The Hornets have undergone a serious transformation this past offseason. Gone are Lance Stephenson, Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. For them, Charlotte got Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes and, indirectly, Jeremy Lamb via trade. Frank Kaminsky was so coveted by Michael Jordan in the draft that the team reportedly turned down nine picks for the ninth slot. Free agency, however, was almost an afterthought.
The Hornets refused to use the mid-level exception. Instead, they landed Tyler Hansbrough for the minimum and Jeremy Lin with the bi-annual exception, making him their big addition. The idea was surely to bring in a decent backup for Kemba Walker for cheap, but Lin could have a bigger impact than many anticipated at the time of his signing.
The Hornets are a little thin on the backcourt. Batum will star at shooting guard but the two backups are Jeremy Lamb and P.J. Hairston. Their unproven track record and inconsistency could force coach Steve Clifford to get creative and go with two point guard lineups to make the most out of the team’s depth at that position. He’s already saying it will be an option.
“It’s always good to have two pick-and-roll players on the floor,” Clifford told The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell. “That way you can put pressure on the defense at one side, then switch it to the other. That makes more room to play similar to how Golden State does. You’ve got Steph (Curry) on one side, so defenses have to load up there, and then you’ve got Klay Thompson on the other with room to operate.
“That’s what Kemba can do for Jeremy and Jeremy can do for Kemba.”
The comparison obviously doesn’t fit, because Klay Thompson can guard shooting guards well. It might be better to think about a potent offensive but defensively-challenged backcourt featuring two ball handlers — like the Mavericks with Monta Ellis at off guard — as the best case scenario. If the back up wings don’t produce, it wouldn’t be a terrible alternative.
Yet Lin could not only provide some shot creation in the second unit and allow some lineup flexibility with the starters. He could potentially make Walker expendable and allow the Hornets to move him for assets or a player with a higher upside.
Now, Lin is not a great player by any means. He’s developed more range on his jumper but he remains a poor defender and turns the ball over too much. He’s mediocre. The dirty secret, however, is that Walker has also not been very good in his time in the league.
Last season only Deron Williams shot worse from the field than Walker’s 38 percent among starting point guards.
That incredibly low mark is not an anomaly for Kemba, who has shot below 40 percent in three of his four seasons in the league. His outside shot is not much more reliable, as he connected on only 30 percent of his three-pointers last season and posted a career 32 percent before 2014-15. The 17 points per game he averaged last season are nice but have come at the expense of even middling efficiency.
Walker did post a high usage percentage and had to create two-thirds of his shots while serving as a second and at times first option for a retched Hornets’ offense. He’s never been a good catch and shoot player but on a smaller role, he could see his scoring efficiency climb. If it does, his low turnover percentage and his solid assist percentage would make him not only a better option than Lin but at worst an average starting point guard.
There are two problems with those conditions. 1. The Hornets have added Nicolas Batum to act as a second ball handler but will still need Walker to act as a second option to Al Jefferson and 2. Walker has recently become expensive after a contract extension that pays him $12 million a year has kicked in. He’s supposed to contribute at a high level right away and, if the past is any indication, he isn’t ready for that.
It’s entirely possible another inefficient season is in store and with a handful of players entering unrestricted free agency, flexibility will be paramount, even for a franchise that is not a free agent destination. Even with hefty new contracts for Batum and Jefferson, the Hornets would be in place to be able to offer a max contract. Kevin Durant is a pipe dream but there will be talent available to replace Walker and to add quality pieces.
Moving him without receiving an asset back would be a mistake, even if Walker is not an above average lead guard, because his contract will be reasonable once the cap explodes. When injuries strike, though, teams get ready to deal. The Thunder moved a disgruntled Reggie Jackson and received a former top five pick in Enes Kanter and two rotation players in Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin. If they are making a playoff run, the Jazz or the Knicks might be motivated to look for reinforcements.
Of course Lin would have to be solid next year to unseat Walker, who has started in Charlotte for the past three years. His turnover woes could on their own be a deal-breaker for a defensively-inclined coach that makes it a point for his squad to prevent fastbreak points. The rest of his game, however, should translate nicely to a team that now has enough shooters to be able to hurt opponents on pick and rolls.
Last year, Lin posted better shooting and assists numbers and had a better real defensive plus minus than the former Husky. Having to fill a bigger role would likely result in a dip in efficiency but, as mentioned, it’s not like Kemba is Stephen Curry. Again, Lin wouldn’t have to be great to be a viable option. Just reach the low bar Walker has set so far while being on a significantly smaller contract that expires after next season.
The Hornets are not a contender and it’s unlikely they will become one anytime soon. That’s fine for franchise that is looking to walk into respectability before running to a title. Yet treading water while being a solid but unspectacular team only makes sense when there’s flexibility and upside to eventually become something more.
Moving on from Walker while adding assets and future cap space should be a no-brainer, as long as there’s a competent replacement on the roster to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive. Lin could be just that. If he is, the front office will have the excuse it needs to make a move that won’t take the Hornets off the mediocrity treadmill on its own but would be a step in the right direction.