The Charlotte Hornets suddenly find themselves with an unfamiliar strength: DEPTH! The Hornets are deeper now than they probably have been in the history of Charlotte's second NBA franchise.
That is, aside from the center position (still in need of reserves behind Al Jefferson and Bismack Biyombo), and it's possible Kemba Walker wouldn't mind another point guard in an emergency but Brian Roberts is a capable backup.
Certainly there is a wealth of young talent at the forward spots. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor hold down the three, along with occasional help from other wing players. The last two first rounds in the NBA draft were used to select power forwards from Indiana in Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh. And veteran Marvin Williams will likely lead that group on opening night.
But by far the deepest position is suddenly the shooting guard spot for the Charlotte Hornets where as many as five players could see time.
The Shooting Guards:
Last season after Jeff Taylor (who played the 2 from time to time) went down with a season-ending injury, the Bobcats had Gerald Henderson and Ben Gordon as their shooting guards (and at times, Ramon Sessions). So it was basically Gerald Henderson. Gary Neal was brought in to add some instant offense of the bench. It kind of worked.
Neal didn't have the early success hitting shots as he did when he was playing with the Spurs. The Spurs and their ball movement could get anyone great looks. The quality shots weren't quite as bountiful in Charlotte but he had his moments and ended up hitting more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts in Charlotte last year. That number dipped to a gruesome 22 percent during the playoffs against the Finals-bound Heat. *shudders*
However Neal was a backup. The starter, Henderson, stuck out like a sore thumb in the Playoffs making almost little positive impact on the series. He had trouble corralling a rickety Dwyane Wade, and was almost invisible on offense providing zero spark. During the season his scoring (14 points per game) dipped slightly from last year, but with the addition of Al Jefferson that's not unforgivable, but his overall scoring efficiency tumbled from 26 points per 100 possessions to 22.8, which isn't a free-fall, but it's a pretty noticeable drop. In the postseason, however, he averaged less than 10 points per game, hit less than 40 percent of his field goal attempts, made zero three-pointers and had a PER of 8.
Of course the series certainly didn't hinge on the play of Henderson. No one really had a good go against the Heat, and the then-Bobcats were unceremoniously swept in the first round. So zeroing in on that series is not fair to Henderson when making comprehensive analysis of his abilities. But it did seem like a microcosm of his season. Michael Jordan and team brass looked determined to upgrade the two spot this off-season as a result.
After selecting Noah Vonleh at No. 9, the Hornets were able to acquire former North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston in a draft night deal with the Heat. The Hornets grabbed a shooter but would still look to free agency for a starter.
After swinging hard for the fences in offering a max contract to Utah swingman Gordon Hayward, the Hornets made some night moves in a face-to-face meeting with guard Lance Stephenson to bring the mercurial talent to Charlotte on a three-year deal. With Stephenson in tow, the team had now acquired the upgrade at the second guard spot by adding a tough young guard with developing near-All-Star talent.
The Current State:
If the season started today Stephenson figures to be the starter, with Henderson being the first guy off the bench. Neal and Hairston would round out the position and even Taylor could fill in at some point. And if that actually happens it could be quite a coup for the Hornets. Henderson would be an excellent sixth man behind Stephenson, and either could probably slide down and play the small forward spot in certain lineups.
Henderson isn't instant offense, but coming off he bench he could bring a starter's mentality, experience and athleticism to the second unit. His wing defense, while not all-world, wouldn't be a big drop from Stephenson either.
As we've come to see, Henderson is not a starting two guard in the NBA. That doesn't mean he can't start for an NBA team, as we've seen, but ideally his is not a starting role. His shot is not consistent enough and his impact on the game was way too inconsistent, especially for a team that desperately needed it. A sixth man role would suit him much better and would be a huge boon for the Hornets if they can convince him of that. "If" being the key word there.
After the 2012-13 season Henderson tested the free agent market and the market was none too kind. The Bobcats ended up getting him for a pretty good deal: $6 million a year for the first two years, and then a player option for another $6 million in 2015/2016. The team seemingly gave him another chance to solidify that starting two spot. It just didn't happen. Henderson has done well to improve his shooting since he was drafted, and he's always had great athleticism, but still has too many nights when he's just unable to help Charlotte's offense as a starter, making him rather replaceable. For all the versatility of his offense -- posting up, pick and roll, spotting up, shooting off screens, cutting, isolation, etc -- Henderson just hasn't shown to be efficient enough in such a high-usage role. And on the biggest stage of his career, that was on display this past spring.
Let's not kid ourselves about his apparent replacement, Stephenson is a lot of things but knock down shooter is not one of them. Still, his shot is getting better. Although he's statistically better scoring the ball (56.4 percent true shooting to Henderson's 50.7) than Henderson, Henderson scored better per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions last season thanks to a better ability to get to the free-throw line. However, where Stephenson will outshine Henderson offensively will be his ability to impact the floor with the ball in his hands. Stephenson is a better creator, passer and rebounder, and will be well suited to pair with Kemba Walker in the backcourt. Even though he had the tendency to over dribble some in Indiana, Stephenson will help fill the Josh McRoberts-shaped void nicely from the shooting guard or small forward slot.
The Trade Options:
Moving one of the players at shooting guard does make sense.
You can figure P.J. Hairston is relatively safe for now, since the Hornets haven't even seen what he can do in an NBA game yet and his trade value assuredly took a hit after the whole punching a dude at a YMCA game thing. It would have to take something fairly significant for Charlotte to move or give up on a first round draft pick before he even gets a chance to show what he can do.
Trading Henderson seems to be the obvious choice. But the Hornets aren't going to just pay to have him go away. Another team would have to want him and in turn be willing to give up something of perceived value to get him. At the moment there don't appear to be many takers, considering he didn't have any luck last offseason following a much better season than this most recent one. Would a team want to take on his $6 million contract for this year and run the risk of him opting into that player option for the following year? Often times those options are given in negotiations to sweeten the player's side of the deal in case they outperform their contract value and they think they can get something better than their base salary in free agency. With Henderson we just don't know.
The player that might be most attractive to other teams is Neal. Neal's contract expires after this year, and is often the type of deal you see being moved right around the trade deadline. Ordinarily you would say that a contending team would love to add a shooter (as would any team) like Neal whose contract is very favorable (just $3.25 million expiring contract on the books for 2014/2015) and can be added with little disruption. The thing is, Charlotte might be a contending team! So if Neal is providing consistent shooting for a team that still needs shooting, that might be a tough choice for them to make.
The development of Hairston could be key, but minutes for him could also be sparse to start the season. It's also possible Hairston could get some time at the three, and we can't forget about Jeff Taylor who will be returning and is due some run on the wing.
In a perfect world, moving Henderson makes the most sense if he's not willing to play the role of sixth man. If they see a viable trade target that can provide them some depth in the post and they can work Henderson into a deal they likely would. But the Hornets will need to have a dance partner, or two. You never know what kind of deal Rich Cho could come up with, or that might be presented to him.
It's not the worst problem to have. With a lot left to shake out it wouldn't be shocking to see all four players start the season in Charlotte, if that creative trade opportunity is not there. A lot will have to be discussed and a lot will likely depend on Henderson's desire to grow with this team, or without it.
(Credit Basketball Reference for all stats.)