The Charlotte Hornets’ return to the postseason in 2015 was always going to be a tenuous proposition, the team overachieved a bit in winning 43 games in its final year as the “Bobcats” last season, and LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers just about guaranteed that at least one 2014 Eastern playoff participant was going to have to fall out of the ranks in 2015.
Charlotte isn’t officially out of the ranks, but they’re not far off. The team is two games out of the playoff bracket with five to play, and via Pro Basketball Talk we learned on Tuesday that coach Steve Clifford doesn’t think there is much of a chance that the team’s core group of contributors will play again this season:
Hornets coach Steve Clifford on Kidd-Gilchrist, Jefferson and Zeller: “Eight days left and they’re not close.”
— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) April 7, 2015
Jefferson has experienced pain in his right knee all season, the burden of having to work as an undersized scorer for 12 seasons exacerbated by a torn ACL in that same knee that he suffered over six years ago. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is out with an ankle injury, and Cody Zeller remains sidelined with a sore shoulder
Without the trio, even the return of Lance Stephenson could not lift the Hornets to a win over Miami on Tuesday. Held off for three quarters by the interior work of Udonis Haslem, of all heroes, the Hornets failed to keep Goran Dragic in front of them late before falling 105-100. The loss split the season series with Miami, and left the Hornets at 33-44. Three of the team’s upcoming five contests feature pairings with Raptor and Rocket teams looking to secure playoff positioning, alongside two other road contests against the Pistons and Hawks. No relief appears to be in sight.
The Hornets are essentially in offseason mode right now. So then what?
The final year of Jefferson’s three-year, $40.5 million contract and the first year of Kemba Walker’s four-year, $48 million deal are part of the reason why the Hornets will be effectively capped-out in 2015-16. There is always the chance that Jefferson could decline his player option and sign here or elsewhere to a longer deal that would guarantee him money deep into his 30s, but turning down $13.5 million for just one season will be hard to do. Jefferson wouldn’t be recklessly signing off on his future earnings, either – teams will line up to try to compete for Jefferson even as a bit player in the summer of 2016, certain he could contribute in a bench role. Even with his current woes they’d be correct, in that regard.
Stephenson, Gerald Henderson and Marvin Williams are all on reasonable contracts that could (Lance’s is a team option for 2016-17) come off the books in 2016, but they’re also the reason the Hornets have the third-worst offense in the NBA this year, and why the team’s spacing has been terrible all season. Perched in the right situation, Henderson (especially), Williams and even Stephenson could all contribute in roles on great teams, just not in this foundation and alongside each other. Though Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting percentages have shot up considerably from the two-point perimeter this season, he still rarely shoots from there and didn’t attempt a three-pointer all year.
The Hornets also have a tough decision to make with former lottery pick Bismack Biyombo. The burly center still looks like a train wreck in ways both good and bad on either end of the court. He’ll get you where you need to go, sometimes, but there is going to be a loss of life along the way.
Some desperate team will attempt to overpay Biyombo in restricted free agency this summer, and though the 7-footer truly has been one of the better reserve big men in the NBA this year, the Hornets will have to think twice about how much they fight to keep the center. He won’t even turn 23 until August, but even with those expiring contracts in place Charlotte will have to consider all the future lottery contracts that will eventually turn over into bigger, second deals.
One of those deals belongs to rookie Noah Vonleh, and while he’s impressed in short stints in April, this has been a wasted rookie season due to injury, rust, and rawness. One shouldn’t call Noah a bust, the skills are certainly there, but he’s played about as many minutes on the year (139) as the similarly-aged Andrew Wiggins plays in a week. Zeller, meanwhile, remains just OK.
That the Hornets would be so desperate for their presences in the season’s waning moments speaks to just how well this team has competed, how important the late-season pickup of Mo Williams was, and, yeah, the East.
Even the Cleveland comeback, the surprise ascension of Milwaukee and Boston and Indiana’s inspired ability to circle the wagons without Paul George still had Charlotte in the mix as the season rolled into its final month. For that, the credit should go to Steve Clifford, sez Kemba Walker. It ain’t his fault:
"It has nothing to do with him," Walker said of the Hornets sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference, two spots out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. "He does a great job, he's a fantastic coach. He always does his best to give us the right game plan, to try and get wins.
"I'm 100 percent behind him. I believe in him."
"It was no (coincidence) we got to the playoffs last season," Walker said of Clifford's coaching.
"It hasn't been the best season for us this year, but he is definitely not to blame. We're the ones out there playing, we're the ones who have to execute, we're the ones who have to win those games. I think it's on us."
It’s not really even on “us,” either. The Charlotte players should have regrets heading into the 2015 offseason, but they didn’t let anyone down. Injuries and bad luck played a part, but at the end of the day (and season) this just isn’t all that great a roster.
It probably won’t look much different next year, either. As it seemingly is with every other NBA team, the Hornets are going to have to make their move in 2016.
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