Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the Charlotte Hornets.
The Charlotte Hornets had a very disappointing season. After finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference in 2013-14 and earning their only second playoff berth since 2002, they were looking to climb higher this past season. The acquisition of Lance Stephenson was supposed to be a win on both ends of the floor, even if he came with a couple of red flags. But Stephenson ended up as a net negative – a BIG net negative – and the team stumbled through the season, marred by injuries to the whole team.
Not one player played all 82 games, and of their most frequent starters, only Gerald Henderson (80) played more than 65 games. They never had the same starting lineup for more than seven games in a row, and their most used lineup only played 156 minutes together, equal to three and a half game.
Circumstances definitely had a huge influence on the Hornets’ performance, but they still have to try and answer some questions this off-season. They answered the first big one, the Stephenson question, when they traded Lance to the Los Angeles Clippers for Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes’s unguaranteed contract.
1. Was It The Right Decision To Trade Lance Stephenson?
As mentioned above, Lance Stephenson came with a lot of expectations and a couple of red flags. He didn’t live up to the expectations, but at least the team didn’t implode in public view, as had happened with the Indiana Pacers the previous season, where Stephenson even got into a fight with Evan Turner.
Stephenson’s value is probably at an all time low. He did not simply have a ”bad” shooting season; it was a complete breakdown. He went from hitting 35.2% from behind the three point line in 2013-2014 to hitting only 17.1% this season, the worst percentage in NBA history for a player with at least 100 three point attempts.
When Stephenson was a starter for the first 25 games, the Hornets went 6-19 and suffered several blowout losses. Then Stephenson suffered a pelvic injury that kept him from playing for almost a month, during which time the Hornets went 9-5. It seemed like a reasonable decision by coach Steve Clifford to put him on the bench from then on. However, that benching didn’t help Stephenson’s production, and his minutes dropped lower and lower towards the end of the season. In the final five games of the season, Stephenson sat out with a toe injury, but even before that he received two ”Did Not Play – Coach’s Decisions”, at a time when the Hornets were still trying to grasp a playoff spot.
The trade with the Clippers seems absurd from a value perspective – an expensive backup center and a player they are waiving anyway for a player highly coveted as recently as 10 months ago – but there is more to it than that. According to the Charlotte Observer, coach Clifford said after the second DNP-CD:
Lance is here because of me. I’m the one that wanted Lance. It’s simply that I can’t find a group that plays well when he’s out there.
That’s just brutal. And it was probably reason enough for Charlotte to make the trade, regardless of value – and for Stephenson to want out.
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2. What Is The Ceiling For Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s claim to fame in the league has always been his defense, his intangibles and his willingness to work on his game. And since Charlotte isn’t a team for national television, many people probably still believe that he can’t shoot.
However, after reworking his mechanics with now-departed assistant coach Mark Price, MKG has actually become a decent shooter. He is still three point range, something that he has to continue to work on. But let’s remember that he is only 21 years old and still developing, so don’t be surprised if he starts hitting from behind the arc soon. And in this time in the NBA thus far, Kidd-Gilchrist has significantly developed (or re-developed) a jump shot.
Using the shot charts from BBALLBREAKDOWN’s own Buckets app, you can see how much he has improved already:
The development is easy to follow. In his rookie season, Kidd Gilchrist’s shot was bad as soon as he moved more than three feet away from the rim. His peak around 25 feet is a statistical outlier, since he only took nine three-point shots during the season, and hit two out of five right at the perimeter.
In his second season, it seems like he found a handful of sweet spots, where he was comfortable using his broken jumper. Again, though, the peak at 26 feet is an outlier; he hit one of just three shots from that distance.
But Kidd-Gilchrist came into this season with a much improved jumper from a mechanics viewpoint, and it now shows in the stats, too. He is much closer to the league average on most distances, and even shoots above 50% from 11-13 feet. He has also improved his shot selection, by cutting out any shots longer than 22 feet. Kidd-Gilchrist is still not a huge threat offensively with an overall field goal percentage of 46.5%, but he has come a long way, when it comes to versatility on offense.
As for his defense, you could easily make an argument that Kidd-Gilchrist was snubbed in the All-Defense Second Team voting. It is rare to see a wing player actually anchoring a defense, even rarer at such a young age. Kidd-Gilchrist’s impact on the team’s defense is staggering; his on/off opponents points per 100 possessions (net) is -11.0 points, leading the league by a wide margin. And Charlotte’s defense is actually their strength. They allowed 103.5 points per 100 possessions, good enough for ninth best defensive rating.
Maybe the initial question here should be asked like this: Will Kidd-Gilchrist eventually be worth a max extension? Because the answer to that might heavily influence the Hornets’ future for a long time. If the Hornets take the gamble on his upside and offer that extension, it would be hard for Kidd-Gilchrist to say no. There is a big risk that he wouldn’t live up to it, though; the defense would have to at least sustain, while the offense would need to continue to improve significantly. On the other hand, if he does live up to it, they would have him on a bargain deal, when the salary cap jumps.
He is not an especially logical pairing with Nic Batum, however. So that reconciliation waits to be seen.
Five Questions: Atlanta – Boston – Brooklyn – Charlotte – Chicago – Cleveland – Denver – Detroit – Indiana – L.A. Lakers – Memphis – Miami – Milwaukee – New Orleans – New York – Oklahoma City – Orlando – Philadelphia – Portland – San Antonio – Toronto – Utah – Washington
3. Is Kemba Walker Reliable As A Starting Point Guard?
Walker has improved a lot as a defender the last couple of seasons, along with the rest of the team. Such has been the influence of head coach Steve Clifford. This season, Walker’s opponents’ field goal percentage was 1.4% lower than their average when he defended them.
Offensively, Walker’s floor game continues to get ever more reliable. According to NBA.com, he had the lowest turnover ratio among starting guards (defined as guards who have played more than 20 games as starter) at 6.4%. Walker is also sixth in assists/turnover, and would have ranked higher if his team mates could make their shots. He only has 5.3 assists per game, but according to NBA.com’s tracking stats, he had 11.6 assist possibilities per game, i.e. passes that lead to shots by his team mates – that’s a 48.3% ratio.
For many other point guards that ratio is well above 50%. Walker is still not, and has never been, a big time playmaker for team mates in drive-and-kick or pick-and-roll action. He is, however, increasingly mistake-free.
It hurt Walker quite a lot when Al Jefferson was out and Bismack Biyombo replaced him for the most of January. He played only nine games himself during that stretch, but his assist to turnover ratio dropped from an average of 3.27 to 2.18. The significant lack of offense Biyombo burdens the team with is a factor here, but it also speaks to the fact that Walker and Jefferson play really well together, and that Charlotte needs them both to be at their best to make a playoff run.
Considering that coach Clifford favors bigger players on every position since they most often dominate on defense, the Hornets might be in the market for a new starting point guard, if the opportunity arises. But they could do worse than Walker, who continues to make incremental improvements to his game. As will be examined next, however, there’s one big leap he still has to make.
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4. Where Will The Hornets Find Scoring Next Season?
There is no doubt that Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson are the aces on offense among Charlotte’s starting five, but both players were injury plagued last season and failed to deliver consistently. It’s been questioned, here and elsewhere, whether Walker should be their point guard of the future, even though he recently received a four-year $48 million extension, starting this summer. Though far from the Stephenson catastrophe, Walker had shooting woes of his own, a problem given his small size; his 30.7% behind the three point line last year was the lowest mark in his career. Walker also struggled with his mid-range shot, hitting a paltry 30% from 10-16 feet compared to 40% last season. He is going to work on his shot with the Charlotte coaching staff this summer – having never demonstrated the greatest playmaking or floor general abilities, Walker’s game is still that of a score first player, but to do that, he needs to round out his scoring game.
Meanwhile, Al Jefferson had a player option for next season, but chose to opt in, because he has ”unfinished business” in Charlotte. Jefferson’s season wasn’t bad, but he didn’t live up to his All-NBA Third Team status from last season, due in no small part because he had more injuries (which he played through in the last 30 games of the season). Notwithstanding the injuries, however, Jefferson had far too many games this season in which he was unproductive; he recorded 12 out of 65 games with less than 10 points, compared to four out of 75 in 2013-14. Charlotte needs a steady production from him next season, especially.
In addition to the Stephenson trade, the Hornets made another deal last night. Giving up Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Nicolas Batum has given them one more much needed scorer-creator. Batum averages around five assists per game over the last three seasons, and could be everything they hoped that Stephenson would be. Even if he is not yet the All Star player that he looked like he was destined to become a couple of years ago, Batum creates plenty out of pick-and-roll situations, and, notwithstanding a poor shooting season last year mostly due to injury, he is an excellent floor spacer on a team that sorely lacked it. In moving Henderson and Stephenson and acquiring Batum, and assuming Batum bounces back to his best, the Hornets may have taken a big step towards obtaining the floor spacing, dynamicism and offensive versatility they required. But so big was the scoring hole last year that there is certainly more to do.
5. Who/What Should The Hornets Go For In The Draft?
Charlotte is in a no-man’s land right now. The Hornets don’t have a franchise player, they are not in the position to draft for one, they don’t have assets to trade for one without gutting their team, and they don’t have the cap space to sign a big time free agent. Nevertheless, they could be in a position to move up from the ninth pick and draft one of a handful intriguing prospects this year outside of the top three (who presumably will be Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell). The Hornets still need outside shooting more than anything else, and both Mario Hezonja and Kristaps Porzingis provides both that and good size for their position.
Even if the Hornets stay at the ninth pick, there should be at least a couple of players who could be great fits. Among the big men, their target could be Frank Kaminsky or Myles Turner, stretch big candidates not entirely unlike the just-traded Vonleh. Or if they want another wing, they might look at Devin Booker as the second best shooting guard in the draft, an extremely pure shooter with the right size for an NBA wing.
Willie Cauley-Stein might be available, too, and he could make their defense downright terrifying together with Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum (especially if Batum is in Charlotte for the long haul). Those four players have tremendous versatility on defense and could switch on almost anything. They would nearly make pick-and-roll irrelevant for the offense (except for when Walker would be left with a bigger player). The offense, however, would sometimes resemble a clogged toilet.
5b. Where Are The Hornets Going From Here?
The wider question that underpins everything is one of their direction. The Hornets have let go of three veteran scouts as part of a staff shake-up, and have already made two trades before the offseason has even technically begun. So something is definitively happening in Charlotte.
What it means in the long run is hard to tell. Right now, it looks like they are trying to move away from an old school team towards a more versatile, dynamic team. But that team is still very incomplete, and aside from the intended addition by subtraction of Stephenson, the holes in the playing staff have not been fully addressed.
We should know more by the time draft night is over, but it seems like Charlotte have more than one shoe left to drop this summer.
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