Charlotte Hornets: Checking In On The Regression Candidates
The Charlotte Hornets got huge seasons from Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams in 2015-16. How have they performed this season?
Last season the Charlotte Hornets won 48 games and took the Miami Heat to seven games in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. It was unexpected. It was fun. Was it a sustainable success that they could carry over into the future? That’s the question they’re still trying to answer.
The 2015-16 season also saw Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, and Marvin Williams have the best seasons of their respective careers. Walker transformed from a high volume, low efficiency shoot-first point guard into a complete point guard with efficient shooting numbers.
Batum soared as a second option. Instead of being an afterthought in Portland, Batum was a focal point of Charlotte’s offense. He did it all.
Batum acted as a vital playmaker, a reliable outside shooter and an important defender on the wing. He finally played the role he’d always dreamed of playing.
Williams became the stretch-4 every coach dreams of having in the small-ball era. In his age 29 season he settled into the role that was meant for him.
Williams shot 40.2 percent from three-point range, gobbled up 6.4 rebounds per game and served as a versatile defender that could cover wings and big men.
The Hornets obviously got valuable contributions from other players on the roster, but those three were unequivocally their most important pieces. The front office recognized that. They did not want their success to be a one-season blip on the radar.
This summer the Hornets quickly re-signed Batum to a five-year, $120 million contract. After waiting out a brief flirtation with the Brooklyn Nets, they also re-signed Williams to four-year, $54.5 million contract.
It’s always nice to get the band back together. But, there’s one problem signing players coming off of the best season of the their career. Sometimes that season remains the best season of their career. The NBA is hard. The regression monster is always lurking under the bed.
So, how has Charlotte’s “Big Three” fared so far this season? It’s only been 21 games, but I think that’s a large enough sample to determine whether or not each player is trending in the right direction.
Walker is doing the opposite of regressing; he’s getting even better. He’s following up the best season of his career with the best season of his career.
The biggest improvement has again been with his outside shooting. Walker is shooting 41.4 percent from three on 6.7 attempts per game. His proficiency from outside, particularly off the dribble, has drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry.
He’s not as good as Curry, but he’s having a tremendous season.
On the other hand, Batum and Williams have both regressed to varying degrees. The biggest issue is with their shooting efficiency. Both players were at or better than league average from three-point distance last season. This season they’re both below average.
Batum’s 30.7 percent on 5.7 three-point attempts is particularly troubling, as is his 45.7 percent shooting percentage on two-point field goal attempts. Batum isn’t shy about launching three-pointers even when they haven’t been falling.
That can torpedo possessions before they even get started when he launches an ill-advised three early in the shot clock.
He’s still found ways to be effective despite his shooting troubles.
His assist rate is only down slightly from last season and his rebounding rate is up nearly two percent. Monday night he helped the Hornets fight off a pesky Dallas Mavericks squad with a 14-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist performance.
If he can be more efficient with his outside shooting I see no reason to worry. If his struggles linger into the middle of January, I give you permission to worry.
Williams has been better in terms of outside shooting, but his performance from inside the arc has been borderline disastrous. He’s shooting a ghastly 32.8 percent on two-point shots and 12.5 percent on shots between three and 10 feet.
The floater that was such a useful weapon for him last season has been nonexistent.
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Injuries have been a factor in his slow start. A finger injury before the season even started could help partially explain his shooting woes. Williams has also missed the last six games due to knee injury.
The hope is that he can return sometime this week. The injury may end up being a blessing in disguise for him.
Getting a chance to sit back and breathe when you’re struggling is sometimes helpful. It will be interesting to see how he performs in his first few games back from injury.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a rested and healthy Williams begins to break out of his early-season slump.
It’s true that Batum and Williams have regressed after signing big long-term contracts. There are still reasons to be optimistic about where Charlotte is headed this season.
The Hornets are 12-9, the middle of the Eastern Conference is wide open, and there’s plenty of time left in the season for Batum and Williams to get things turned around.
If they don’t at least Charlotte fans can still rejoice in the fact that their favorite team is no longer called the Bobcats. That’s something.