As people, we are fascinated by the chronology of life and seek to find meaning in the stories we see or participate in every day. We like patterns. We like knowing what leads to what — even if we don’t — and then marvelling at an outcome outside the realm of possibilities we’ve constructed.
Life is random and it is beautiful.
It’s no surprise, then, that we haphazardly construct narratives before teams even play their first regular season games. In many cases, these narratives are loose threads or perceived failures from the season prior.
Is this the year Kemba Walker becomes an All-Star?
There’s no way around it. Walker had the best season of his career in 2015-16, averaging 20.9 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.4 rebounds in 35.6 minutes per game, all while shooting a career high 42.7 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from behind the arc.
It’s rare for a player to take such a big leap in a single season, though, and that’s raised questions about whether or not the point guard can maintain or exceed that level of play in the 2016-17 season.
After all, Kemba’s season was the culmination of hard work, yes, but also of finally finding himself in a situation that exploited his strengths and minimized his weaknesses. And more than anything, a situation that allowed him to rest.
Adding Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin ensured that he could take possessions off and allow the offense to run without him. To help with this, head coach Steve Clifford changed many of the Hornets’ pet plays to get Walker in position to score with the defense already compromised.
All he needed was a hesitation dribble or two to get straight to the basket or a leap backwards for a patented step-back jumper. No longer was Kemba expected to bail the Hornets out late in the clock with an isolation play.
Case in point: Despite career high shooting percentages from nearly everywhere on the court, Walker was assisted on fewer field goals last season than any season prior by a significant margin. Only 18.9 percent of his two-point field goals and 59.9 percent of his 3-point field goals were assisted. His previous career lows were 21.2 percent (2014) and 60.9 percent (2012), respectively.
Kemba’s stellar season nearly warranted him a spot on last year’s All-Star Team, but he fell short thanks to the league’s coaches electing to send John Wall, Isaiah Thomas, and DeMar DeRozan instead. Each of those players had stellar seasons in their own right.
Whether or not Walker is an All-Star this season largely depends on the Hornets’ record come February. There’s little doubt that he can repeat his success from last season — at least statistically — if he and the team are healthy.
So, uh, Hornets. Please win? Let’s get Kemba into the All-Star Game. Which leads us to our next question...
Can the Hornets stay healthy enough to win?
When the Golden State Warriors hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy a couple of seasons ago, most of the basketball world was focused on how talented the team was, and for good reason. The Warriors, on paper and on the floor, were unbelievably deep.
But over time, another narrative began to creep in. Yes, the Warriors were good — perhaps one of the best teams ever — but they were also unbelievably lucky. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green — the Warriors’ so-called “Death Lineup” — missed a combined 15 games that season.
Not only did that equate to having more talented players on the floor more often, but it allowed the Warriors’ core to develop meaningful, sustained chemistry on the basketball court. (And for a team with basketball IQ as high as the Warriors’, that led to some absolutely brilliant plays.)
In contrast, the Hornets’ core from last year — Kemba, Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, and Al Jefferson — missed a combined 124 games. That meant starting P.J. Hairston as a placeholder for MKG, throwing rookie Frank Kaminsky into the fire, and experimenting with all kinds of weird lineups and rotations.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, it seemed like the team had forgotten how to play as a single unit at times. That isn’t to say the offense devolved into isolation basketball, but that some of the cuts and off-ball two-man plays we were used to seeing during the regular season suddenly weren’t there. Some of that was due to the Heat’s defense and to utter exhaustion, too. But a lot of it was simply unfamiliarity.
Add to that the fact that the Hornets were playing end-of-bench players in their rotation out of necessity for much of the year and it’s easy to see why the team stumbled into the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Hornets are already dealing with a significant number of injuries this season. Williams is out with a broken finger. Zeller is out with a nagging bone bruise. Kaminsky is out with a foot sprain. Brian Roberts’ thigh is bugging him.
Each of those players are expected to play in the Hornets’ season opener on Wednesday, but for any die-hard fan, this all seems like a bad omen for things to come.
It’s not like the Hornets’ roster is filled with players plagued by recurring injuries. They don’t have Brandon Roy’s knees or Dwight Howard’s back to deal with.
They just seem to have terrible luck.
Take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, for example. Save for last season’s injury and re-injury to his right shoulder, he’s never suffered the same injury twice. And yet he hasn’t played more than 62 games in a season since his sophomore year.
It’s difficult to project whether or not the Hornets will remain healthy this season, but we can’t understate the importance health has for a team — especially one that is actively trying to win.
All we can do is hope for no freak injuries and adequate rest between games. Easier said than done, but that’s what this is.
Are Cody Zeller or Roy Hibbert longterm options at center?
When the Hornets signed Al Jefferson in the summer of 2013, Big Al was in the prime of his career and eager for a major role on a team looking to make the playoffs. He was probably the franchise’s biggest signing since basketball returned to Charlotte and undoubtedly the Hornets’ starting center as the Hornets’ other options — Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo — were green 21-year-olds with huge, glaring holes in their respective games.
Jefferson performed admirably as a Hornet, leading the team to the playoffs in two of his three seasons there. However, it became clear that the trajectory of his career was changing in unforeseen ways as time went on. Injuries and the scorn of time slowed him down and by the end of last season, it was obvious his time in Charlotte was over.
He signed with the Indiana Pacers this offseason, but during his time in Charlotte Jefferson was the Hornets’ identity, particularly in his first couple of years. And now, that’s gone.
To mitigate the loss of Jefferson, the Hornets signed Roy Hibbert. While nowhere near the player Jefferson was on offense, Hibbert offers the Hornets defense Jefferson could never provide. Hibbert was an All-Star talent as recently as 2014, and the Hornets figured that a maybe a change of scenery would be enough to get him back to that level.
And if he can’t, the Hornets have Zeller. Zeller’s in the final year of his rookie contract and the Hornets want him to prove his worth before offering him a contract extension. Unfortunately, Zeller’s been sidelined for much of training camp and preseason with a bone bruise he suffered back in April. That could hurt his chances to play himself into a nice contract.
Zeller and Hibbert each offer the Hornets something different. If last season was any indication, the Hornets will likely play a motion-heavy, fast-breaking offense when Zeller’s on the floor and a slower, more post-heavy offense when Hibbert’s playing. That’s a bit of a luxury for Clifford and the Hornets, but it also speaks to the fact that neither player has cemented themselves as the Hornets’ longterm option at center.
The Hornets know this. Both players’ contracts expire at the end of this season, giving the team flexibility to look elsewhere if neither shows they can hold down the center spot consistently. For now, Clifford has said they’ll split the minutes at the position with whichever player performs better on a given night getting the majority of the playing time.
The Hornets have until Oct. 31 to offer Zeller a contract extension. If they elect not to extend him, he enters next summer as a restricted free agent. Keep your eyes peeled on extension rumors, as they’ll give us a good guess as to where the Hornets stand on the center position.
Can Marvin Williams repeat last season’s success?
Williams had a career year for the Hornets last season, combining stellar post defense with a smooth, consistent 3-pointer on offense. It’s oft-repeated, but Williams ended up leading the Hornets in blocks and being second in 3-pointers made. He filled a niche for the Hornets and he did it well.
However, there are concerns that Williams can’t repeat last season’s success. The theory goes that with Jefferson no longer sucking opposing defenses inside, Hibbert manning the bulk of the Hornets’ interior defense, MKG hitting the boards, and Kaminsky emerging as a decent option at power forward, Williams might take a step back.
That’s a solid line of reasoning, but I’m not so sure it’s the reality of the situation.
Yes, Williams made two of his 16 3-point attempts in preseason, but I’d attribute that to randomness rather than an inability to get good looks. Most of his attempts were wide open; they simply didn’t fall. Come the regular season, I imagine he’ll be shooting upwards of 38 percent like last season.
He rebounded just fine in preseason and played a major role in the Hornets’ defense, too. It’s possible Williams plays fewer minutes this season — he’s in his thirties now and the Hornets do have some other options — but as far as his efficiency goes, this season should closely mirror last season.