After the best regular season since the rebirth of NBA basketball in Charlotte, the Charlotte Hornets enter the 2016-2017 season with high expectations, relying on Kemba Walker to remain their offensive anchor, on Steve Clifford to improve as an offensive head coach, and maybe more than anything hoping that Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stay healthy.
The Hornets made the first round of the NBA playoffs last season, came out of a 0-2 hole against the Miami Heat to grab a 3-2 lead in the series, and then melted away in the final two games, as Clifford did a bad job coaching the team in those two games, going with Walker instead of the players who did a better job in bringing the Hornets to one win away from making the conference semifinals. This season? They might actually be weaker than last season. We’ll go through the additions and main departures before we explain why.
Additions: Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli, Treveon Graham, Christian Wood, Mike Tobey.
Departures: Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee.
On paper, the Hornets brought in players instead of those who left. But Hibbert has been a dead man walking for the last season, and for the most part since the 2014 playoffs. Sessions can put points on the board, but he doesn’t make others better. Belinelli has missed 34 games over the last two seasons, is a bad defender and his shooting was atrocious last season with the Kings. While Jefferson became less and less meaningful as the season went on, losing Lin and Lee is a big hole to fill.
The thing about Walker is this: He’s going to score 20+ points a night no matter what. His points come from his ability to create shots for himself, and the Hornets have never tried moving away from it. The problem has always been that it has no effect on the team whatsoever. He scores? He misses? The Hornets rely on other factors to win basketball games, and the foundation is shakier than in last season, with Batum and MKG at the center of it.
Batum got the $120 million, five-year extension that he was looking for, probably putting more pressure on him. A smart player, who can shoot, pass and defend, splitting time between the shooting guard and small forward role. With Lin gone, he’s the best passer on the team, but he’s also less and less of a shooting threat (27.3% last season), and someone who misses games, or plays with limiting injuries a lot of the time.
Kidd-Gilchrist missed 20 games his sophomore season, 27 games the next season, and played in just 7 last year. He’s supposed to be 100% healthy and ready to go. When healthy, he’s a terrific defender, a great offensive rebounder, a good finisher near the rim, and an improved shooter. But he needs someone to feed him the ball to the right spots. Last season, he worked well next to Lin, but the sample size is small, so it’s difficult to gauge how things will be this season. The problem is these two players are what will make the difference for the Hornets, not Walker.
And it’s not just. There’s very little to find when looking for someone to be a consistent threat on the inside. Defense near the rim is going to be a problem if Hibbert doesn’t wake up. Cody Zeller is a good player, but limited one. Frank Kaminsky disappointed in his rookie year, especially with his understanding of what goes on. The combination of a surprising low basketball IQ and a head coach who isn’t great at developing offensive players? Not something that causes a whole lot of optimism.
Best Case Scenario
Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist stays healthy, Walker has another season of around 21-22 points per game, Hibbert returns to be a defensive juggernaut, Sessions, Jeremy Lamb and Belinelli become a fantastic second unit, and Marvin Williams proves he still has more to give, while Zeller does his best in the various roles he’s given, while Kaminsky finally shows consistency, and shades of the player he was in Wisconsin. Making the playoffs is great, but if everything does click and no one gets hurt, maybe even passing a playoff round, especially if Clifford starts learning from his mistakes, and doesn’t freeze up when things get complicated.
Worst Case Scenario
The Hornets have a lot of things that could go wrong next season, and not just injuries. Walker’s defense staying the same doesn’t help, and Hibbert turns out to be a dud. Belinelli doesn’t regain his shooting touch, Sessions doesn’t do much but create for himself, and overall, not finding a player who can turn the game around after slow starts, something that happened quite often last season before the second unit with Lin came on, dooms them to missing the playoffs, and maybe Michael Jordan hitting the reset button once again.