In light of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being out for six months with a torn labrum, this season preview will have a decidedly pessimistic tone to it; please don’t hold that against me. Any word used to describe MKG’s importance to the Charlotte Hornets would be wholly inadequate. Suffice it to say, this is a huge blow to their playoff chances. Although their odds seem bleak, there remains a faint glimmer of hope because of the moves the team made in the offseason, and the style of play they’re embracing this season.
In two preseason games, the Charlotte Hornets have averaged 30 three-point attempts and hit 40 percent of them. On a somewhat related note, they’re undefeated. Obviously this is the preseason, so all stats have to be taken with a grain of salt, but this is encouraging to see from a team that finished dead last in three-point percentage last season. Before analyzing the Hornets’ playoff odds, it’d probably be wise to revisit how and why this team was rebuilt to contend.
What Happened Last Season
Coming off their first playoff berth as the Bobcats, the now-Hornets lost playmaking big man Josh McRoberts but added talented, volatile swingman Lance Stephenson. Most media members and fans (including myself) thought Stephenson was on the cusp of a breakout year as a young star who could help establish the Hornets as a legitimate playoff threat alongside Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and MKG, but those ideas were quickly put aside once he took the court.
Stephenson had a historically abysmal year in which he shot 17 percent from three-point range. Admittedly he was dealing with a lingering groin injury, but he rarely positively contributed on either end of the floor. Compounding the bad signing, the team’s three most important players – Jefferson, Walker and MKG – were sidelined with various injuries for significant stretches.
While last season was mired in misery, a few positives could be drawn from it. Despite injuries and Stephenson seemingly having his talent stolen by the Monstars from Space Jam, they finished with a 33-49 record, proving that when they were whole, their overall talent could prevail against contending teams. Second-year player Cody Zeller also continued his development, becoming a solid defender and even flashing some pick-and-roll potential.
What Happened This Summer
After missing the playoffs, the Hornets’ front office made a decision to build a team more suited to today’s NBA. Specifically, they sought players who could shoot, or contribute something on the offensive end, the most notable being Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin. The team drafted multi-skilled big man Frank Kaminsky because he could score inside and out, however, that decision was panned by many media members and draft experts, especially considering they turned down a huge trade offer from the Boston Celtics.
The Hornets did gain playmakers and offensive threats, but they also gave up some interesting pieces. Trading Stephenson away was a smart move, but only getting back Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes was a bit of a head-scratcher. I understand Stephenson’s value was low, but come on. They traded Barnes for Luke Ridnour, then promptly traded him for an unproven player in Jeremy Lamb while retaining Hawes even though they already drafted his looper – Kaminsky.
They also lost Noah Vonleh, the ninth pick in the 2014 draft. They did get Batum back in the trade, but giving away their lottery pick after only one year was a reckless move. Vonleh is only 20 years old with a considerable amount of potential, and coming out of the draft he received comparisons to Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge. A player on a rookie contract is a valuable commodity, and the Hornets swapped him for a player who’s in the last year of his contract with little motivation to stay.
Below is the list of the players lost and acquired, and the complete camp roster for the 2015-2016 season.
Additions: Nicolas Batum, Tyler Hansbrough, Aaron Harrison, Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin, Sam Thompson, Jason Washburn and Elliot Williams.
Departures: Bismack Biyombo, Gerald Henderson, Jason Maxiell, Lance Stephenson, Jeffery Taylor, Noah Vonleh and Mo Williams.
2015-2016 Camp Roster: Nicolas Batum, Troy Daniels, P.J. Hairston, Tyler Hansbrough, Aaron Harrison, Spencer Hawes, Al Jefferson, Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin, Brian Roberts, Sam Thompson, Kemba Walker, Jason Washburn, Elliot Williams, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller
Even before the extent of MKG’s injury was revealed, Batum was expected to be an instrumental piece to the success of the team. Now with MKG essentially out for the season, Batum has a formidable task ahead of him. Basically by default, he becomes the Hornets’ best wing defender. Batum is a good defender, but he cannot replicate what MKG does. It’s not his fault; few players can do what MKG does, especially when they’re expected to significantly contribute on the offensive end.
Coach Steve Clifford has already said he intends to play Batum as a No. 1 option this season, a role I believe he’s being miscast for. Batum was the fourth option on the Trail Blazers the last few seasons and had trouble doing that at times. He does have the occasional special game, but he’s not a big-time scorer by any means. He affects the game with his passing and has never displayed any consistent affinity for scoring.
It’s possible that he never became a scorer because he was never given the responsibility to be one, but expecting him to average over 20 points while being efficient is a stretch. However, there’s no doubt Batum needs to raise his level of play decidedly for the Hornets to make any kind of noise this season.
Outlook for the Season
Considering MKG’s injury, the Hornets’ playoff chances can be realistically depicted in two ways. For those who favor biblical references:
“I have dreamed a dream but now that dream is gone from me.”
For the more meme inclined:
Again, any word used to describe MKG’s importance to the Hornets would be wholly inadequate. He’s the column that props up their defense. The Hornets lack a traditional rim protector but were still an elite defense when MKG was on the floor last year because he’s so good. When he was on the court, Charlotte held opponents to a suffocating 96.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. While past teammates like Gerald Henderson and current ones like Walker contributed to the team’s defense, he’s the linchpin.
He can cover his own man and be there to help if a teammate is beaten off the dribble. Jefferson doesn’t have to be the rim protector Andrew Bogut or Rudy Gobert is when MKG is out there. He doesn’t rack up a lot of steals or blocks, but he’s nonetheless one of the top defenders in the league:
The foundation of the Hornets’ defense is built on him. That’s the team’s calling card; even when their offense has failed them, they could rely on their defense to win them games. Without MKG, I don’t know what their identity is. Their identity may change because of the recent integration of more contemporary offensive principles, but that may not be enough. Ultimately I believe the Hornets will miss the playoffs, even in the weaker Eastern Conference. They’ll be in the running for next year’s top draft pick, which is becoming an unfortunate habit for Charlotte.
Prediction: 29-53 record, No. 11 Seed in Eastern Conference