In the midst of a disappointing campaign, it may be time for the Charlotte Hornets to reevaluate their future. The Hornets are getting All-Star production from Kemba Walker, a renaissance season from Dwight Howard, and surprising production from Jeremy Lamb and are still near near last place in the Eastern Conference.
After just one playoff appearance in the last four years, the Hornets have bottomed out, sunk by unfortunate injuries and some frustrating inconsistency on both ends of the floor. Cody Zeller will miss the next few months due to a knee injury. Head coach Steve Clifford is taking a leave of absence to address his health, and it’s unclear if or when he’d return this season.
With so much going wrong despite important pieces working out, will the Hornets be clear sellers at the trade deadline, and if so, who would they be able to move? Part of prescribing the right path the rest of the year for Charlotte comes from correctly diagnosing the problems and figuring out what’s working right.
Trying our hand with some of the positives of the Hornets season, two clear ones stick out. Dwight Howard is chief among them, and the reunion between Howard and Steve Clifford, an assistant during his days in Orlando, has lived up to the hype. Charlotte needed Dwight, and Dwight needed Charlotte. The Hornets get their rim protector, defensive anchor and a presence on the inside to finish lobs from Kemba or occasionally score on the block. Howard gets his place to play consistently heavy minutes, be an integral part of an NBA offense and find the right market and home to rehabilitate his tarnished image.
There are even flashes of old Orlando Dwight coming out time to time, with monstrous dunks in traffic, sprinting the floor in transition and emphatic front-row swats. It’s as if Father Time has taken mercy on Howard and occasionally takes the night off to allow Dwight to bask in glory once again. Those nights can see some athletic spectacles that only a guy like Superman is capable of:
But usage is the sleight of hand needed to fool people into seeing production. Truthfully, Howard has been less efficient this year in Charlotte than his last few seasons, despite having a greater role within the offense. His 25.5 usage rate is the highest since he was in Orlando. He’s also shooting a 54 percent from the field, his lowest since his second year in the league, and only 65 percent at the rim. Howard turns the ball over 20 percent of the possessions he finishes, and his Offensive Box Plus-Minus (OBPM) is at -3.2 on Christmas, by far the lowest of his career. Howard doesn’t consistently look the same as he used to.
Because of the team’s vast need for a post presence and someone to balance Kemba Walker on the offensive end, the Hornets are still better with this version of Dwight than they would be without him. Cleaning the Glass, the great analytics website from Ben Falk, has a great stat on Expected Wins, measuring how many more or fewer wins a team would have over the course of an 82-game season with their plus-minus differential from a player’s on-off stats. Dwight Howard, whom the Hornets are 11 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court than when he’s off it, gives his team a boost in the equivalence of 28 wins ahead of their normal pace. That’s the highest mark Howard can claim through his career.
Just because he’s not the same Dwight doesn’t mean he’s not vital to his team’s success. Charlotte is getting exactly what they bargained for with Howard.
They’re also getting more than expected from Jeremy Lamb. The sixth-year pro out of Connecticut has finally started to see things click on the offensive end this season.
Hitting 35 percent of his treys, Lamb has excelled in his expanded role despite a cold streak these last few weeks. The spacing he provides is the key; the Hornets are nearly a .500 team (6-7) in games where he makes multiple three-pointers. They’re 6-14 in all other games. In general, Lamb has been the X-factor for these Hornets throughout the year. In wins he’s been a plus 21.4, in losses a minus 16.3.
The combination of playing Lamb with Kemba Walker has helped to alleviate all creation duties on Kemba and gives them a second player on the floor that can generate their own high-quality shot. He’s not afraid to pull from beyond the three-point line, and there is zero hesitation when defenders give him space and go under ball screens:
Lamb’s length and crafty finishing ability on the interior should translate to better metrics inside the arc than they do. He’s only at 51 percent at the rim, a product of softer takes designed on his long strides and arms that slinky around defenders to quick finishes and layups. He lacks explosiveness to really separate with quick bursts, but the threat of his shot has drawn enough space for him to separate.
Those go-go-gadget arms that Lamb possesses are his biggest asset on the defensive end. His blocks rate is fairly high for a wing, and he has a knack for flying around outside the strict confines of the Steve Clifford defensive system to make plays on the ball. Often times his recovery skills are so great that players who think they have a ton of time to catch-and-shoot from three are mystified when Lamb gets one of his paws on the shot:
The Hornets need someone to turn those stops into instant offense, and that’s what Lamb does best. He’s good but not great in transition, though he’s one of the few players on the team consistently applying pressure to the rim. Lamb is the king of the transition heat check after making a hero save on the defensive end:
The downsides to the Hornets season come from their core, and even Kemba Walker isn’t immune to scrutiny here. Kemba has played with a sprained left wrist for a few weeks and it’s affected his performance. Since Dec. 1 he has shot only 39 percent from the field, 29 percent from three, products of that injury and playing through the severe issues of trying to carry an offense that so severely struggles without him.
Despite being the go-to player and one guy that defenses key in on, Kemba still only has an 8.9 percent turnover rate; per Cleaning the Glass, that puts him in the top 10 percent of point guards in the NBA in terms of taking the ball.
Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, has been abysmal here, with a 15 percent turnover rate while shooting only 29.4 percent from deep. He’s been a train wreck on offense no matter how you slice it, a far cry from the nearly-max player the Hornets signed just over a year ago. The presumed sidekick hasn’t quite lived up to his albatross contract or fulfilled his role as someone that makes Kemba’s life that much easier. Nic the Unquick is shooting a very solid 79 percent at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, but only takes about 15 percent of his attempts there. He isn’t able to get to the rim like he used to, making his game that more of a slow, prodding passing wing that picks apart defenses with laser-like precision and passes that thread the eye of needles that nobody else sees. He throws at least one or two backdoor gems a game that result in an easy bucket for a teammate:
Batum’s spacing has a nearly negative impact on the offense; he’s one-of-six on corner threes this year (Lamb is 10 for 17), and his low three-point percentage across the board makes it tricky to play him with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwight Howard in the starting lineup. Replace Batum with Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup and their offense jolts to a whole new level. That five-man lineup is a plus-8.1 over nearly 350 possessions, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions while killing opponents on the glass.
It’s the second year in a row the data reflects a need to split the minutes of Batum and the Hornets top star. Last year they were a positive 2.7 with both in the game, a solid rate without doubt. Things changed without them though; with just Batum and no Kemba, Charlotte was a -6.2 in only 425 minutes. Kemba without Batum though: a net rating of plus-seven overall.
Batum isn’t the only one that weighs Kemba down – really everyone on this roster does. As NBA Math’s Dan Favale asserted on Twitter, perhaps no singular player is more important to their team than Kemba, as the Hornets with him on the floor have the net rating of a top-five team in the NBA, but are close to the bottom of the league without him:
some context on just how dependent the Hornets remain on Kemba Walker pic.twitter.com/EXQvnv7Av4
— Dan Favale (@danfavale) December 23, 2017
Walker is also the current NBA leader in “Net rating difference”, the difference between the team’s net rating when a player is on the floor vs. when they are off it. That net rating difference for Kemba? An astounding 20.9.
Looking at the rest of the roster, one tinkering they haven’t tried yet would be to use Batum almost exclusively as a super-sub and playmaker with the second unit. Charlotte has always struggled with their bench because they don’t have effective point guard play; that won’t change this season with Michael Carter-Williams and his zero-sum spacing. But putting Batum more permanently with Frank Kaminsky – a stretch big – and scorers like Dwayne Bacon and Malik Monk in the backcourt could stabilize their bench unit.
When Batum shares the court with Michael Carter-Williams he’s already functioning as the go-to point guard. The added benefit of having more shooters around him though is one that the Hornets and Silas may not want to pass up. If Treveon Graham can establish his outside shot with consistency, there are plenty of other options to supplant Carter-Williams in the rotation. It’s almost frustrating how many chances this kid gets to prove himself while still sucking the life out of offenses.
That’s a short-term fix though. There’s still not enough talent here in Charlotte to think this team will rise to the level of being a middle-tier playoff team in the Eastern Conference. They’ve had decent draft picks, made thought-to-be-wise free agent signings or trades, and held a good deal of continuity within their roster. So where does the lack of consistent production from their second unit really come from?
Part of the issue of depth can be attributed to missing on a few of their more recent draft picks. Rookie Malik Monk still has a ton of time ahead and it’s almost too soon to judge the seldom-used shooting guard. Still, shooting 35 percent from two-point range and falling behind Dwayne Bacon in the rotation does not inspire a ton of confidence. Frank Kaminsky has been just bad on the defensive end, and he’s not making enough shots on a consistent basis to offset his woes on the defensive end. Teams that go at him on the defensive end in straight pick-and-rolls find all the riches in the world; the Houston Rockets have exploited him to the tune of forcing him to be -59 in two games against them this season:
GM Rich Cho has his hands tied in such a small market. The youngsters who come off their rookie deals have shown just enough promise to be worth retaining, and the residual effect of losing them (for what it’d do to their bench and ability to attract worthwhile replacements) was too much for the team to handle. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller were both extended beyond their rookie deals. MKG hasn’t improved in about three years and his jump shot is so blah it hurts. Zeller rates out well with his analytic metrics, but he’s pretty expensive for a backup.
Players like who bloat the salary cap and provide little spacing for Walker are what offset the positives given by Jeremy Lamb and Dwight Howard. They’re nearly untradeable assets, with a ton of years and too much money for one-dimensional players.
Now might be the time to explore swapping out some of their more prudent assets for a chance at quality young players and draft picks. The 2018 draft is chocked full of talent and having multiple picks in the top 15 is almost the equivalent of getting two top-eight picks in another year. A quick teardown like that, to flank Kemba Walker and Nic Batum (let’s face it, that contract is untradeable) with two lottery talents and hope for more growth from Malik Monk probably gets the Hornets back to the playoff race, if not higher, in two years.
They have all their first-rounders in coming years, enough to convince the team that one or two years at the bottom isn’t such a terrible idea. Kemba is already 27 and will be 28 at the start of next season, so there’s got to be some urgency to contribute to his timeline before he starts a decline. No player has made more consistent improvements to his game year after year like Cardiac Kemba. The moment that ends is likely the moment his decline starts… nobody will see it coming, he’ll just plateau and need someone there to pick up the scoring slack.
That’s where the multiple lottery picks come in. Why not take a few stabs at it this year, if only for the cost of giving away one or two pieces? Would Jeremy Lamb net a first-rounder to a team like the Denver Nuggets? Might the Pistons give up a first-rounder and Jon Leuer for Marvin Williams? Do the Pacers jump in and try to buy on either Lamb or Marvin, shipping away their dwindling first-rounder? How much does Frank Kaminsky demand as a streaky shooting center?
Keep in mind these Hornets are nudging up against the luxury tax, an area they’d desperately like to avoid. They’re about $1.95 million short of the threshold right now, though releasing Treveon Graham by Jan. 10 can bump that number just above $2.5 mill. That ceiling on their spending limits the team’s ability to be a destination for salary-shedding. Combine that with decently large contracts ($13 million per year for MKG, closer to $14 for Marvin, each until 2020) and the Hornets have their hands tied a bit.
Charlotte has no real free agents coming this season; they used their Bi-Annual Exception on MCW, so they’ll be bound to the Mid-Level Exception, which would vault them over the tax as their roster stands now. Add a decent chunk of change reserved for their draft pick and the Hornets are nudging on the tax again next year. Cho has tied his own hands with cap management over the last year or so, leaving the smallest of avenues to tinker with the roster. It’s either stand pat or blow it up.
Simultaneously, we find ourselves lauding the Hornets for their moves this summer and scratching our heads about why they’re playing so poorly. Dwight Howard has been their second-best player, and it hasn’t really been close. They added him while getting the contract of Miles Plumlee off the books, a huge win for the franchise. Malik Monk fell into their laps at 11th overall, and it’s too soon to second-guess taking the guy that was the consensus best player available at the time. Even Dwayne Bacon has looked like a steal.
Regardless of the cause, Buzz City needing a makeover isn’t the issue that’s really up for debate. Instead we’re forced to think about how they could pull one off. With so many bloated contracts, such littler maneuverability under the hard cap and such little ability to flank Kemba with the talent he deserves, we’re left to wonder if these Hornets really can make meaningful change to their roster this year.