Let’s start with a multiple choice question.
_____ is a young, skilled perimeter player who brings toughness to the team, but struggles with his shot.
a) Kemba Walker
b) Lance Stephenson
c) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
d) All of the above
No player in the world has zero weaknesses. Everything is a give and take in the NBA. You’ll take James Harden’s lackadaisical defense because he is so elite on the other end. You’ll take Russell Westbrook’s shot volume because he affects the game so positively in every other area. But when three of your best assets all have the same strengths and weaknesses, things get muddy.
What can the Charlotte Hornets do with their three perimeter guys? I’ve seen multiple suggestions floating around, with them ranging from trade Player X to bench Player Y. However, team construction isn’t quite that simple. Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford is playing the long game here — he can’t just take Walker, Stephenson, or Kidd-Gilchrist out of the starting lineup. Walker and Stephenson just got paydays from ownership, and Kidd-Gilchrist is really showing encouraging signs of development with this team. The Hornets can’t really afford to bench any of the three, even if basketball reasons say it would help.
However, teams just don’t respect those guys as shooters, and it shows whenever Al Jefferson gets a touch in the paint. Take a look at the Hornets first possession against the Lakers on Saturday.
There are four defenders with a foot in the paint paying attention to Jefferson, and Jeremy Lin isn’t too far away either. Kobe Bryant completely abandoned Stephenson to come double Jefferson. Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t a shooter, so he cheats in to offensive rebound. Williams is providing no spacing and Walker isn’t even in the screen.
The Houston Rockets would eat this situation up. Double on Dwight Howard? Kick out for yet another 3-pointer. Playing multiple non-shooters on the wing results in offensive inefficiency — the Hornets can’t establish an inside presence during clutch moments because of double and triple teams on Jefferson, but also can’t punish teams for doing it.
Spacing gets a little better when the Hornets bring in Gary Neal or rookie P.J. Hairston off the bench, but the foundation of this team is the three perimeter starters. The Hornets are going to have to find some way to make those three coexist. Per nbawowy.com, here is the breakdown of how each of the three is performing in each possible player arrangement (data prior to Tuesday’s Portland game).
|Situation||Min||PPP||PPS||TS%||Team PPP||Team TS%||Opp PPP||Opp TS%|
|Just Lance Stephenson||46||0.71||0.86||42.9%||0.90||47.0%||1.02||53.3%|
|Just Michael Kidd-Gilchrist||8||2.00||2.00||100.0%||0.80||40.0%||0.80||40.3%|
|Just Kemba Walker||34||0.86||0.94||47.1%||0.92||51.3%||0.96||47.7%|
|Stephenson w /MKG in, Walker out||7||0||0||0.0%||0.69||37.5%||0.62||35.7%|
|Stephenson w/ MKG out, Walker in||96||0.64||0.71||35.3%||1.15||53.1%||1.02||54.0%|
|Stephenson w/ both in||87||0.75||0.69||34.7%||0.90||46.3%||1.05||55.6%|
|MKG w/ Stephenson in, Walker out||7||0.80||1.00||50.0%||0.69||37.5%||0.62||35.7%|
|MKG w/ Stephenson out, Walker in||12||1.33||1.33||66.7%||1.09||53.5%||1.23||61.7%|
|MKG w/ both in||87||1.13||1.24||61.8%||0.90||
|Walker w/ Stephenson in, MKG out||96||1.47||1.31||65.5%||1.15||53.1%||1.02||54.0%|
|Walker w/ Stephenson out, MKG in||12||1.47||1.33||66.7%||1.09||53.5%||1.23||61.7%|
|Walker w/ both in||87||0.75||0.69||34.7%||0.90||46.3%||1.05||55.6%|
The best situation so far has been Stephenson and Walker together without Kidd-Gilchrist, and that is what Clifford has been reverting to during the fourth quarter. However, inserting Neal for Kidd-Gilchrist in that spot is obviously a defensive downgrade. Likewise, Kidd-Gilchrist paired with Walker has done well offensively, but the team is even worse defensively with those two minus Stephenson.
Kemba Walker with both Stephenson and Kidd-Gilchrist has majorly struggled, only posting a 34.7 percent true shooting percentage in that time. Defenses are becoming too smart to allow so many below-average shooters to be on the floor at one time. A team can get away with one. But two or even three? The problem isn’t linear, it’s exponential.
And the problem expands to the bench as well. Gerald Henderson has been a longtime starter in Charlotte, but can’t find the floor this season because, you guessed it, the Hornets can’t afford to have yet another non-threat from the perimeter. However, that’s a two-fold problem, because not playing Henderson also decreases his trade value on the market. Having decreased value to a particular roster is one thing, but having decreased value period is another. The Hornets might need to sell as high as they can early on.
There is merit to collecting good, young assets, regardless of position or redundancy of skill sets (see: the Rockets prior to the James Harden trade). The Phoenix Suns have a similar issue with their three point guards who all need minutes. However, their situation is easier on the court than the Hornets — they have positional redundancy, not necessarily skill set overlap.
If the Hornets keep the guys they have, Clifford and his staff will need to get creative with their offensive sets. Some changes could be simple — for example, Clifford has played a Walker-Neal-Stephenson-Williams-Jefferson lineup at times to increase shooting. The Hornets will run a set where Walker or Stephenson will get the ball on the left side and feed it to Jefferson on the left block. Having Stephenson be the entry passer is just asking for a double team. If the Hornets merely had Stephenson and Neal switch sides of the court and let Neal be the entry passer, that man couldn’t double on Jefferson. Instant spacing.
The Hornets will figure some of this stuff out. Clifford and his coaching staff are smart and it’s easy to forget that this roster, with two new starters, has only played a couple meaningful games together. He’s already started playing shooter P.J. Hairston more to combat some of these issues. Regardless, the Walker-Stephenson-MKG dynamic will be a real puzzle to solve, and maximizing their individual, redundant skill sets, without sacrificing overall team play, will be imperative to the Hornets success this season.