Well, this is exactly how Charlotte Hornets fans didn't want to start the 2015-16 season. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, Charlotte's best defensive player, whom owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho gave a four-year, $52 million contract extension this summer — is expected to miss the next six months after suffering a dislocated right shoulder.
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The injury came in the closing minute of the second quarter of the Hornets' preseason opener against the Orlando Magic on Saturday:
Kidd-Gilchrist took a dribble handoff on the right wing from center Al Jefferson and began to curl toward the lane. As he did, though, he lost his footing; as he slipped to the hardwood, he instinctively put out his right arm to brace himself and came down hard, fast and awkwardly on that right shoulder.
After staying down for a few moments, Kidd-Gilchrist got up holding his shoulder and immediately exited the game, being helped off the court and back to the visiting locker room. He did not return, finishing with four points, one rebound and one assist in Charlotte's 106-100 win over the Magic.
The Hornets announced Sunday that the 22-year-old Kentucky product had suffered a dislocated right shoulder. Initial X-rays were negative, but the team scheduled a follow-up evaluation back in Charlotte, including a magnetic resonance imaging exam, for Monday.
The results of that follow-up, according to Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, were absolutely brutal:
Charlotte's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will need shoulder surgery and be sidelined six months, league source tells Yahoo Sports.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) October 5, 2015
As Woj reports, the six-month recovery timeline could mean Kidd-Gilchrist's 2015-16 season is over before it even started. There might remain a sliver of a chance of Kidd-Gilchrist returning just before the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.
Getting that far, though, figures to be much more difficult without MKG, who has operated without offensive flash for a rarely competitive team in the considerable shadow of being The Guy Picked After Anthony Davis, but who has still managed to make a consistently significant positive impact during his time on the court over the past three seasons — especially on the defensive end.
Steve Clifford's club had a 27-28 record when Kidd-Gilchrist was in the lineup last year, a winning percentage that would've been good for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hornets went just 6-21, however, when he was sidelined by an early-season stress reaction in his right foot and a late-campaign left ankle sprain. MKG missing one-third of the season was arguably the biggest single factor in the Hornets missing out on their second straight playoff berth. (I say "arguably" because Lance Stephenson would like a word.)
The damage went further than that. The Hornets outscored their opposition by 73 total points in the nearly 1,600 minutes Kidd-Gilchrist played last year, an average of 3.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool. When MKG was off the court, though, Charlotte got outscored by a whopping 333 points in just under 2,400 minutes, an average of 7.7 points-per-100. In effect, then, having MKG in the lineup was the difference between the Hornets performing like the 55-win Memphis Grizzlies and the worst-season-in-franchise-history Los Angeles Lakers.
It's possible that this year's model is better equipped to deal with Kidd-Gilchrist's absence than last year's, thanks to the presence of offseason trade addition Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb on the wing alongside rising sophomore P.J. Hairston. Should Clifford slide Batum or Lamb up to the small forward spot for stretches, he could also deploy a two-point guard backcourt featuring two of Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin and Brian Roberts, depending on the matchup.
Improved depth on the wing, combined with a hoped-for bounce-back season from slimmed-down center Al Jefferson and boosts from range-shooting big men Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky, could make Charlotte a more formidable offensive opponent, mitigating some of the pain of losing MKG's doggedness and versatility on the defensive end. (As some have noted, losing MKG could lead to a new round of questions about the Hornets' decision to select Wisconsin power forward/center Kaminsky over Duke swingman Justise Winslow with the No. 9 pick in June's NBA draft, though hindsight, obviously, is 20/20.)
With the exception of some of Batum's more engaged work in Portland, though, none of those perimeter options figure to provide anything close to the defensive impact Kidd-Gilchrist offers:
Kind of a key piece here: Clifford told me this 2 years ago, said it again last year: their ability to defend without rim protection was 1/2
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) October 5, 2015
2/2 because of how much pressure and emphasis they put on the wing defense, specifically of MKG. So there’s a domino effect
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) October 5, 2015
Out of Hornets' 10 worst lineups last yr in total +/-, only one included Kidd-Gilchrist. This could get terrifyingly ugly.
— statcenter (@statcenter) October 5, 2015
Kidd-Gilchrist's relatively modest statistical output (10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 28.9 minutes per game last season) and the well-known issues with his jump shot — a committed rebuild of his form led to a marked improvement in his success on midrange jumpers (from 28.4 percent two seasons ago to 39.5 percent last season), but Kidd-Gilchrist didn't attempt a single 3-pointer last season, which further cramps the already tight spacing of the Hornets offense — have largely masked the degree to which he's become a difference-maker for Charlotte, thanks in large part to his penchant for giving 110 percent and going 100 miles per hour every second he steps on the court.
That's the rub, though. If the hard-charging style leads to sizable chunks of missed time — 47 games over the past two seasons, with perhaps an entire season to come here — you wonder whether that approach can be sustainable over the long haul. It's awesome to watch Kidd-Gilchrist play "with the energy of a human wrecking-ball," as Spencer Percy of Queen City Hoops put it, but it might be tough to build around a player whose game is predicated on crashing into things.
That said, this particular injury — slipping and falling while running a handoff — seems more like harsh happenstance than the natural result of excessive amplitude. It also seems like an exceptionally cruel twist of fate for both one of the league's hardest workers; for a player with a motor as relentless as Kidd-Gilchrist's, you have to imagine that mandated rest and slow, steady rehabilitation looks like a special brand of torture.
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