No matter how sweet even a single win in the NBA playoffs might be (something that hasn't happened in Charlotte since 2002), not making the postseason this year wouldn't be a tragedy. The franchise has made long-term commitments to Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeremy Lamb who will respectively be 26, 23 and 24 at the start of the next season. All of them are signed to good deals from the club's perspective.
Frank Kaminsky will turn 23 in April and thus will already be 26 when his rookie deal expires. That means he might reach his career peak while being quite the bargain for the team under his rookie scale contract.
One also has to acknowledge the fact that injuries have victimized the team since pre-season and even if it hadn't happened, anything more than a first round exit this season would have been highly unlikely.
With the mentioned foundation players in mind, you still have to put the proper pieces around them. All have shown a certain upside yet claiming that they alone are a definite road to playoff success would be an exaggeration.
The player whose fit remains to be the most iffy is Kidd-Gilchrist. A wing player whose precision from the mid-range isn't yet established (let alone his touch from downtown) is a piece which is not easy to incorporate in a team's offense. The worst part about MKG's case was that the team was very close to not having found that fit before year five of his career. Kidd-Gilchrist himself isn't that far along in his shot reconstruction process, to boot.
That isn't exactly the case anymore though, thanks to a speedy recover from what appeared to be a season-ending shoulder injury. Announcer Eric Collins has speculated that Michael could already return to the court during the current road trip. This circumstance gives Charlotte an extra window on trying to find out who fits alongside Kidd-Gilchrist on the court, assuming that the 13-million dollar a year player is one of the pencilled in starters.
Though the Cody Zeller rookie extension situation will be fascinating, one at least can be somewhat sure that he and Kaminsky will remain on the team until the summer of 2017 (barring a trade, of course). Due to contract lengths and the current players on the roster, the position about which one has to ponder is the other spot on the wing.
For that reason let's have a look at the possible candidates on our roster while assuming that the young core pieces around them stay relatively the same (and thus Charlotte is starting Kemba and a front-court of a good court spacer, whether it is Frank or some veteran like Marvin Williams, and a rim-runner in Cody Zeller).
In the meantime, it also works as a review of sorts on the guys who have played a wing position for the Hornets this season.
This is the man with whom the Hornets most definitely should pair MKG for as many minutes as they can, given Batum's expiring contract.
On paper Batum is exactly the type of player a previously offensively uninspired team needs. If you look at the current trends of basketball and follow Prof. Zach Lowe's way of articulating this, the Frenchman does everything a player in 2016 should be capable of on offense - he can shoot, he can dribble and he can pass at an above average level.
Though he's cooled off after starting the season on an unsustainable percentage from three (down to 29.5% in the last 18 games after 40.4% in the first 19), Batum has had a bounce back year which so far has proven two important things.
First off, it's safe to say that his shooting woes last year can be blamed on that nagging wrist injury. Second off, he's shown the ability to be effective when being arguably the first or second option on offense, something he supposedly wasn't capable of. Nicolas has remained efficient on a career-high 21.9% usage rate (second time over 20% in his career), per Basketball-Reference.
Batum though remains to be a player who rather makes the pass instead of scoring the actual basket himself. He'll fling dangerous and overly creative passes at the wrong time in the game (Batum understandably is at a career-high of 3.2 turnovers per 36 minutes) when he could have attacked himself. For an unselfish ball mover, Nicolas has the oddest go-to move when isolating himself against the opponent - a turn-around fadeaway jumper with a Dirk Nowitzki-like kick-out of the leg.
Among the 66 players with at least 50 isolation possessions Batum has the third lowest shooting foul frequency, per Synergy, a testament to him shying away from contact on this signature move. Moreover, a player of his athleticism certainly could average more than 2.4 free throw attempts per 36 minutes for his career.
The same troubling reliance on an off-the-dribble jumper can hurt in crunch time. Per NBASavant, he's made 1 out of 12 three-pointers off more than three dribbles in fourth quarters and overtimes, an explanation why they have stuck so much in my memory.
These plays point to the fact that he's simply not a hero-ball player who has a bag of tricks to close out a game on his own.
It also makes you wonder about Batum's drop in field goal percentage in the fourth quarter. The 27-year-old has only made 34.0% of his fourth quarter jumpers while his precision remains over 40% in the rest of the quarters. While league-wide the average team's FG% does indeed drop a bit during the last 12 minutes, it doesn't suggest a dip as lowly as Batum's.
One has to mention the fact that it's a trend which can be found in certain seasons he's spent with the Portland Trail Blazers as well.
These are aspects of the game which have to be considered when approaching Nicolas Batum in this summer's free agency. Without me needlessly speculating about the exact sum, it seems certain that the small forward will have a hefty payday due to the cap space available to team's around the league.
He might become some team's expensive consolation signing after not getting either a big fish (Kevin Durant) or a talented yet restricted youngster (Harrison Barnes). Charlotte needs to decide whether it's an over-pay worth making.
When you're the team building around your own drafted talent, there comes a point where taking on the pricey veteran is the needed push forward (David West and Indiana, Zach Randolph and Memphis, etc.).
That's why any proof of this group working/not working with Batum would be valuable. Can Kemba and him generate enough offense with Kidd-Gilchrist (and possibly Zeller) on the court? Could they, perhaps, throw out killer switching units of Batum-MKG-Williams-Zeller, capable and long enough to not only play Clifford's conservative schemes but also stall the offense with the switching that has been added to the team this season? Does some starter-based five-man unit with Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist just click so much that it posts a great net rating which is worth keeping around?
Such things should be looked at before making a decision on Batum's future with the team. My two cents are that there is too much pressure on the front office not to keep the Frenchman on the team. Even if we end up at a bad contract, the franchise wants to win, Batum has been fairly good and essentially a lottery draft pick (in Noah Vonleh) has been given up to acquire him.
Is there any team in the league which is getting as much bang for the buck as the Hornets are from Jeremy Lin on a 2-million dollar contract? That signing alone has created possibly the best point guard duo Charlotte has had since the inception of the Hornets back in 1988.
Obviously, Lin is over-qualified to be a definite back-up point guard, one who gets burn only when the starter sit. That's why only 32.2% of his playing time has come in his primary point guard position, per Seth Partnow's estimates over at Nylon Calculus.
If his stay in Charlotte will stretch past this season, the shooting guard position is where he would continue getting at least half of his minutes whether he's the so-called "starting shooting guard" or not.
And that's exactly where that production hits a ceiling. The Kemba/Lin duo works just fine, however, it has a certain best case scenario which probably can't be improved upon. Both are quite simply players who operate best when they have the ball in their hands.
Lin's game is centered around constant driving to the basket. Only five players in the league average more than seven drives per game in less playing time than Jeremy, per SportVU.
He enjoys having the ball-handling reigns, taking his time and probing the defense after getting in the lane off the dribble. Lin will rarely prematurely pick up his dribble. If he enters the paint and there isn't a situation he likes - no biggie. Jeremy will keep his dribble alive while exiting the paint to furthermore keep the pressure on the defense and find the necessary target.
The guard has a good understanding of how the players involved in the play move around. Lin's a master at putting just enough pressure on the big man to commit to him (something which in itself is done in the aforementioned situation of keeping the dribble alive). He'll make a couple of extra steps away from his own rim runner or jump for a shot attempt to make the defending big gravitate towards him before dishing off a pin-point pass.
Those opportunities aren't there as much when playing the shooting guard position alongside a guard like Kemba Walker who also likes to explore his possibilities in the pick-n-roll by dribbling. Although there was a bigger gap in these numbers at the start of the season, Lin has averaged 19.3 points and 5.8 assists per game as a point guard but only 15.2 and 3.2 as the shooting guard, per Nylon Calculus.
And that's fine. The task isn't to find the best situation for Jeremy Lin but the best situation for the whole team. With the roster and injuries Charlotte has had, this is the situation. Moreover, the bump in those stats might be him and Jeremy Lamb beating up second units where Lin gets to play minutes in his favorite position.
But the front office should just probably look for a real shooting guard to play the position, a guard who has the appropriate size and who is more comfortable in off-the-ball situations, whether it's spacing the court as a shooter, looking for cuts or shooting off screens.
Kemba is improved as a shooter altogether and Lin might be having just a random down year (currently shooting 32.2% on catch-and-shoot threes), however, you could wish for better three-point threats in the back-court when slotting them next to MKG.
On defense Kidd-Gilchrist could hypothetically always pick up the more dangerous of the two wing players but playing Lin at shooting guard seems like an unnecessary risk. Overall, he's a competent defender, even one position up, but from time to time there will be a Khris Middleton type player who beats him with their size.
Lastly, this more so is about Kemba and him than the fit Lin would have with Kidd-Gilchrist. It will be interesting to see how the back-court of those three operates as it could finally be a unit where coach Clifford doesn't have to specifically go all-out on offense or defense to close out games. And that's something that should be utilized in the following months.
But, all in all, Lin and Walker just don't have the makings of a great back-court as far as on-court chemistry is concerned. Due to their ball-pounding style of play you don't see one of them having a Kyle Lowry-like ability to be the primary point guard, yet in the same time become the perfect spot-up guy whenever DeMar DeRozan goes to work.
On certain plays you'll get the sense that the man off the ball is not in his skin as a catch-and-shoot option. Here's Kemba taking a possession off with his hands on the knees as Lin runs a pick-n-roll:
There's also not much of the desired harmony where one of them plays pick-n-roll, thus forces the defense slide over, switches the side of the court with a kick-out pass and has the other attack the open seams in defense.
That's why it probably would be better for all parties involved if they moved on after this season. Lin is bound to decline his player option and look for a new, better contract. Meanwhile, paying as much as other teams could be willing to probably wouldn't be the best investment for Charlotte who already has a point guard in Kemba Walker.
The Unproven Starters
Jeremy Lamb is probably the team's best shot if they want to play this conservatively and not overspend on any more established guard.
The jury is still out on Lamb as a starting level player though. His responsibilities as a starter would only increase in the scenario where he has to play alongside Kidd-Gilchrist.
Although he's shown flashes of great understanding on how to create for others, the pick-n-roll for him is mostly a measure of creating a mid-range look for himself. His passing and creating has ways to go before Lamb can be called a good player in that area.
Thus the consistency of making those 16-footers off the Floppy set would really be tested on nights when Kemba needs help carrying the offensive load. Even acknowledging the knack he has for making them, that's not exactly a shot you want to rely on (also given Kemba's preference for the mid-range area).
It's also hard yet to say whether Lamb is a good enough three-point shooter. A career percentage of 33.9% (31.1% for this season) is a tad too low for a modern age shooting guard. Moreover, it's troubling that from time to time he'll pass up shots that one has to take.
All in all, offense isn't though the side of the court which Charlotte should worry about the most. As a Hornet Lamb has sprinkled in the necessary attempts at the rim (29.5% of his FGAs have come there, previous high for a season was only 18.2%) to diversify his game. Some of his crafty banked-in finishes there show the signs of, pardon the cliche, a "professional scorer".
The frustrating part about the Uconn Huskie is that he has the lank and athleticism to make defensive plays. Lamb's capable of intercepting passes which probably would be unreachable for other guards. He'll also swoop in for the occasional block and can help with rebounding (I enjoy the combination of feel and length he exhibits when getting a second effort on his own miss on offense).
However, his overall body of work on defense is lacking. He tends to space out and not have the proper stance before getting hit with the sudden realization that he's already a couple of steps behind his match-up who he has to track through screens. Jeremy has trouble reading those screens and navigating through them. That often results in open jumpers for the opposition thanks to off-the-ball screens or ball handlers getting to the middle on Lamb.
That kind of stuff is easier when you face reserves as is scoring. Continuing to use him as a 20 to 25 minute per game scorer off the bench and then seeing how he develops as a player seems to be the proper course of action. Perhaps, he improves into a legitimate starter, perhaps not.
Either way, the deal to which he is signed (3-year, 21-million extension) is a bargain and it is worth keeping him around to evaluate his capabilities. He'll give you valuable scoring in the mean time.
This shouldn't be the answer.
Hairston playing with the starters is essentially a way of maintaining Clifford's envisioned rotation by plugging P.J. in Kidd-Gilchrist's spot. The sophomore guard has the strength and body to try and replicate MKG as the team's defensive stopper.
His touch from outside helps spacing on offense while any other buckets are found change. To his credit, he recently had his finest game of not settling for every three he can possibly chuck yet driving to the basket when the opportunity presents itself. All might not be lost in his improvement as a more versatile player.
The two of them together though would be a rather redundant duo which would seriously lack offensive creativity.
Besides, the more intriguing question here is whether Hairston's occasional flashes of a 3&D guy have been noticed around the league. The Hornets declining his option in order to give him a reality check has a "lose-lose" caveat to it.
If a team declines a rookie scale team option, they can’t re-sign that player for more than the option amount. Because of that the Hornets either will lose him to another team if he has shown enough promise for an outside offer or will be able to keep him since no one else is interested in his abilities.
Instant classic games aside, Daniels has to add something to his skillset to become more than a situational player. His stroke is fantastic and that itself could earn him NBA contracts until his 30s.
But other than that there is lot to be desired about him as a basketball player. The last few games have been encouraging as far as his defensive shortcomings are concerned. There still have been a lot of mistakes but it's nice to see that Daniels has started to show some defensive hustle.
On another note, Troy has probably made enough threes to earn a few million next summer once he hits free agency. That's a contest we will have to win if we wish to keep him around as a three-point marksman.
A couple of other notable ideas which have to be mentioned.
Playing MKG at the Four
The injuries of course are the primary concern here. You don't want to add extra beating to a body which already suffers freak injuries due to MKG getting in all kinds of collisions.
However, going one position up is an option that has to be tried out with players who can't shoot, especially in today's climate. Given Kidd-Gilchrist's athletic abilities, it certainly should be worth a shot against other teams which roll out small ball fours.
It's also something that could have been tried more in the past. Last season Mike clocked only 88 minutes at the four spot, per NBAwowy.com, and it's hard to say that we even have an actual track record of him at the 4 to evaluate.
Signing Someone Else in Free Agency
There's always the possibility of going out and trying to lure over a talented shooting guard whose prime could be aligned with our existing core. The market this summer doesn't offer much else besides Bradley Beal and Evan Fournier (unless you want to go with a super-big line-up with Harrison Barnes) though.
Moreover, the problem in this case also is that most young and talented players are only available in restricted free agency, a field where one can easily end up empty-handed. Make a bid at the wrong time and your hands are tied up when some other plays you are interested in agree to contracts.
To make matters worse, you have to search for a legit three-point threat in an already shallow shooting guard market. Someone like DeMar DeRozan probably isn't an option by default, especially after enduring the Lance Stephenson experiment (to which there are many others layers, of course).
Kent Bazemore is an interesting name who will be free for all. Eric Gordon might be worth a look if you don't snag a youngster yet want to avoid wandering in the 30 or over territory of Courtney Lee, Jeff Green and Randy Foye.
The downside to this tactic though is the fact that this will be a one of a kind summer with the cap rising and many teams having cap space. Charlotte's free agency chances probably aren't the best from a market perspective. It also is was one of the benefits to trading for Nicolas Batum in the first place as the team acquired a starter level player without having to bid for him.
Using This Year's Pick in Trade or Draft
The lack of many options in free agency makes one bring up another point - there simply aren't enough good wing players around. Snagging a good one in a trade would require a first round pick and even then there aren't many realistic options.
Those options get even more limited when considering the amount of teams which are looking to buy instead of selling. There aren't a whole lot of franchises out of the postseason race which makes for fewer chances of finding a trade candidate.
Bringing one up yourself is always an option if the front office is capable of not drafting a power forward in the lottery.
Playing MKG off the Bench
Something I'd oppose since someone like Kidd-Gilchrist would lose his value when playing on and against bench units. The whole point of such a capable stopper is him facing the other team's best wing player.
Unless he improves on offense though, it's definitely something that Kidd-Gilchrist will face sooner or later.