Sometimes, when you gamble, you lose.
Coming off a surprising return to the postseason sparked by the low-post brilliance of Al Jefferson and a defensive overhaul helmed by first-year head coach Steve Clifford, the Charlotte Hornets entered the summer of 2014 aiming to make a splash. They had one of the league's stingiest defenses and one of its most moribund offenses, and they needed another weapon. They needed another pick-and-roll playmaker alongside point guard Kemba Walker; another tough, physical athlete alongside Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson; some spice, some unpredictability, some fire.
Stephenson looked awful from the jump. He shot just 38.6 percent from the field and 15.1 percent from 3-point land through his first 25 games, and the dearth of other shooters collapsed the court, making it harder for him to find creases in the pick-and-roll and barrel his way to the basket.
The Hornets played much better when Stephenson sat, prompting Clifford to bench him for entire fourth quarters more than once. A pelvic injury sent Stephenson to the injured list; even after he got well, Clifford just couldn't find a Lance lineup that worked. The Hornets scuffled to a 33-49 finish, lowlighted by Stephenson turning in perhaps the worst long-distance shooting season in NBA history.
Stephenson wasn't the only reason Charlotte struggled. Defensive linchpin Kidd-Gilchrist missed 25 games with various injuries, and the team fell off a cliff without him. Marvin Williams couldn't replace Josh McRoberts' shooting and playmaking. Jefferson never got back to 100 percent following his postseason plantar fascia strain. Lance wasn't the only one who couldn't shoot; in fact, with apologies to little-used reserves Troy Daniels and Jannero Pargo, nobody could. Most of what could've gone wrong did. Losing this big is a team effort.
Still, Stephenson was the face of the flameout, and owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho decided it was time for a new look, so he's gone. Big Al's less big, thanks to a summertime commitment to saying, "Not today,
Satan Popeye's." A transformed roster looks better-equipped for the spread-the-floor-and-bomb-away style that's worked for so many recent contenders. The vibe seemed different ... or, at least, it did until Monday, when we learned that Kidd-Gilchrist would likely be lost for the season.
Will a revamped attack prove potent enough for long-punchless Charlotte to withstand the loss of its defensive leader and return to the playoffs? Or did the fall that put MKG in a sling also silence any buzz about the Hornets?
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
See Lance. See Lance pop up.
See Lance shoot. No, Lance, don't shoot!
See Lance leave. Bye-bye, Lance.
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Did the summer help at all?
I think so. (It's October that's the killer.)
Charlotte didn't even wait until the offseason to close the book on its disappointing 2014-15. Cho shipped Stephenson to the Los Angeles Clippers the night before Game 6 of the NBA Finals in exchange for stretch five Spencer Hawes and veteran swingman (and I mean that literally) Matt Barnes. It was an acknowledgment that Cho had lost his gamble on the talented but flawed guard, and that Charlotte needed something steadier to vie for a playoff spot.
Enter Nicolas Batum, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers, imported nine days after saying the Stephenson trade. The 26-year-old Frenchman came at a cost — the stalwart Henderson and 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh, who began his rookie season shelved by a sports hernia and spent most of it stuck behind vets, but who remains a tantalizing prospect at just 20 years old.
As an unrestricted free agent, Batum also carries the considerable risk of being able to bolt next summer, leaving the Hornets with nothing left to show for the Vonleh selection. But if he can provide the playmaking, shooting and defensive versatility that the Hornets thought they'd get from Lance, and if they can convince him to stay for the long haul, he could be worth the price.
Cho kept working the phones. He flipped Barnes to the Memphis Grizzlies for Luke Ridnour's valuable non-guaranteed contract, and then jettisoned the veteran to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeremy Lamb. The 23-year-old didn't cover himself in glory in OKC, but if all it took was the 35-year-old Barnes to find out if more minutes can unleash the player many believed Lamb would be coming out of UConn, it's a price worth paying.
The Hornets made one more attempt to address their playmaking shortcoming, taking a short-money flier on Jeremy Lin to join Walker and backup Brian Roberts in the point guard rotation. Lin's decline from megastar to mistaken-identity case has been well-documented, but his size and improved long-range shooting might lead to some two-point-guard backcourts that could add punch to an offense that's been bad for the entirety of Charlotte's NBA second act, including last season's 28th-place finish in offensive efficiency.
"We have made a concerted effort to upgrade the offense," Cho told reporters in July.
Those efforts included one of the more intriguing decisions of this June's NBA draft. When the Hornets went on the clock at No. 9, Duke forward Justise Winslow — a hard-charging swingman whom many observers expected to be off the board within the first six selections — remained on the board. Winslow's motor and versatility made him seem a perfect fit for a club that prides itself on defense.
Beyond that, though, other teams wanted Winslow. Like, really wanted him. According to multiple reports, the Boston Celtics offered Charlotte four first-round picks for the right to jump up from No. 16 to No. 9, just to draft him. Cho (really, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe, Jordan) declined, preferring to stay put at nine and draft Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky.
On one hand, the National College Player of the Year is a 7-footer who can work in the post, make plays off the bounce and shoot the lights out; he shot nearly 42 percent from 3 for the Badgers last season. On the other, the four-year collegian isn't exactly a heralded defender (which makes him like every other Charlotte big, now that Bismack Biymobo's gone north of the border) and he's already 22 — a full three years older than Winslow — which makes you wonder just how much improvement Clifford can coax out of him, and whether he's got a high-enough ceiling to be worth rejecting a raft of first-rounders.
Whatever your feelings on the Kaminsky call, Charlotte looked better in September than it did in April, with more shooting and playmaking to complement its foundational defense. And then came October, and Kidd-Gilchrist took a hard spill, and the Hornets' single most reliable quantity — a top-flight defense with MKG pestering opponents' top scorers — went boom.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Batum. This was going to be true before Kidd-Gilchrist's injury; without him, it's now even more paramount that Nic click in a big way.
Charlotte needs Batum to do a little bit of everything — run pick-and-rolls, shoot coming off screens, spot up and space the floor, cut off the ball, slash off the bounce — to goose its offense. It needs his capacity, when engaged, to check everyone from jitterbug point guards to wing scorers to fortify its defense, especially now that he's the Hornets' top perimeter stopper. It needs his head for the game, his gift for understanding what needs to be done and how to fill the hole, to paper over its weaknesses.
It needs his head in the game, too — the primary knock on Batum has been what Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge called "his career-long habit of disappearing from large swaths of games" — and it needs that commitment to be unwavering. It needs the version of Batum that just decides to take over a game to become the rule, not the exception.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney described Batum as a player most valuable when "his team [has] a solid basis for execution already in play." To lift the Hornets out of the league's offensive basement, he must be a more active catalyst for that execution. The talent's there. So is the opportunity, with Clifford saying he plans to use Batum like Stan Van Gundy's Orlando Magic teams (on which Clifford served as an assistant) used Hedo Turkoglu, and that Batum will be Charlotte's "second or first option" on offense.
There shouldn't be any shortage of motivation, either. Batum's looking both to slough off arguably his worst pro season — he posted career lows in per-minute scoring, field goal and 3-point percentage, though a lingering right wrist injury was the likely culprit and his shooting perked up after the All-Star break — and put himself in line for a monster payday in free agency, when most of the league will have tons of cap space thanks to the the league's new broadcast rights deal.
A course correction back to Batum's Swiss Army knife 2013-14 production should earn him a nice raise over the $11.9 million he'll make this season. Proving he really is a top offensive option could net him a max deal that blows his old one out of the water.
The phrase I keep coming back to is "an organizing principle." Something that ties it all together.
Last year's bête noire was shooting. Charlotte ranked dead last in team 3-point percentage, second-to-last in team field-goal percentage, and 24th out of 30 teams in long-balls attempted. Opponents knew they didn't have to worry about any Hornet beating them from beyond the foul line, so they plugged the middle. With driving room scarce and passing lanes tight, Charlotte dropped to 28th in the league in assists, 24th in assist opportunities per game and dead last in points created by assist per game. I'm not convinced this summer's offense-first slant will totally fix that, but I think they'll help.
It feels odd to worry about a defense that has ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency for two straight years despite a lack of elite talent outside of Kidd-Gilchrist. Without him, though, the Hornets feel ripe for a tumble — Charlotte clamped down at a rate that would've topped the Golden State Warriors for the No. 1 spot in points allowed per possession during MKG's minutes last season, and conceded at a clip that would've slotted them in 20th when he was off the floor.
While Batum's a capable wing defender, moving him from shooting guard alongside MKG to small forward in his stead could create a ripple effect that compromises Charlotte's perimeter D, especially when Clifford rolls with two point guards. Clifford could also elect to slide Marvin Williams, a small-ball four for the past few seasons, back down to the three; I'm skeptical that'll be much better. And without Biyombo — who, for all his flaws, blocks shots — the Hornets have neither a rim protector who can clean up mistakes nor (with the possible exception of Cody Zeller) a quick-enough pivot to stall pick-and-roll penetration and keep opposing ball-handlers outside the paint.
The MKG-less Hornets, then, seem like a team between identities. They want to be high-volume long-range bombers, but have few surefire shooters; they want to win with their defense, but suddenly have giant questions on that end. You don't have to be great to make the playoffs in the East — hell, you barely have to be good — but it helps to have something to hang your hat on. Two years ago, Charlotte rode an All-NBA-caliber Jefferson and Clifford's coaching to the postseason. They'll need lots more of both to return.
Contributor with something to prove:
Walker. He might not need to prove anything to Charlotte's brass — players, coaches and front-office people all rave about his locker-room presence, and Cho gave him four years and $48 million last fall — but at some point, shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and missing more than two-thirds of your 3-pointers just won't cut it.
The hope last season was that the presence of another league-average-or-so shooter alongside MKG's reconstructed jumper would improve the Hornets' half-court spacing, giving Walker more room to turn the corner of screens and accelerate to the basket. That didn't happen. Stephenson tanked, and while Kidd-Gilchrist's midrange accuracy improved, he didn't attempt a single 3; defenders continued ignoring him, keeping the middle packed and making Walker's life no easier.
Despite his yo-yo handle and quick first step, it can be tough for a player as small as Walker — listed at 6-foot-1, but really more like 5-foot-11 — to navigate interior traffic. He got into the paint more often last season, averaging nine drives per game (18th-best in the league) while scoring 5.5 points per game on drives (17th) and producing 10 total team points per game off his drives (20th). But he still struggled to finish, shooting just 48.7 percent in the restricted area. As a result, he tends to settle for pull-up jumpers, with nearly half his attempts last season coming off the bounce; he shot just 34.3 percent on those pull-up tries, according NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.
Again, the Hornets hope that more perimeter shooting, from Hawes and Kaminsky up front to Batum and Lamb on the wing, will give Walker more room to operate and get him easier looks. Again, they hope that more supplemental ball-handlers — Batum, Lamb and Lin — will ease Walker's burden, and that with less responsibility for creating, he'll be a more efficient scorer.
Again, we'll need to see the ball start going through the net before we believe Kemba's the answer for what ails Charlotte's offense.
Potential breakout stud: Lamb and P.J. Hairston, who now find themselves with a clear path to major minutes ... if they can just seize the post-MKG crisitunity.
Once considered the jewel of the trade that sent James Harden to Houston, the 23-year-old Lamb spent three years withering on the vine and, sometimes deservedly and sometimes curiously, at the end of Scott Brooks' bench. There's no question his development stagnated in Oklahoma City; to some degree, that's owed to being a young player blocked by All-NBA talent on a team aimed at title contention every year. When he did get opportunities, though, he failed to distinguish himself.
Well, here you go, Jeremy. Consider yourself unblocked. Put those tools together — athletic 6-foot-5 wings with 6-foot-11 wingspans who have shown the promise of a long-distance stroke and playmaking skills don't grow on trees. Show Clifford that his best path forward includes less of Williams at the three in big lineups, and more of you next to Batum on the wing, playing off the ball alongside old UConn buddy Kemba, running and gunning and improving defensively.
Hairston's rookie season got off to a rocky start, but the former Tar Heel did eventually earn some burn off Charlotte's bench, averaging 5.6 points and two rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game in 45 appearances. He's a very willing shooter (8.5 long-range jacks per 36 minutes) but not yet an especially accurate one, hitting just 30.1 percent of his deep tries.
Clifford pulled back on Hairston's PT in February and March, citing a lacking work ethic and lagging development in the team game: "He hasn’t developed any way to play to make his teammates better.” He was ticked that the rookie was gunning, and hadn't shown an interest in impacting the game without shooting: digging in defensively, working to find open teammates, keeping the ball moving.
Showing strides in those areas while nudging his long-range accuracy up a few percentage points and continuing to help out on the defensive glass could earn Hairston a more significant share of the minutes available in MKG's wake. It could even mark the 22-year-old as a piece worth building around as the Hornets try to build a higher-octane offense.
Slimmed-Down Contract Year Big Al and Contract Year Batum play like All-Stars. Lamb flourishes given the chance to play through his mistakes, Lin and Hairston provide instant offense off the bench, and Zeller continues his development into a solid two-way big. Hawes and Kaminsky add up to one 2013-14 McBob; Clifford somehow keeps the defense from cratering without MKG; and Charlotte grabs the No. 8 seed.
If everything falls apart:
The Hornets hemorrhage enough points to prove MKG is their best player. Batum proves more side dish than main course, struggling under the weight of being a top option. Even with less weight under which to struggle, Jefferson can't carry the offensive load. Kemba keeps brickin'; Zeller and Kaminsky struggle while Vonleh breaks out; and the Hornets win 25 games — bad, but not bad enough to get top-three odds in the 2016 draft lottery ... which is even worse.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
21-61, 14th in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
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