Preview: Charlotte Hornets

2017-18 Charlotte Hornets


Projected Record: 40-42 (7th in East)

Over/Under: 42.5

2016: 36-46 (11th in East)


Key Additions:

  • C Dwight Howard
  • G Malik Monk
  • G Dwayne Bacon
  • G Michael Carter-Williams

Key Subtractions:

  • C Miles Plumlee
  • G Marco Bellinelli
  • GRamon Sessions
  • G Brian Roberts

Summary

Strengths:

  • Team balance
  • Offensive weapons
  • Defensive potential

Weaknesses:

  • Lack great #2 option
  • Nic Batum missing significant time
  • Limited ceiling

I came into this whole exercise wanting to like the Hornets quite a bit, because I have been a Kemba Walker fan since UCONN. As I’ve said and will continue to say many times through this whole thing, the Eastern Conference is not a serious challenge this year, and anyone below the fifth seed is probably not a team that will make a whole lot of remarkable progress in the playoffs. The Hornets should make it into that lower-seed playoff range, but I’m not sure how much meaning there actually is behind it.

The biggest question this team needs to answer right away is how they can replace Nicolas Batum while he sits for 6-8 weeks with a UCL tear. It’s not immediately clear. Batum filled a sort of quasi-backup point guard role for the Hornets last year; a Swiss Army Knife who could fit into their lineup in a number of ways. He’s basically Evan Turner, But Good. Malik Monk might have to make an immediate contribution, which is a tough ask, but it’s a better option than Michael Carter-Williams without a doubt.

Meanwhile, The Dwight Howard Redemption Tour has made Charlotte its most recent stop, and I’m not yet convinced that it’s going to work any better here than it did in Los Angeles, Houston, or Atlanta. Cody Zeller had carved himself out a nice niche with this unit last year; he’s no defensive presence, but he plays an unselfish, hyperactive game that keeps the Hornets’ energy level high. Dwight might be the polar opposite of all of those things. In theory, he could really help with this team’s defense and rebounding, but will he finally conform to a lesser role this time, or continue to clamor for more shots and divide the locker room like he’s been doing for years? I know what I’m betting on.

The Hornets desperately need a #2 guy to complement Walker, and maybe Monk could be the McCollum to his Lillard in a few years, but it’s just too much to ask from a rookie. Charlotte is starved of shot creation, and like last year, there are just going to be too many possessions that end in Walker desperately trying to make something out of nothing. They might be the easiest team to defend at the buzzer in the league, at least among possible playoff teams; who else could the ball possibly go to right now?


Most Valuable Player: Kemba Walker

The most justified I’ve ever felt in my life is when I decided Kemba Walker was going to be an NBA All-Star someday after watching his unbelievable “Five games in five nights” run at Madison Square Garden with UCONN. He finally fulfilled that promise last season, and he’s turned the corner from an inefficient chucker to one of the league’s best scoring point guards over the past two years.

Walker is quietly one of the two or three most crucial players to his team in the NBA, because it’s hard to imagine the Hornets doing anything at all without him in the lineup. His usage rate crept up to 29% last season – approaching Damian Lillard territory – and it only stands to increase this year, especially with Batum missing significant time. Walker has been healthy and had the best seasons of his career the past two years; can he make it three straight on both counts?

X Factor: Dwight Howard

It feels like this category practically exists just for Howard, who still has the kind of ability to be much better than he is. Dwight still put up solid enough counting stats, and he’s generally still a positive defensive presence, but his attitude remains his biggest obstacle. His teammates hate playing with him and he doesn’t seem to have a realistic grasp on what his best role in the NBA might be. Supposedly he has a mythical new jump shot now and intends to start expanding his range; not the worst idea, a lot of bigs have been working on the same thing, but I’m not completely sold that one of the NBA’s worst free throw shooters is just going to start making it rain from deep.


Conclusion

There are some interesting things at play with this Hornets team and Kemba Walker is a legitimate star, but they’re not a top team in the Eastern Conference. Nicolas Batum’s injury looms largest over this team; although he’s reportedly going to avoid surgery and miss 6-8 weeks, he’s probably the guy the Hornets could least afford to lose besides Walker himself.

Charlotte is the latest stop on the eternal Dwight Howard Redemption Tour, and it remains to be seen if it will work out any differently this time. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is healthy again, and believe it or not, he’s still only 24 years old. There was a time where he looked like he had a Defensive Player of the Year kind of ceiling; can he recapture it? Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon are interesting rookies, and Monk might contribute early, but they’re both more future value than present. Any growth from Frank Kaminsky at all would be a positive.

The refrain that will be repeated with many of these Eastern Conference teams is that the bar for making the playoffs in the East is just so low. Charlotte has the talent to clear that bar, provided Kemba Walker stays healthy.

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