Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s season-ending injury is devastating. The Hornets’ 22-year-old forward was on the verge of breaking out, already among the league’s best defenders and with an improving jump shot that would have made him a more versatile offensive weapon.
Things are clearly not looking good for Charlotte’s postseason chances now on a suddenly competitive bottom half of the East’s playoff picture. Without their wing stopper, their biggest strength — their defense — will suffer. Yet, the offseason additions as well as an improved offense should keep the Hornets afloat and might even allow them to sneak into the playoffs.
There’s no denying Kidd-Gilchrist’s impact. The difference between him being on the court rather than off last season was over 10 points per 100 possessions, a gigantic mark. The defense, in particular, completely fell apart without him, going from roughly elite to below average as soon as he sat.
His ability to stay in front of opponents eased Al Jefferson’s burden as a rim protector, and his defensive rebounding allowed the Hornets to lead the league in that category, even with Marvin Williams as their starting power forward. MKG made the 2014-15 Hornets go.
Fortunately for coach Steve Clifford, it’s the 2015-16 season that’s about to start. Charlotte added Nicolas Batum to its roster, an above average small forward who they planned to play next to Kidd-Gilchrist. They also loaded up on big men with a trade for Spencer Hawes, the signing of Tyler Hansbrough and the selection of Frank Kaminsky in the draft, freeing up Williams to return to the small forward position he played for most of his career. Unlike past years, the Hornets have options at the wing.
Granted, neither Williams nor Batum come close to being the defender Kidd-Gilchrist is, but they are both significant upgrades on offense. The French forward is a clever playmaker who can space the floor when he’s off the ball. Williams is a league-average three-point shooter, but he still commands some attention when he spots up beyond the arc, which is something Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t claim.
The focus on bringing in three-point threats to the roster is exactly what could keep the Hornets’ playoff hopes alive. Not only there are some weapons in the perimeter in Jeremy Lamb and P.J. Hairston (their combined 0-for-9 in the second preseason game notwithstanding), but they have also added the improved Jeremy Lin, who shot 37 percent as a Laker last season.
At the big men positions, Kaminsky looks like a solid stretch four while Tyler Zeller and Spencer Hawes offer some shooting from the center position.
The Hornets had the third-worst offense last season and the ninth-best defense. Expecting them to reverse those numbers this year is not realistic but that might not be necessary. Last season, the Celtics and the Nets made the postseason without boasting a top 10 ranking in either category. If the Hornets can improve enough on offense to climb out of the bottom third of the league — and the shooting they have surrounding Al Jefferson suggests they could — all they have to do to still be in the running for a playoff spot is not completely collapse on defense.
For that to happen, a few things have to align just right. First, Batum has to finally show some fire as a perimeter defender instead of succumbing to apathy every other night. He’s not Kidd-Gilchrist, but he has the length, the instincts and the experience to guard the LeBrons and Carmelos of the East well enough. Unlike in Portland, where he had Robin Lopez, he can’t just funnel them to a rim protecting center. He will have to compete and stay in front of them. Williams offers a solid alternative for when those guys, as well as Paul George, slide up to power forward, becoming a matchup problem for the team’s true big men.
Speaking of Williams, starting him now could be a death sentence on the glass. And with Jefferson set to be the center, the Hornets need someone who is mobile enough to guard power forwards, snatch boards and provide secondary rim protection. Cody Zeller could fill all those boxes with some natural progression after a quiet two years as a pro. The former fourth overall pick is not a big shot blocker but opponents only shot 49 percent at the rim with him contesting shots and his rebounding is solid for his position.
Last season, the pairing didn’t work without Kidd-Gilchrist, but things have changed since then. The rumors that he was available in the offseason should have him fired up to prove his worth and with a better understanding of the nuance of NBA defense Zeller, could start to tap into his significant potential as a two-way big man.
There are no easy fixes at guard, but then again that was true even with Kidd-Gilchrist available. Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker are below average defenders and Lamb and Hairston have not proven their ability yet. Lamb does have good physical tools for a 3-and-D wing but never put them to good use in Oklahoma City. A change of scenery might be what he needs to do so, but Clifford can’t count on that. Charlotte has no need for saviors anyway, just for capable players who are motivated to take this opportunity to get noticed.
There’s no denying that the Hornets will have a tough time masking the absence of arguably their best player, but because their performance was always based on teamwork, they are better prepared to survive it than other franchises. It will take a change in style of play from an inside-oriented attack to a more three-point reliant offense, but if they can accomplish that while not completely losing their way on defense, the playoffs remain a possibility.