high level.”
Last season, the Hornets were average in terms of rebounding the basketball. The team ranked 16th in the league in terms of total boards, and their highest individual participant was small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with seven rebounds per game. Coincidently, Howard had his best season rebounding the basketball since 2011-12 last year with Atlanta. If Clifford believes his old ties with the big man can return him to prime form, or close to it, then Charlotte adds a whole new facet to their attack.
Along with the addition of Howard, the Hornets benefitted from a bit of luck on draft night when Monk fell into their lap at No. 11. The 6-foot-3 combo guard out of Kentucky was projected at some points during draft season as a potential top-five pick. Monk himself even stated that he was surprised the New York Knicks passed on him at No. 8.
By other teams choosing to pass on the dynamic scorer, Charlotte was able to reward themselves with a premier talent to help shoulder some of the load carried by Walker. Last year, while Walker was scoring more than 23 points per game, the Hornets next best scoring threat was Nicolas Batum, who averaged 15.1 points per game. After Batum, Frank Kaminsky was the next best threat with 11.7 points per game. For opposing teams, if you wanted to shut down the Hornets, all you had to do was key in on their All-Star point guard. In fact, when Walker went to the bench just to grab a breather, the Hornets registered a -7.0 net rating.
Bringing Monk on board, even at just 19 years old, allows Walker the opportunity to pass the ball to someone else who can consistently get buckets.
Despite missing the playoffs last season, and having a few glaring holes on their roster, the Hornets aren’t as far off from making some noise in the playoff picture as they may seem. In fact, Charlotte even outscored their opponents on the whole last year.
With the changes in the Eastern Conference being so monumental — Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Paul Millsap all moving west — the bottom half of the conference will be up for grabs in terms of playoff spots. Clifford and his guys have been there before, and Walker has only gotten better since that seven-game series against the Miami HEAT two years ago. By adding in some pieces to what the team already has, especially while addressing obvious needs, the Hornets have positioned themselves as one of the teams ready to take an open seat at the playoff table.
However, placing the bulk of their postseason hopes on the shoulders of a 31-year-old center and a 19-year-old combo guard would be misplaced. The core of the Hornets, obviously anchored by Walker, will need to continue to grow from last season.
Cody Zeller will need to adjust to his role behind Howard, after proving himself more than valuable to Charlotte last year (the Hornets were 3-17 when Zeller didn’t play). Kidd-Gilchrist, who has never been able to shoot the ball, should look to operate more in the lane next season with more eyes locked on Howard. And former lottery pick Kaminsky will need to continue his development that he showed last season as a big who can stretch the floor with his outside shooting.
The Charlotte Hornets aren’t going to be beating down the doors of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics next season for Eastern Conference supremacy, but after a more than successful summer, this team looks poised to be more than just a bystander next postseason.
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