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2016-17 Season Preview: Steve Clifford

The Hornets return with a familiar roster and a familiar head coach in Steve Clifford. It’s on Clifford to repeat last season’s success.

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte Hornets fans must have grown quite accustomed to their team’s style after three seasons of head coach Steve Clifford being in charge.

Signs like “We get back in transition” and “We defend without fouling”, placed all around Charlotte’s practice gym, per Rick Bonnell, epitomize what Clifford’s team is about.

The emphasis on abandoning the offensive glass in favor of transition defense, yet collectively handling defensive rebounding has put the Hornets in historical company in regards to securing their own basket. Charlotte is the second NBA team ever to finish first in defensive rebound percentage for three seasons in a row since the NBA first began tracking offensive and defensive rebounds separately in 1973-74.

Pat Riley’s New York Knicks, lead by Charlotte’s associate head coach Patrick Ewing, achieved the same in between 1991-92 and 1993-94.

This year Steve Clifford’s Hornets are probably aiming for an unprecedented fourth defensive rebounding title in a row as the team looks to repeat what was the most successful season of NBA basketball in Charlotte since the inception of the Bobcats.

In a way, the onus is on Clifford to repeat last year’s success of a 48-win season and a team ranking in the top 10 both in offensive and defensive efficiency.

Despite losing Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson in free agency, the Hornets are over the cap and have made long-term commitments to Cliff’s beloved veterans in Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. With Cody Zeller’s possible rookie scale extension looming, the Hornets won’t be able to do any substantial free agent signings next summer. They already are at $91 million for 2017-18 (the salary cap is projected to be at $102 million) and that’s with a couple of roster spots yet unfilled.

Possible trades notwithstanding, the current core is the one with which the Hornets are moving forward.

There indeed are possible scenarios for improving upon the last season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist basically missed a full year. Jeremy Lamb, Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky all are 24 or younger and certainly could improve.

However, certain down years could also occur. Kemba Walker had a career year and is coming off a knee surgery. Marvin Williams seemingly peaked at the age of 29 and got paid. Nicolas Batum is joining the team after another summer spent with Team France and has also reaped the benefits of a contract year.

For Steve Clifford, it will be about leading the troops and making an internal improvement within the team.

Some questions that Clifford will need to find answers for (with plenty of mini-questions sprinkled in):

Who is the starting center?

Cody Zeller’s preseason absence due to a knee bruise has made this question even more intriguing.

Roy Hibbert does have the defensive skills coach Clifford would want out of his center, however, the game is certainly going away from huge behemoths like him. His unsuccessful season with the Los Angeles Lakers might be an aberration but even his rim protection took a nosedive last year. Opponents made 50.6% of their looks at the rim against Hibbert, who previously was around 40% with Indiana.

Playing the quicker Zeller with the starters does make sense on both ends of the floor. The Hoosier enables ultra-switchy lineups on defense and gives the offense some space thanks to his rim runs on pick-and-rolls. The preseason has already shown what Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist lineups could look like on offense.

Who is the third guard?

The roster does seem to have 11 NBA rotation players deserving of at least some minutes. However, with Steve Clifford preferring a 9-man rotation, one of Jeremy Lamb and Marco Belinelli should have at least a bigger role on the team than the other.

Lamb started to accumulate DNP-CD’s last January and only played in garbage time during playoffs. Him being a 21-million dollar investment, it might be worthwhile figuring out what does the franchise have in him.

Meanwhile, the Italian Rocky lookalike was traded here for the 22nd pick, one with which the team couldn’t have landed a “legitimate rotation player who can play right now”, per coach Clifford.

The front office has invested something in both of the two come-off-curls-shooters. Both should have playing time. Monitoring their minutes will be interesting.

In a similar vein...

How will the team maintain its scoring from last season?

Offensive struggles throughout the preseason remind one about the benefits of Al Jefferson and the opportunity of simply dumping it down low to him. Even if the big man is on the decline, the bench unit probably would be better with him (that’s not to say the team should have kept him).

Ramon Sessions could be called a poor man’s version of Jeremy Lin and mostly creates for himself on continuous drives to the basket. He’s also a worse 3-point shooter. Marco Belinelli and Jeremy Lamb are creative, yet it mostly applies to them finding their own looks from the mid-range. Spencer Hawes’s passing could help the bench, yet his spot in the rotation isn’t secure.

The big bear that is Hibbert and non-shooter Kidd-Gilchrist are also in the picture now. Clifford staggering minutes the right way for offensive purposes so plenty of shooting and passing is on the court will be huge.

What is the team’s closing lineup?

The solution has now long been pairing Kemba Walker with the back-up point guard. Jeremy Lin played alongside Kemba, Mo Williams also did and so did the returning Ramon Sessions.

Walker and Sesh played 130 minutes together in fourth quarters in 2013-14 and that’s with Sessions being traded away in February.

Ramon Sessions is also 30 and probably a bit past his prime so you might not want to lean there. Standing pat and closing with your starters is always an option, even if one doesn’t know who exactly is the starting center (Roy Hibbert might be too plodding for some of the small ball lineups teams can go to when gunning for a comeback).

Playing Frank Kaminsky at the five for spurts should be tried out. Should Michael Kidd-Gilchrist be on the court for defense or do the Hornets go with offense seems like an eternal question at this point and somehow he’s only 23. The use of MKG is a question in itself and it’s a shame that the amount of the bigs on the roster probably eliminate the majority of opportunities of playing Kidd-Gilchrist at the four.