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NBA PM: Hornets Adjusting to New Faces

The Hornets are getting new players acclimated and hoping this group can lead the team back to the playoffs.

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Hornets Adjusting to New Faces

Teams often use preseason basketball to do a lot of adapting. Coaches are able to get their first look at their players and how ready they are for the season. Some players come into training camp in peak condition, while others still need some more work.

Preseason also allows coaches to integrate new players acquired over the offseason into their system. They begin to formulate a plan for what each player’s role will be for the upcoming year.

For head coach Steve Clifford and the Charlotte Hornets, the weeks leading up to the October 28 regular season opener will be critical. The team underwent a lot of change over the summer. They brought in at least seven new players either by way of the draft, free agency or trades and each of those players figure to be significant contributors this season in one way or another.

Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lin, Tyler Hansbrough and Aaron Harrison headline the list of newcomers to the team. The number of new players on the team actually is much higher, factoring in the camp invites and players on non-guaranteed deals.

The Hornets have maintained a top-10 defense during the last two seasons under Clifford, and will be trying to keep that trend going for a third consecutive season. Clifford acknowledged that trying to replicate another stout defense is a concern given the amount of new players transitioning to the team. He’ll also be challenged to improve the offense, which has struggled during that same time frame.

“To be good and to become the team that I think we can, we need to be good at both sides of the ball,” Clifford said. “Two years ago, for instance, we were sixth in defense and 24th in offense. That got us into the playoffs, but we weren’t a factor, you know? If you look at most years, teams that go deep [in the playoffs], they’re top 10 in both.”

Perhaps one player who could have a much larger role than originally anticipated will be Lamb. The Hornets acquired Lamb from the Oklahoma City Thunder at the end of June in exchange for Luke Ridnour and a 2016 second-round pick. Clifford spoke very highly of Lamb and has high expectations for him this season.

“We picked him up the last week in June [and] he was in Charlotte by the third week in July [and] he’s been there ever since,” Clifford said. “He’s worked hard in the weight room [and has] worked hard on the court. I think he understands where he’s at in his career and he’s done a good job. The thing that has surprised me is he’s a much better pick-and-roll player than I realized. He’s got size, he can pass off of the dribble so that’s an aspect of his game that hopefully we can utilize that I didn’t know he had.”

Lamb’s hard work over the offseason seemed to pay off in the Hornets’ first game of the preseason on Saturday as he dropped 16 points and went 5-of-10 from the field against the Orlando Magic. He failed to see any significant time with the Thunder, as he averaged just 13.5 minutes in 47 contests last season. Trades can often be refreshing for players, as it provides a new opportunity to earn more playing time and a chance to kick start their careers.

“I wasn’t on the court really at all last season, so this season’s approach is definitely different,” Lamb said. “[I’m] more focused [and] they’ve really welcomed me. … Right when I heard the news that I got traded, I came and spent as much time [in Charlotte] as I could. I think everybody is invested in the team and I’ve gotten to know everybody. I think everybody is just locked in. Thank God that I’m in a good situation; I was praying for a good situation.”

The team received a blow to their high expectations this season when it was announced that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder against the Magic on Saturday. The team hasn’t announced an official timetable for his return, but it was reported by Yahoo! Sports on Monday that Kidd-Gilchrist will need shoulder surgery and likely miss the entire 2015-16 season.

His presence has strongly impacted games. The Hornets are 62-55 with Kidd-Gilchrist in the lineup and are 14-33 without him over the past two seasons. He’s perhaps one of their best defenders as the team posted a 96.3 defensive rating while he was on the court, compared to a 104.1 rating when he was off of the court.

One way the Hornets will try to get past the loss of Kidd-Gilchrist and improve the offense will be to take more three-point shots. The team has finished 28th and 24th in offensive efficiency in Clifford’s two previous years as head coach. He’s trying to change that this season by drawing up more plays for his players to take more three-point shots.

After two games this preseason, the Hornets have taken 60 three-point shots and have converted on 40 percent of those shots. Last season, the team averaged only 19 attempts per game, while they’ve averaged 30 so far in two preseason games. Players like Batum, Lamb, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lin, Marvin Williams and Kemba Walker will be asked to take those shots as they all boast career three-point averages of at least 32 percent.

Clifford will also be tasked to integrate rookie Frank Kaminsky into the lineup. He played in just 10 minutes on Saturday, and then 28 minutes on Sunday against the Miami HEAT. Clifford said he does plan on using Kaminsky next to Jefferson throughout the season, but isn’t sure yet exactly how much time he’ll see.

“He’s going to be very, very good,” Clifford said. “He’s still got to figure out the NBA game. … It’s not going to take him that long to be good. Most guys that can come into this league and play right away, if you think about it, are physically-dominating players. So, in my time, [Dwyane] Wade was terrific right away. LeBron [James]. Carmelo [Anthony] was terrific right away. [Damian] Lillard was terrific. Those guys were all physically ready to compete and he has the skill level, the toughness [and] basketball IQ; he’s just not physically as ready as those guys were. Once he gets that, he’ll be ready to help us.”

There is still much to be figured out for the Hornets before the regular season gets under way. The team figures to be among those in the race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but with one of their best players likely missing most of the season, it remains to be seen just how competitive they’ll be. It’ll be Jefferson, Walker and Batum others shouldering the load offensively, with contributions coming in from others. If the team can continue to be a great defensive team and see an improvement on offense, they could become a dangerous squad in the East.

New-Look Trail Blazers Impress in Loss to Kings

Despite losing to the Sacramento Kings on Monday night, the Portland Trail Blazers gave fans some excitement and optimism during their first preseason game.

Five players scored in double figures for the Blazers, but it was newcomers Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh that stole the show. Harkless scored 14 points to go along with six rebounds, two steals and two assists, while Vonleh added 12 points and 11 rebounds (including nine offensive rebounds).

“Noah played really well,” said head coach Terry Stotts. “He had a couple of easy ones inside that I think, if they’d gone in, we might have been able to pull out a win. But he has a knack around the basket and he finds the ball. Noah was getting offensive rebounds, obviously. To get 11 rebounds and nine offensively was pretty impressive. What he’s been doing in October, he’s doing what he needs to do. He’s a conscientious worker and he’s attentive and just trying to learn.”

Other players on the team have been raving about the addition of Harkless. He’s had a great camp thus far and is living up to the expectations as a player that can do it all.

“[I] definitely just want to build on tonight and just keep on improving and showing what I can do,” Harkless said. “I can do a little bit of everything, so I’m trying to show what I can do and just get better at every little part of my game.”

Harkless and Vonleh were just part of the turnover the Blazers underwent this offseason. They most notably lost LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs, but also lost three additional starters as well. With so much turnover, the team isn’t projected by many to make a return to the postseason.

However, if Monday’s outcome is any indication on how the season could go, the Trail Blazers appear to be in good shape. In addition to Harkless and Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis and Tim Frazier all had solid showings as well.

Frazier is battling Phil Pressey for the backup point guard spot behind Lillard and further helped his cause of remaining on the team after Monday’s game. He finished with nine points (on 3-of-4 shooting from three-point range), three assists and three rebounds.

Although it was just the first preseason game, a lot of positives were drawn from the game, which left Stotts happy.

“Obviously, you always want to win games but I thought we took a lot of positives away,” Stotts said. “I liked our defense, particularly in the first half. We did a lot of good things offensively. We moved the ball really well and created opportunities. I thought the first half, it was good basketball. We got off to a little slow start in the second half, but I thought everybody that got in the game, they competed and, for the most part, played the right way.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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