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Do the Hornets have an identity crisis?

The Hornets look much different with and without Al Jefferson. Which version is better and which should they build around moving forward?

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets had dreams of a magical playoff season as a re-branded franchise and boasting a new "Big 3" in town with Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson, and Al Jefferson. Things obviously haven’t gone as well as hoped, but it’s tough to pin down the exact reason.

The new guy, Stephenson, has received most of the blame from the media. That’s not entirely surprising — he has certainly struggled mightily this year and is the biggest addition to a team that made the playoffs just a season ago. If Kemba plus Al equals playoffs, and Kemba plus Al plus Lance equals lottery, the reason has to be Stephenson, right?

However, while the Hornets have been better sans Stephenson this year, they’ve also been better without Jefferson, a disturbing trend that has gone slightly unnoticed. Stephenson is on a friendly contract and the Hornets could easily trade him or move on next year. However, Jefferson had an All-NBA-caliber season last year and is a fan favorite in Charlotte after leading the Bobcats back to the playoffs. It wouldn’t be so easy for management to cut and run on the big man.

After last year, I'm not sure anyone would have predicted the Hornets would be better offensively without Jefferson, but look at the numbers.

Point Per Possession Point Per Shot True Shooting Percentage
Before Al injury (with Al on) 1.002 0.983 49.1%
Before Al injury total 1.019 0.998 49.9%
Since Al injury 1.024 1.008 50.4%

As you can see, the Hornets have been much better this season without their All-Star big man. The offense still isn't amazing — it moved from 29th overall to 24th overall — but it is a step in the right direction. This brings up an identity crisis as both he and Stephenson get back in the lineup. What should the Hornets do in the future?

In the near future (this season), there isn’t much that can change. Jefferson is a big piece of the Hornets and both management and coaching aren’t going to move on from the big man mid-season. The Hornets will likely have to roll with both Stephenson and Jefferson for the rest of this year and then re-evaluate this summer how all the pieces of the organization fit. But when that time comes, they’ll be potentially faced with two choices:

  1. Move away from a post-centric offense around Jefferson and build around Walker
  2. Move away from guys who don’t fit with Jefferson (be it Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, Lance Stephenson, or Cody Zeller) and build around Jefferson

The first option seems like a reasonable one as Walker is playing the best basketball of his career and is only 24 years old. Al Jefferson is a beast down low, but he just turned 30 earlier this month, and aging curves don’t think very highly of players being All-NBA caliber guys once they get to that threshold. There are some exceptions like Tim Duncan, sure, but as a front office, do you bet on being an exception?

The second option brings up some interesting points; a lot of the guys the Hornets have drafted in recent years don’t fit that well with Jefferson. Guys who need touches in the post, like Jefferson, can still fit into a workable system. However, most guys like that — be it Dwight Howard or Andre Drummond — are also very good rim protectors. Jefferson is not, which means some sort of rim protection has to come from elsewhere.

Cody Zeller isn’t an awful rim protector — he’s allowing opponents to shoot 51 percent around the rim, which is a little below average — but he is still young and struggles with finding where to go on offense when Jefferson is out there, as he played in the post in Indiana. Biyombo is a little better in regards to rim protection — opponents are shooting 50.7 percent around the rim — but is a completely liability on offense. Noah Vonleh could eventually be a nice mix of rim protection and outside offense to complement Jefferson, but they’re just too far apart in age — by the time Vonleh develops into an NBA player, Jefferson will be too old to build around.

Post-centric offenses like Jefferson in Charlotte and Howard in Orlando also are dependent on shooters to surround their big man. However, the Hornets wings of Stephenson, MKG, and Gerald Henderson are all below-average 3-point shooters. Sure, Kidd-Gilchrist is still young and his jumpshot looks much better, but it’s still a ways from affecting the offense enough to draw opponents away from Jefferson. Walker has put up good scoring numbers recently, but he’s also a below-average 3-point shooter, with a career .323 mark.

It’s tough to say what the Hornets will do with their jumbled and at times redundant personnel, and it’s also tough to say when they need to make a move. If ownership is giving management and Clifford pressure to make the playoffs, they’ll have to sacrifice some potential longterm gain. However, if playoffs aren’t a must this year, it would probably be wise to run out Walker, Stephenson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, and Jefferson as much as possible and see if things can work themselves out this year. If not, there will likely be some tough choices to make this summer.