2016-17 record: 36-46. 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Transactions: To call the Hornets 2016-17 season disappointing would be an understatement. To have the team fall from a 48 win team to out of the playoffs was virtually unthinkable at the start of the year, but injuries caught up with them.
The injury that impacted the Hornets the most was to starting centre Cody Zeller who missed 20 games with various injuries including a concussion and a quad contusion which resulted in a 3-17 record for Charlotte when he wasn’t in the line-up.
The lack of front court depth stood out and GM Rich Cho made a huge move to address it in sending Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the 41st pick in the NBA draft to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Dwight Howard and the 31st overall pick.
Jettisoning Plumlee’s awful $12.5 million cap hit alone was a huge boon to the Hornets even if they will miss Belinelli’s scoring and sharp shooting off the bench.
Howard offers them the front court presence that they lacked last season and a guaranteed double-double for a team whose leading rebounder last season, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, had seven boards. D12 also provides an interior presence on the defensive end that the Hornets have lacked.
The three-time defensive player of the year may not have the athleticism he once did now that he’s 31 years old but he is still a very good interior defender and also reliable offensive option down low. The 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds that Howard averaged last season are still very solid numbers and I would expect them to increase in Charlotte as Dwight had the lowest number of touches since his rookie season while with the Hawks last year.
Where the once-superstar-turned-journeyman never really fit into Mike Budenholzer’s system in Atlanta, he has a strong relationship with Hornets’ bench boss Steve Clifford who was on the Magic coaching staff during Dwight’s best years. A reunion with Clifford could help revitalize Howard’s career and at the very least help provide him with a stable home in what is now his fifth team in six years.
Clifford should also help mitigate some of the attitude problems and internal issues that have plagued Howard in all of his recent stops with the Lakers, Rockets and Hawks as well as the end of his time in Orlando. He’s worked well with Dwight and the mercurial big man is going to play a bigger role in the Hornets offense than he has in any of his post-Orlando stops and should be happy with the increased touches and bigger role.
Howard carries some risk with his $23.5 million max deal on the books for two more seasons, but if he can find some of his old all-star form, it’s an acquisition that will pay off for Charlotte.
The Hornets took a flyer on 2013-14 rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams. MCW will be a major reclamation project for the Hornets after his poor showings during stints with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Chicago Bulls. Still it’s a low risk, one year $2.7 million signing. If Carter-Williams can find any of his rookie of the year form, he can fill the back up point guard role that the Hornets have needed since losing Jeremy Lin. If not, he’ll likely be out of the league.
Charlotte also added to their depth at guard by bringing Julyan Stone back to the NBA after a stint playing in Italy, which was a necessary move in light of the departures of Ramon Sessions, Brian Roberts and Briante Weber in free agency. I wouldn’t expect to see him on the floor very much.
2017 NBA Draft: The only upside to the disappointing season for the Hornets last year is that it put them in a much better position in a loaded draft.
With the 11th pick, the Hornets selected Malik Monk out of the University of Kentucky. The 19 year old averaged 19 points on 45% shooting from the field and 39.7% from three point range. His performance helped him to earn SEC Player of the Year and established him as one of the most potent scorers of this draft class.
Monk is an explosive, exciting player who is a highlight reel waiting to happen on most nights and will undoubtedly develop into a very gifted NBA scorer and provide the Hornets with constant threat at the two guard and scoring depth which they could use with Belinelli’s departure. He’s got a beautiful jumper and can hit with great consistency. Monk can attack well in transition and is lethal in spot ups or off screens.
The Hornets will need to work hard with Monk to develop the other facets of his game and temper his shoot first mentality, but the have themselves a future volume scorer and a player who does great work off the ball and will be a constant perimeter scoring threat.
At the 40th spot (the Hornets sent their 31st pick to the Pelicans on draft night), Charlotte added another athletic and capable scorer in Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon who averaged 17.2 points and 4.2 boards in his sophomore year with the Seminoles.
Standing at 6’6” with a 6’10” wingspan, Bacon has all the tools to be an effective NBA wing. He is an impactful player on both sides of the floor who does his best work on the offensive side as a slasher and can also finish off the bounce. He tends to rely on his jumper a lot but is capable of attacking the rim as well and will likely need encouragement from the Hornets staff to not settle for outside shots.
If he is able to get his jump-shot going consistently, Bacon should find himself a nice spot in the Hornets rotation and get some minutes off the bench.
Outlook: The Hornets are a safe bet to return to the playoffs not just because of their off-season moves but because three of the teams in front of them – the Pacers, Bulls and Hawks – now find themselves firmly and squarely in the tank.
The team addressed one of their biggest weaknesses in terms of their lack of front court depth and also still held on to Cody Zeller who thrived in a larger role when healthy last season. The 25 year old big man will likely have to settle for a second unit role rather than the starting one he has enjoyed the past few seasons, but will still be useful in situations where Dwight gets into foul trouble, when teams start hacking Dwight to or when the Hornets need to take advantage of Zeller’s mid-range game to stretch the floor.
Zeller is still a valuable asset for the Hornets. As mentioned earlier, the team cratered when he was on the shelf last season. They had a +7.8 net rating with Zeller on the floor and a -4.2 without him. They also scored 5.8 less points per 100 possessions and allowed 6.1 more points per 100 possessions without him last year.
Even with the arrival of Dwight Howard addressing Charlotte’s lack of front court depth, Zeller will still play an integral role on the team and offer up significantly more line-up flexibility and spacing in certain situations where Dwight is unable to.
Kemba Walker should have another great season coming off of his first all-star appearance. He hit career highs with 23.2 points per game on 44.4% shooting including 39.9% from three point range (both also career highs). He added 5.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds and just over a steal per game. Walker also was by far the Hornets best player by any metric last season as lead the team by a large margin in player efficiency rating, box plus/minus and value over replacement.
The 27 year old has long been one of the most underappreciated players in the NBA. Living in Toronto, I’ve got to witness him dinosaur hunt on many occasions when Charlotte comes to town. His clutch crunch-time heroics have let the air out of the Air Canada Centre plenty of times and I always circle the Hornets visits on the schedule because he is honestly one of my favourite visiting players to watch when he comes to town.
When Walker heats up, some have taken to calling him “Steph Curry East” with the way he can drain threes off the dribble like they were lay-ups. He hit a career high 240 threes this past season up from his previous high of 182 the season before. If he can make another leap this season, the Hornets will be even more of a force to be reckoned with.
With three Eastern all-stars now headed West (Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap and Paul George), Walker will likely get his second selection. Kobe Bryant has challenged him to take it further and make one of the all-NBA teams. I believe that he’s up to the challenge.
The Hornets are likely a playoff team due to a really weak Eastern Conference this season, but there are still some significant issues on the team that need to be addressed starting with Nicolas Batum. The French-born swingman signed a 5 year, $120 million contract last off-season and really didn’t live up to it last season in that he has seen his touches increase dramatically in Charlotte but his shooting percentage is well below his career average both from the field and beyond the arc. He’s also seen his effectiveness on the back end really fall off with the Hornets as evidenced by his cratering defensive box plus/minus.
Batum did show flashes of his old Portland self at different points last season, but is going to need to give a much better effort if the Hornets are going to really going to enjoy any serious success beyond being a decent team in a weak conference. I think he’s up to the challenge.
Charlotte is also a team with that is very much a throw back in terms of bringing in an old style centre who can’t really stretch the floor in Dwight Howard and having a starting wing who can’t shoot a three in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He makes up for it by being an athletic and versatile defender and a capable rebounder, but offers the Hornets no ability to space the floor or use more modern sets due to his lack of shooting ability.
The Hornets could find themselves outpsaced by more versatile line-ups at the wing when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the floor, hopefully Monk or Bacon can establish themselves as reliable pieces of the rotation which should help mitigate some of the spacing issues and help the Hornets. Additionally, veteran Marvin Williams should continue to help provide the Hornets with some consistent front court offense while Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky will continue to do so off the bench and will continue to be invaluable to the team in terms of spacing the floor.
Jeremy Lamb will remain an integral part of the second unit. He averaged a career-high 9.7 points on a career-best 46% shooting in 18.4 minutes per game. The 25 year old was a bright spot in a rough season last year and should continue to give the Hornets a consistent spark off the bench.
Charlotte should return to the playoffs and Walker will undoubtedly lead the way. They are going to need a buy-in from Dwight Howard, a better performance from Nicolas Batum and a consistency off the bench – especially in situations where Howard or Kidd-Gilchrist have to be on the bench due to spacing issues – to be any more than that.
Prediction: 44-38. 6th in the Eastern Conference.