As someone who obsesses over team names and their relevance, I was intrigued when the Bobcats got their old Charlotte name back, as the Hornets. The Bobcats were a sadly forgettable team; it was an expansion team that could not find a reliable way to growth. But as companies do when they struggle, they changed their name, and it’s worked: this is a legitimate basketball team, not a perpetual doormat. And from some recent remodeling, they’ve found a style that works — a low mistake, smart defensive squad with versatile players capable of switching on defense and spacing the floor.
“I didn’t have a mother; I had a mama. I measure other women by the stature of my mama.” — Al Jefferson
2015-16 in review
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After a disappointing 2015 season and a torn labrum suffered by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets were written off for the season, but they defied expectations. They played great defense given their individual parts and they surprised people with a top-ten offensive rating. It was Nicolas Batum’s first season for the Hornets, coming off an uneven season with Portland. Offensively, he was a major lift for the team, and players like Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams had career seasons. They lost in the first round to the Heat, a flashier team, but it was a positive year for the franchise overall.
Rotation players in: Marco Bellineli, Roy Hibbert.
Rotation players out: Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee.
The Hornets only have a few significant changes. They finally let Al Jefferson go, as he no longer fit into their vision of a defense-first, three-point shooting team — and it was clear last season that the team understood he wasn’t providing the kind of value they wanted when they signed him to a $41 million dollar deal as a free agent.
Jeremy Lin, however, is a major loss because he was a plus backup point guard. Courtney Lee will be missed too; Bellineli will step into his role, sorta, but he may not be able to provide reliable shooting guard minutes if he can’t recover his game after a disastrous campaign in Sacramento. Roy Hibbert is another restoration project too, and at the very least he can provide interior defense to a team with a few offensively-inclined and perimeter oriented big men.
The Charlotte Hornets are mostly the same, but there are two primary agents of change: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back from his injuries, and there are concerns their core players — Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, and Marvin Williams — peaked last year and may decline. Kemba Walker, in particular, sees a modest drop in my projected ratings. He’s still young, but he’s not young enough to explain his sudden growth. For instance, his three-point percentage spiked upwards, and in all likelihood it’ll regress to his career percentage of 33 percent.
Marvin Williams, like Kemba Walker, is a good regression candidate thanks to his high field-goal percentages and the fact that he had a peak year at age 28. He can certainly still play the same role again, but he may not be quite as effective. His career true shooting percentage, for example, before 2016 was 53.7, while it was a lofty 58.5 percent last season. And since he’s just a spot-up shooter on offense, the efficiency matters.
Nicolas Batum, however, should be fine. He has a good track record during his Portland years with modest usage, a high assist rate, and decent efficiency. Without Jeremy Lin, he could be used even more to initiate the offense — he had the highest assist rate on the team. We shouldn’t expect his performance to dip to the level of his 2015 season, which wasn’t even that bad; and the typical play we’ve seen from Batum’s career is enough for the team.
Luckily, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back, and due to how good he was at such a young age he actually projects as the best player. He’s certainly a defensive force, and you can find traces of that impact in his block/steal/rebound totals, but I think he was a little bit overrated by plus-minus stats — Charlotte, after all, survived his absence. His energy and tenacity can translate sometimes to the offensive end, but his shooting has been so terrible that I’m skeptical of his overall development. Is he simply the small forward version of Tony Allen? Has he legitimately fixed his outside shot? Or can they mitigate his jump shot by surrounding him with other shooters, effectively making him their power forward?
This is where Frank Kaminsky is an interesting tactical piece because other teams may try guarding him with a smaller player, and he can space the floor, but you can’t guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with a center the same way you can Tony Allen. He can actually dribble and finish well at the rim — he’s a pretty good cutter, which means you can’t ignore him completely on the court.
Overall, MKG is a positive force; I’m just not certain of the magnitude. And with fluky peak seasons from some players, a stock of young players who are still developing, and the reclamation project that is Roy Hibbert, I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit 50 wins — there’s more variation than I initially thought with this projection. But the conservative prediction is a bit lower.
Roy Hibbert has gone from a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and franchise cornerstone to a vagabond backup center. It’s strange that the first King of Rim Protection has fallen so swiftly, but the Hornets may see a necessary value in his defense still. For instance, although Roy Hibbert’s rim protection FG% (the opponent’s FG% within five feet of the rim when he’s five feet or closer) declined sharply after Indiana, his relative team DFG% has only gradually fallen. Perhaps this is a more stable and appropriate measure for players who change teams. After all, a team’s scheme and your fellow defenders affect how people get to the rim and how pressured they are. When Charlotte wants to turn up the defense, he’s still a solid option in the middle — it’s his offense that’s the problem.
The Charlotte Hornets have had a lot of subtle progress that most fans aren’t appreciating, like how their players wanted to sign hometown discounts and stay with their system and how they have a stable of versatile players. They should be one of the best teams at switching this side of the Bay Area. If Kemba Walker’s improvement is the norm and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stays healthy, they’ll be able to repeat last year’s performance. Otherwise, there should only be a modest decline.