The 2015-16 campaign was supposed to be cut short before it even started. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was knocked out of a heavy chunk of the season during the team’s training camp with a bum shoulder, limiting the team’s options even in the wake of the acquisition of Nicolas Batum (coming off of his lousiest season) during the summer prior. MKG would go on to play just seven games for the squad, but somehow coach Steve Clifford led the team on a 48-win turn that tied them with three other teams in the Eastern Conference.
Internal development was the order of the day as lead guard Kemba Walker shot to the ranks of near-All-Star level while nailing 37 percent of his threes, a career-high in shooting percentage alongside averaging 20.9 points per game. The deal for Batum, at the cost of 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh, proved to be a massive win: Charlotte played exceptionally well with the swingman on the court, and he made life infinitely easier for his once-desperate teammates. His spacing and ball-handling presence helped Walker play a freer brand of basketball both inside and out, with and without the rock.
Charlotte took exceptional care of the ball last season while shooting (shooting!) its way into the top ten offensively. Jeremy Lin found a career resurgence as a hybrid guard off the bench, Marvin Williams continued to ply his easily-overlooked trade as a do-everything guy that also can rake from deep, while the defense (aided by the fact that Clifford’s undersized team kept the fouls to a minimum) sustained its top ten clout on that side of the ball.
Still, the team dropped the first two contests to Miami in the first round prior to taking three straight against the Heat. Miami prevailed in that series due in strong part to a seven-game regression of sorts (36.6 percent shooting) from Walker, and play from Batum that was hampered by both an ankle injury and indecision. Stuck in a crowded Eastern Conference second tier, the Hornets impressed without managing to break out.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
— The Needle (@spencerhawes00) February 27, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Until proven otherwise, no. And, until proven otherwise, it may not have hurt the team’s chances either.
The Hornets mostly held serve, as they had to, sending a maxed-out five-year, $120 million contract to Batum as soon as the offseason began; hoping that the 27-year old’s play through his prime more closely resembles his 2015-16 turn (when he also led Charlotte in assists) than his lost 2014-15 season in Portland.
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The team is hoping for a Batum-like bounce back year from Marco Belinelli, a veteran shooting guard that shot terribly from the perimeter with Sacramento in 2015-16 prior to being shipped to Charlotte on NBA draft night for the team’s No. 22 pick. We agree with coach Clifford in the knowledge that Belinelli, even on his worst nights, will still act as a far more reliable contributor than those taken around that stage of the 2016 draft, but the move whiffs of the typical Michael Jordan mix of win-now élan, mixed with a little parsimony post-2017 (when No. 22 pick Malachi Richardson’s contract still chugs along).
That parsimony may have also been in place when the team sent contributor Troy Daniels to Memphis on a sign-and-trade deal, but it certainly wasn’t a factor when Charlotte inked Marvin Williams to a four-year, $54 million deal, or when it brought in journeyman point man Ramon Sessions (coming off a batch of inspired ball in Washington) on a two-year, $12.5 million deal. The Hornets also signed up to take a flier on Roy Hibbert at his absolute low point, acquiring one of the more formidable forces in recent Eastern Conference history to a one-year, $5 million deal to rehabilitate his career.
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Lin (to Brooklyn), Courtney Lee (New York) and Al Jefferson (to Indiana) are gone, however, and the team will miss each of the three significantly. Jefferson may be on the downside of his career, but he repeatedly helped Charlotte make up for lost plays, deep into the shot clock, with his touch down low. Lin’s unpredictable game and derring-do was a 2nd quarter League Pass highlight last season, and the team will miss having that option even with Sessions spiraling to the basket. Lee may confound with his inconsistency, but he also shot 39 percent from deep in 2015-16.
Potential breakout stud:
The Hornets were hoping that this was Cody Zeller’s year, and in an 82-game turn it might very well be, but the athletic big man’s knee issues may get in the way of things. Coach Clifford pegged Zeller as still having “a long way to go” as he works through a right knee bone bruise, as the team will have to fall back on second-year big Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes to provide the sort of all-around punch up front that will be needed to keep teams guessing.
The re-emergence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, however, should have Hornet fans giddy. Yes, he’s missed significant time over the last three seasons and, yes, you wouldn’t show clips of his jumper to that junior high team you coach; but you’d happily show game footage documenting every other thing MKG does on the court to any winsome pupil.
Kidd-Gilchrist absolutely reconfigures the way opponents work their offense, even while setting up at a swingman position that (defensively) can sometimes get lost in the shuffle in the modern game. While it’s true that between Batum, MKG, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams and Belinelli the Hornets won’t be hurting for mid-sized contributors, Steve Clifford has to be drooling at the idea of pairing Kidd-Gilchrist with any number of options on either end of the ball.
Provided, of course, his presence doesn’t sap away from Batum and (especially) Kemba Walker’s offensive effectiveness.
Steve Clifford and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist love a challenge, though. And we love them for that. In their hands, this bug could turn into a feature.
The Hornets should remain a tough out. Steve Clifford will have this team ready to pounce on those that aren’t up to playing in Charlotte on a Saturday night, 24 hours after they played the Hawks in Atlanta (and, by extension, possibly spent an evening in Atlanta) on the first half of a back to back. If the high-end swooshing from long range continues even without Courtney Lee, Daniels, and (to a lesser extent) Lin on the roster, would could have a team that continues apace.
That won’t sell too many game programs or season tickets, but in an East that looks just as rife with parity (once you get past the champion Cavaliers) as it did the year before, with those damned Heat now taken out of the equation, that could be enough to pitch a three-round surprise. Charlotte seemed just as good as those that played in the second round last year, and at least just about on par with Toronto at both teams’ swiftest ebb.
If health and consistency take hold yet again, you could have an extended postseason run. And what’s better than watching LeBron James try to make do with Batum and MKG’s long arms in late May?
If everything falls apart:
Injuries hit, the long shots rim out, and Nicolas Batum reverts to a passive creature, willing to take possessions off while Kemba Walker dribbles his team into oblivion. Teams skulk away from Kidd-Gilchrist at any offensive spot save for the Stacey Augmon-ring around the basket, and Ramon Sessions puts Kemba’s dribbling overtures to shame with his bouncy play off the bench.
Charlotte did not succeed in turning its franchise around in the offseason, and yet again they will demand that those already wearing the teal take hold of this team’s future. The cupboard is stocked with sound talent and admirable basketball personalities, but pitching another near-50 win season without some of last year’s quirkier elements (Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin, to name two) while hoping two different career-years from Batum and Walker sustain might be a bit much to ask for.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
44-38, sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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