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Charlotte Hornets 2016-17 Season Preview

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The Hornets want to build off of last season’s success, but must answer a number of questions in order to make their third playoff appearance in four seasons.

Chicago Bulls v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Team Name: Charlotte Hornets

Last year’s record: 48-34

Key losses: Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee

Key additions: Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The Hornets focused on re-signing key players from last season’s roster. Their top priority was forward Nicolas Batum, who they quickly re-signed to a five-year, $120 million contract. Next came forward Marvin Williams, who was brought back on a four-year, $54.5 million deal.

Just before the draft, the Hornets traded the 22nd pick to the Sacramento Kings for shooting guard Marco Belinelli, a move that suggested the team wasn’t intending to bring Courtney Lee back (who would eventually sign for the Knicks).

To replace Lin and Jefferson, the Hornets signed point guard Ramon Sessions to a two-year, $12.5 million deal. Shortly after, they signed Roy Hibbert on a prove-it deal of one-year, $5 million.

Then, late in free agency, Charlotte signed 21-year-old big man Christian Wood to a one-year deal.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Defense has been a staple of the Hornets since head coach Steve Clifford took over in 2013, and that remained true last season, evident in the Hornets finishing with the 8th best defensive rating in the NBA. They were one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league, and that helped in limiting second chances points, ranking 5th.

Limiting fast break opportunities is another mantra of Clifford’s. Instead of crashing the offensive glass, the Hornets move to get back on defense before opposing teams can start a fast break. This limits the amount of fastbreak points opponents score against them, and helps them control pace and tempo, as they prefer a halfcourt game that uses a lot of shot clock over a fast-paced, up-and-down offense.

This defensive approach should remain the same this season. A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should improve Charlotte’s perimeter defending, as his length along with Batum’s will cause problems for opposing teams. Hibbert’s defensive presence in the post should be an upgrade over Jefferson as well. That said, Charlotte proved last season they can be a top defensive team without a rim protector. Nonetheless, added rim protection shouldn’t hurt.

Offensively, the Hornets are a strong 3-point shooting team. They were 4th in attempts and 8th in 3-point percentage last season, and it brought life to an offense that had ranked near the bottom in 2014-15. Williams was their best perimeter shooter last season at 40.2 percent. He remains their strongest outside shooter, but nearly half of the Hornets’ roster is filled with reliable long-distance shooters.

However, no one benefited more from the new offense than Walker. Prior to last season, Walker’s 3-point shooting had been his biggest crutch -- he’d shot 30.5 percent entering last season. However, altered shooting mechanics and the addition of Batum made a difference last season, as Walker improved his 3-point percentage to 37.1. Teams could no longer run under screens against him, and this freed up the stronger parts of his game. Batum became the primary playmaker, and that freed Walker up to get open off the ball, instead of having to create shots himself. As a result, Walker had a career scoring season, averaging 20.9 points, and shooting over 40 percent from the field for the first time since the 2012-13 season. Maintaining or improving on last season could put Walker in the All-Star running once again.

Finally, limiting turnovers is another aspect of Clifford ball. They committed fewer turnovers than anyone in the league last season, and they should remain near the top again.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Bench depth could be an issue. With Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson playing the majority of last season off the bench, the Hornets essentially had two starting caliber players in their second unit. They’ve been replaced with Sessions and Hibbert, two players that have been starters in the past but no longer fit into that mold.

This will be Sessions’ second stint in Charlotte and under Clifford. He last played for Charlotte in 2013-14, but was traded just before that season’s deadline and missed their playoff push. Like Lin, Sessions attacks the hoop well and draws a lot of fouls. He isn’t a strong shooter, however, and he doesn’t have the tendency to have the breakout games Lin is known for.

Hibbert fits well and should be an addition on the defensive end, and there’s a strong possibility he will be the opening night starter with Cody Zeller still recovering from a bone bruise to his knee. That’s a major concern, as it already thins outs a bench that isn’t as deep as last season. Hibbert as a starter means rotation minutes for Spencer Hawes, who otherwise wouldn’t be playing much at all, and possibly some experimentation with Frank Kaminsky at the center spot. Plus, given Hibbert’s struggles as a starter last season, his best fit with the team might be as a backup.

Along with bench depth, Charlotte’s offense probably won’t be as prolific. They ranked 9th in offensive rating last season, but lost a significant amount of offense with the departures of Lin, Lee, and Jefferson. MKG’s return to the starting lineup means less offensive firepower as well, though his defense and intangibles should make up for that.

Clifford has already stated their offense will probably take some time to get up to speed, which means they will have to compensate on the defensive side of the ball in order to start the season off right.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Returning to the playoffs is the goal once again, but simply making it isn’t enough for them. Progress is winning a playoff series, and while there are doubts as to whether they are good enough to win a playoff series, that’s their mentality as the season approaches.

5. How good can they be with a healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

The consensus among fans, the players, and coaches is that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist makes a difference when he plays -- the problem is he hasn’t been on the court nearly enough. He’s missed 126 games over his four seasons in the NBA and only featured in seven last season. Prior to last season, the Hornets record without him was abysmal. If he didn’t play, they probably didn’t win -- there just wasn’t enough talent to compensate. Now that they’ve proven they can win without him, there’s a growing sense that if he can stay healthy, the Hornets go from a team just good enough to make the playoffs, to one that can make a deep run.

That might sound odd given that Kidd-Gilchrist is a poor outside shooter and a far from polished player, but his energy, intangibles, and elite perimeter defending give the Hornets a dynamic that can’t be replicated by any other player on the roster. It’s something you have to see rather than be told about. The Hornets just tend to play better when he’s on the court, and that alone has many believing he can help the team overcome their weaknesses, and take the next step as a franchise.

Ultimately, the doubts aren’t whether he’ll make a difference, but rather if he’ll get the chance. While his injuries tend to be based on bad luck rather than on a history of re-injuring himself -- he tore his labrum last season slipping on wet spot -- his playing style tends to put himself in positions where he’ll get hurt. He plays with a bit of recklessness that inspires his teammates, but it’s also what has led to the majority of his injuries. He’s not going to change that part of his game, so until he proves he can stay healthy for the majority of the season, it has to be assumed he’s going to miss portions of it.

6. Can Cody Zeller solidify his spot as the starting center?

Zeller was drafted to be an athletic stretch four man, but mid-way through last season he wasn’t convincing many he had a future as that type of player. When Jefferson went out injured, the Hornets tried him at the five spot, and it worked. Using his athleticism and high-basketball IQ, Zeller would move well without the ball, and cut into open spaces as help-side defenders reacted to where the ball went. He developed a nice chemistry with Batum, who would find him as he cut to the basket for easy points. Playing just 24.3 minutes a game, Zeller averaged career highs of 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while shooting a career high of 52.9 percent. He also proved to be one of Charlotte’s best interior defenders.

While encouraging, it wasn’t enough to solidify the starting spot. Clifford tended to rely on Jefferson in late game situations, and at times Zeller’s starting spot seemed more due to personnel and rotations, and not because he was the best center on the team.

With Jefferson gone, and given Hibbert’s struggles as a starting center last season, the starting spot appeared to be Zeller’s. But on media day, Clifford pointed out that Zeller would compete for the starting job with Hibbert, which is a clear sign he hasn’t earned it.

Limiting Zeller’s development is a nagging bone bruise to his right knee suffered during the playoffs. It flared up in July during the Team USA Select Camp, forcing him to withdraw, and it’s kept him out of most of training camp and preseason. He isn’t participating in contact drills, and there’s no time table on his return, which means Hibbert is looking like the opening night starter in a couple of weeks.

At his best, Zeller can be a productive player, and he’s shown flashes of being a starting caliber player in the past. The hope is that this injury isn’t serious, and that he can come back sooner than later.

7. Who steps up in the second unit?

Among both the new and old faces that will be part of Charlotte’s second unit, almost all of them have something to prove.

Frank Kaminsky posted modest numbers of 7.5 points and 4.1 rebounds as a rookie, but he’ll be handed a bigger role this season, possibly seeing time both at the four and five spots. Draft controversy aside, he looks like a player capable of being productive on offense, but he needs to be more consistent in his second season.

Then there’s the reclamation projects, which include Jeremy Lamb, Hibbert, and Belinelli. Lamb looked like a steal last November, averaging 12.9 points (which was more than any non-starter at the time), and 5.3 rebounds, while shooting 52.3 percent from field. He regressed as the season wore on, however, and wasn’t even part of the rotation during the playoffs. He’s been trying to prove himself since he entered the league, and he’ll get yet another opportunity this season. Hibbert was an All-Star not too long ago, but looked like he was past his prime last season with the Lakers. No one’s asking him to be an All-Star again, but he’s going to have to have a productive season, especially with Zeller injured. Belinelli flopped in Sacramento, but the Hornets were high on him before he signed with the Kings last summer and believe he can bounce back in Charlotte. There’s doubt with each player, but Clifford has gotten production out of reclamation projects before.