The news that forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will likely miss the entirety of the 2015-'16 season was deflating. Throughout the summer, the Hornets went out of their way to position themselves to return to the playoffs. Their aggressive wheeling-and-dealing turned into Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, and Frank Kaminsky-- a rookie that most feel is NBA ready. Whether or not you agree their approach, the Hornets clearly sought to address weaknesses like their shooting.
Unfortunately, Kidd-Gilchrist's injury likely undercuts this team's ceiling for next season. There is no way to know this until real games are played. However, replacing Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be a challenge, primarily on defense. With Kidd-Gilchrist on the court, the team posted a 96.3 defensive rating. Without him, the Hornets posted a 104.1 defensive rating with him on the floor. For perspective, the Warriors had the best defensive rating last season with 101.3, and a 104.1 rating would have been 10th best. That's a substantial difference that could become significant.
Ultimately, the Hornets' situation is what it is: a team constructed to win now without its key piece, and still questions surrounding their rim protection. While the Hornets can't magically heal Kidd-Gilchrist's torn labrum, they have a couple of directions they could go this season.
Take a Season to Reassess
In a perfect world, this would be the way to go. The Hornets didn't show much patience with Noah Vonleh, and wanted a player that was ready to contribute immediately in Batum. Then came the Spencer Hawes and Jeremy Lin additions. And of course the team fell all over themselves to draft Kaminsky. Of course, Cody Zeller could still be considered a prospect as well.
Knowing that your playoff odds just got longer with Kidd-Gilchrist's injury, why not take a year to evaluate? Give Jeremy Lamb, Kaminsky and Zeller the opportunity to make as many mistakes as they want, and see how the other new additions fit in. Then, hit next summer with $50 million in cap space where they can decide to re-sign Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Batum, and others or bring in new guys. Besides, as good as Batum is defensively, expecting him to give Kidd-Gilchrist's impact might be a lot.
This strategy is risky because there is the potential to lose some of those guys, but showing that you have a plan, and that this team is thinking big picture can go along way. You also can't forget the long-running relationship between Rich Cho and Nic Batum; Jefferson's affection for Charlotte; and Williams' history playing in North Carolina. How much those things matter relative to their career goals is something we can't know for sure, but they could help.
Besides, bringing in a high pick could provide the Hornets with affordable, young talent that playoff teams need down the road.
Stay the Course
This feels like the most likely route for the Hornets to go. There has been no indication -- especially after their aggressive summer -- that this team would want to do anything else. NBA people are competitive by nature and want to win. Especially after the letdown that was the 2015 season, the Hornets seemed more motivated than ever to recapture their 2014 success. And after going all in with a couple of bold moves, it seems unlikely they would go any other way.
Choosing this approach would mean that the team still strives to win at all costs, and attempt to show that they can still be a competitive team. In fact, with the talent on this roster it's likely going to be difficult for them to be too terrible. Especially if they have fixed their shooting with Batum, Jeremy Lin, and, gulp, Spencer Hawes. If one of their frontcourt pieces magically emerges as a rim protector, and rebounder, they could be even more competitive. But that's still an "if" at this point.
You can't rule out things like Kemba Walker improving further, or Batum having a bounce back year. The Hornets could find the solution to their problems right under their own nose for all we know.
It also wouldn't be out of line with the Hornets' offseason thinking to attempt to bring in another player to avoid missing the postseason once again. Who that would be, I don't know, but the Hornets have been aggressive in recent years in improving this team, and have not been afraid to take risks.
On Monday afternoon, the Hornets' outlook became much worse than before. Las Vegas set their over/under for the season at 33.5 which felt low given the disastrous nature of last season, but being under now feels like a real possibility. Losing a key player like Kidd-Gilchrist would be a deflating blow in any year, but especially after Cho and ownership pushed all of their chips into the middle this summer. It feels like everything changed for them in an instant.
You can't predict your starting small forward being lost for the season in the first preseason game, but that's unfortunately the nature of the best. What the Hornets can control is where they go from here. Do they pump the brakes a little bit and try to put themselves in an even better position for next year? Or do they bank on the guys they have already stepping into the void?
Realistically, we will have to wait and see how the team responds at the start of the season. The answer could be both. If things go well, maybe they try to finagle a trade for another piece (though the Hornets have a tough cap situation). If they don't, maybe the do slow down and think about the big picture. Going into the season thinking that you're going to concede the season from the get-go is not what team or fans alike would want. It's worth a look to see what they have without Kidd-Gilchrist, and to see what they could do to be better down the road.
No matter what, it's hard to feel as good about a possible playoff return next spring without Kidd-Gilchrist as we did before Monday's news.