There's no way around it: This season was incredibly disappointing.
In previous articles (as well as most of the season), we've brought up how injuries and coaching affected the results of this season. And while those were definitely two big factors, a lot of other things had to go wrong too — and they did! Here's a look at some other things that went wrong, some major and some minor, that resulted in a disastrous season for the Charlotte Hornets.
First, a lack of contribution from rookies played a role in the Hornets' poor season. This isn't about coaching, so I'm not going to comment on Clifford's decision to play Jason Maxiell far, far more than Noah Vonleh. This is about his play on the court only, and well...Vonleh looked like a 19-year-old rookie. This shouldn't really be surprising to anyone, as Vonleh is a 19-year-old rookie, and the list of 19-year-olds that had even marginal contributions in the history of the NBA is pretty few and far between. In fact, of the 92 teenagers who were playing their rookie seasons, Vonleh ranked 47th in win shares-- so even with his limited minutes, he still ended up in the middle of the pack for a counting stat. So don't get me wrong, he was solid (and furthermore, I still believe he's going to be very good, possibly an All-Star). It's just that most of his play for the first part of the season was against weak competition — other teams' benches, in blowouts, etc. Later on in the year, he got to play way more minutes, and again, he was fine for a rookie. Not great, and not a player that you'd want to add to your rotation full-time, but okay enough to play legitimate minutes without hurting the team.
It should go without saying that Vonleh wasn't a strong player this year, and that was always the plan. Vonleh, a very talented but unpolished player during his one year at Indiana, was never going to be the type of player to have a big immediate impact. Thankfully, he still was one of the better rookies out of what's been a somewhat-disappointing draft class through one season, and he's going to continue to be. That said, he wasn't ready for the NBA early this season (which was expected), and he improved enough to get regular minutes at the end of the season — a big improvement! He's right on schedule to make a lot of growth in the seasons to come. But his contributions at the beginning of the season, the decisions of his playing time aside, weren't major.
P.J. Hairston, though, didn't contribute much at all. Drafted primarily by his (mostly-earned) reputation as a shooter, he finished with the worst shooting percentage on the team, converting field goals at only 32.3 percent, and his 30.1 percent from three wasn't much better. His defense was better than expected, but it wasn't enough to make up for his myriad deficiencies on the offensive side of the ball where he was supposed to have most of his production. Hairston took mainly threes, didn't hit many, rarely went to the free-throw line, rarely was effective as a passer (although he did take care of the ball, finishing with a very low turnover rate), and overall didn't have much to offer on offense. It could be argued that his ability to stretch the floor added a facet to the offense that wouldn't otherwise be there, but none of that potential influence helped the team too much, as Hairston finished with the second-worst offensive rating on the team.
Between one player's youth and inexperience holding him back at the beginning of the year, and another player's poor showing after getting his minutes, the Hornets didn't get a whole lot from their rookies this year. Most teams were in the same boat, so it's not like this sunk their season, but it would've been nice to get more out of these players this year.
Next, poor shooting. This article is not about coaching, so I am attempting to remove all traces of coaching influence away from this discussion, because the offensive system can and almost definitely did have an influence over the poor shooting this season. But beyond that, was the shooting good on the occasions when the Hornets had legitimate opportunities at quality shots? To be brief: not really.
Per NBA.com's stats page, the median field goal percentage on open shots was around 43 percent. There were a few guys above that mark: Bismack Biyombo (because he never strayed far from the basket), Al Jefferson (still a dangerous shooter when unguarded), Gerald Henderson (a solid shooter), Cody Zeller (nice job, Cody), and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Noah Vonleh and Jannero Pargo were above the line too, but neither had enough open shots to really make any contribution in that category statistically significant. Below the league-average mark of 43 percent on open shots: Mo Williams (just by a little, so that's okay for a guard), Kemba Walker (no surprise, he struggled with shooting no matter who was guarding him), Lance Stephenson (again, no surprise), Marvin Williams (36.9 percent on open shots), Hairston (36 percent), Brian Roberts (34.8 percent), Jason Maxiell (33.3 percent), and Jeff Taylor (29.6 percent). So right there, not a lot of guys hitting their open shots at an acceptable rate.
Extend that to the 3-point arc where the average mark on open shots is 33.3 percent, and it looks even worse. Henderson, unsurprisingly, looked solid from this range, and Kemba also added some nice contributions, as his mark of 37.3 percent (the same as Henderson's) was well above the league average. Hairston and Mo Williams were almost exactly average. But a bunch of players who were needed to be contributors, especially because they were role players who could be more selective with their shots, failed to have a positive impact. Marvin Williams, Roberts, Taylor, and Stephenson all failed to hit their open threes at a positive rate.
When completely unguarded, Marvin Williams did better, but Al Jefferson (not a floor-spacer, obviously) and Gerald Henderson (who is not a volume 3-point shooter) were the only reliable options even when unguarded. Even with Marvin's improvement when completely unguarded, there were some players who actually got worse with more time to set themselves: Walker, Taylor, Hairston, and, somehow, Lance Stephenson.
This lack of quality shooting brings me to another point, though: the roster's construction.
I firmly believe Rich Cho has done a good job so far, and will continue to do a good job in the future. But the roster for this year was not constructed as well as it could have been, and they were sorely lacking in one area in particular. Yep. Shooting.
Now let's be fair for a second: Even though Lance Stephenson's fit on this team was definitely questionable when he was signed last summer, his struggles with shooting this year were truly unforeseeable (if you called that Lance would have the worst 3-point shooting season in NBA history, raise your hand and show your work). And maybe everyone else failed to live up to expectations too, but at the same time...this could've been predicted. Before the season started, only Gary Neal was a proven 3-point threat, and Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts had both been solid outside shooters at one point or another. But that was about it.
Kemba Walker isn't what anyone would call a threat from outside, Brian Roberts (once good in a similar role) continued his downward trend quicker than expected, and Gerald Henderson has at this point proven that he's about an average 3-point shooter (and that it's not a dangerous part of the offense that the opponent needs to focus on). Meanwhile, Gary Neal was concussed in November and stopped being the productive 3-point shooter he was before.
They had some issues with guys not playing well, but at the same time, this was always something that could've happened — the only real 3-point threat on the roster got hurt and wasn't the same player afterward. Nobody after Neal should have realistically been expected to shoot over 36 percent from three. And, with the exception of a few deep-bench options, nobody did shoot over 36 percent from behind the arc. It shouldn't have been as bad as it was, but this should have been the expected result with 3-point shooting.
(As a side-note: Mo Williams shot 39 percent and 33.7 percent with the Hornets after shooting 40.3 percent and 34.7 percent with the Timberwolves. They were hoping the 32-year-old would bounce back with new scenery, and he didn't.)
And lastly, bad luck also played a big role in the Hornets' lackluster season. Maybe the previous season, in which the Bobcats got great contributions out of some fairly marginal NBA players like Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts (to say nothing of a career year for Josh McRoberts), wasn't really representative of what this core was capable of. I think it's possible they overachieved last season and fell back to earth this year. And then after they fell back to earth, they just had nothing go their way.
I don't believe it's karma, just science-- good luck can't continue forever. But it doesn't have to be followed by a season in which everything goes wrong. Just look at how many issues the Hornets had this season. The coaching and roster construction could've been prevented, sure. But then their only 3-point threat got a concussion and wasn't the same afterward. And then it became clear that Al Jefferson wasn't himself this season. Then Lance Stephenson shot himself into a season-long slump. And Marvin Williams never really fit into the offense, despite being the only guy who could consistently hit 3-pointers, so he had to play. Kemba Walker had an early slump, turned it around, and then went into another long slump. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, probably the best player on the team, apparently can't stay healthy for 82 games (which isn't really his fault, it's just unfortunate). Mo Williams joined the team, played his best week of basketball since he was an All-Star six years ago, and immediately fell back to earth.
Things like that just happened, over and over. Injuries were an issue, but most teams don't have to deal with all those injuries at one time, or injuries to multiple critical players when they are needed most. That's bad luck. Steve Clifford's offensive system likely held back some players from playing up to their standard, but no offensive system from an NBA coach is so bad that it should prevent seemingly every player except for Kidd-Gilchrist and Biyombo from playing up to even their 50th percentile of preseason projections. That's bad luck too.
The Hornets' conglomerate of issues this season wasn't just injuries. It wasn't just coaching. It wasn't just the rookies not being ready to help from day one. It wasn't just poor shooting. It wasn't just the holes in the roster.
It was all of those things happening at the same time.
It was a long season. A long, long, long season. Especially given that the Hornets were expected by many of us to make the playoffs this season, it felt that this season was especially long. With so many things going wrong for them this year, there's not much to do but regroup and figure out where to go next. So, thinking optimistically: Even though the team might be worse, as is always a possibility, I am very confident that not quite so many things will go wrong for the Charlotte Hornets next season.