Charlotte Hornets – 48-34
Key Additions: Roy Hibbert – C (FA – 1 yr, $5M), Marco Belinelli – G (trade with Sacramento), Christian Wood – F (FA – 2 yr deal)
Departures: Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee, Jason Maxiell, Jeffery Taylor, Jeremy Lin, Jorge Gutierrez, Tyler Hansbrough
Give Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford a lot of credit for recognizing his team’s limitations before the 2015-16 season even began. The defensively stout squad struggled to a sub-.500 record the previous year despite another top-ten finish on D, and Clifford expressed early in the preseason as to his solution to the team’s offensive limitations : launch more three-pointers.
Clifford’s rationale was solid, in discussing the long-ball’s prevalence among the league’s most successful offenses and the ensuing trickle-down effect the newfound spacing would have on Al Jefferson’s low-post game, but the team had committed to similar strategies in the past – for example, signing forward Marvin Williams to start as a small-ball four the prior summer – and were unable to put the concepts into practice over the course of the regular season. General Manager Rich Cho would similarly recognize his head coach’s concerns and make the high-risk swap of Noah Vonleh, a power forward just a year removed from a lottery selection, for the free-agent-to-be, forward Nicolas Batum.
The addition of Batum into the wing rotation fit perfectly with the team’s intended style of play, as his ability to initiate possessions as a point forward and make the extra pass would allow teammates the option of working off-ball and getting shots up in a more free-flowing offense, resulting in the organization’s highest-scoring output since the days of Baron Davis. The late-season trade for Courtney Lee added another solid, two-way player into the rotation to help compensate for the absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who would miss the entire season with a dislocated right shoulder, and the Hornets would become one of just five teams to finish ranked in the top-ten on both offense and defense last season – along with the league’s heavy-hitters: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, and the Clippers. A first-round series loss to Southeast Division-rivals, the Miami Heat, would come in seven games and feature a 36-point road blowout in Miami in the deciding game, marring what was otherwise an underrated and resilient ‘15-16 campaign.
The offseason questions for Cho, Clifford, and team owner Michael Jordan would then revolve around identifying which of the team’s many free agents comprised the core of the franchise going forward, and which pieces were integral to replicating the successes of last season. Batum was the top priority and would be locked up to a less-than-max rate just hours after the league’s moratorium on free agents expired, and was soon followed by Marvin Williams on a four-year deal. Players like Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin were valuable pieces but deemed expendable by management, as was former-leading scorer Al Jefferson.
The loss of Jefferson will further cement the Hornets’ evolution into their small-ball identity. Even as injuries cost him three months and a starting job last season, he had transitioned to that of a bench scorer, capable of generating offense for the second unit through the low post and isolation possessions, and still finished the season with the team’s second-highest usage rate behind point guard Kemba Walker. Those possessions, along with over 32 points per game that came courtesy of the Jeff/Lee/Lin trio, will be open and available for the taking to any of the team’s free agent options – namely Marco Belinelli, who could use a bounce back after converting on just 30.6-percent of his three-pointers in his sole season with Sacramento – or through a couple of internal candidates who signed lucrative contract extensions just a year ago, in Jeremy Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Kidd-Gilchrist’s return from a shoulder injury should represent Charlotte’s greatest off-season addition, and the player most capable of not only helping the team maintain their level of play, but even build on their 48 wins from a year ago. Limited to just 5,400 total minutes in his four-year NBA career, Kidd-Gilchrist still has considerable upside yet to realize as a versatile forward with a still-developing jump shot and role at the NBA level, but who is already one of the league’s impact defenders when healthy. A full season from MKG should help to replace Lee’s statline, and the potential combination of Kidd-Gilchrist, Williams, and Batum closing out on shooters and funneling drivers into Roy Hibbert’s hands-up defense could offer the Hornets a new peak defensively, under Clifford’s tutelage.
The upside of the Charlotte Hornets will come down again to the ease with which they’re able to score points in 2016-17, as a top-ten defensive finish is a near certainty under the watchful eye of Steve Clifford. The return of Kidd-Gilchrist should allow more versatility, whether in switching assignments on defense or in improving the team’s (below-average) pace, and his presence should make life easier for Batum and Walker overall. The concerns when MKG is on the floor will be the lack of attention that he (and his work-in-progress jump shot) commands on offense and how that will eat into the spacing of the team’s top-two scorers, but the Hornets will hope to counter that with more ball movement and three-point attempts to keep defenses from overloading a particular side of the court.
Jefferson’s absence removes one of the roster’s few isolation scorers and cripples the bench’s point production, while the offense could get ugly quickly if forced to revert to the days of Kemba’s hero-ball attack. However, Charlotte can quite reasonably continue their “2014-15 Houston Rockets impression” by firing threes at a high volume (fourth-most attempts last season, per game), if at an average efficiency (eighth in the league, at 36.2-percent), and continue to compete at a high level on both sides of the ball. MKG’s return to the rotation may take some time initially, and particularly in how he affects the attention of opposing defenses, but his defensive skills could elevate the team to another level while he still grows into a more confident and credible threat of offense.
Steve Clifford gets it, and expect the Hornets to again vie for a Southeast Division title and mid-tier playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.