What if the Charlotte Hornets had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist this season?
That thought ran through the heads of fans and analysts throughout the season as Charlotte went on an incredible run that nobody saw coming save for the most positive of Hornets fans. When Kidd-Gilchrist tore his labrum in a preseason game against the Orlando Magic, the belief was that the Hornets season had officially become a wash. That was their best defender, and arguably their most important player, out for what looked like the season.
However, despite not having such an important piece the Hornets were a top-10 team in both offense and defense this season. Had Kidd-Gilchrist been healthy would Charlotte have been an even greater team? With such a key player locked into a contract as the cap rises this summer, how much more valuable will he be in the future, or will injuries make any value he brings ultimately worthless?
It's difficult to judge Kidd-Gilchrist properly, because the sample size given to us this season is very small. Luckily for Charlotte, he wasn't out for the entire season like everyone had originally predicted. In what shocked pretty much everybody, Kidd-Gilchrist returned from his shoulder injury only four months after surgery. Unfortunately, after seven games he re-injured that same shoulder when an opposing player fell on it.
Basically, Kidd-Gilchrist's season was over before it could really begin. While seven games gave a taste of what he may have played like this season, that sample is just too small to make any real conclusions. The best that can be done is to look at what is known about him already, and compare it to that small sample size.
So what kind of player is Kidd-Gilchirst? He's one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA, and is that rare type of player that can anchor a defense from the perimeter. His on/off numbers from this season are useless to us, but last season he led the Hornets in net rating, as the Hornets were 7.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor. Interestingly enough, despite his limited ability to space the floor, he still managed to make the Hornets a better offensive team while on the floor as well. Charlotte's offensive rating without Kidd-Gilchrist came in at 96.5 per 100, but when on the floor that jumped to 99.4 per 100. His weakness as a 3-point shooter probably wasn't exposed very much since Charlotte as a whole couldn't shoot well, but as far as on/off numbers go it's clear that Kidd-Gilchrist was a positive for the Hornets.
The knock on Kidd-Gilchrist for his entire career has been his ability as a scorer. While showing the ability to get to the rim he always struggled to shoot the ball, and in a league that is so focused on being able to score from the perimeter that was a pretty large weakness. This is also why the Hornets have been working on improving his jump shot for a few years now. While he's not Stephen Curry, the improvement is obvious when just looking at Kidd-Gilchrist from 2013-14 (top) and comparing it to his 2014-15 (bottom) season.
Obviously, Kidd-Gilchrist didn't take a single 3-pointer last season. Some consider that a problem, but really this is a case of a player knowing where his strengths are, and a good coaching staff finding other ways for him to be successful. Last season, Kidd-Gilchrist knew he wasn't going to be making 3-point shots so he didn't bother spotting up from there or making attempts from that range. His focus was getting to the rim, and attacking in the midrange. The results? While not exactly helpful in spacing the floor, it was very effective.
Now, here's a situation where the information that Kidd-Gilchrist gave us this season can actually be used. Just remember the sample size is small and therefore could be nothing more than a small blip.
Here is Kidd-Gilchrist's shot chart from the seven games he played this year.
There're a few similarities for him.
For example, he's always been a player that's league-average to above-average once he gets near the rim. Get Kidd-Gilchrist near the rim and he can be a player that puts points up quickly. The problem is that he's never been someone that can get to the rim with much ease due to a lack of jump shot. Defenders give Kidd-Gilchrist space and dare him to shoot. Even last year, when he was an improved midrange shooter, teams would still prefer giving up the midrange compared to the rim.
However, the big difference between last year's shot chart and this year's is the 3-point range percentages. Kidd-Gilchrist was hanging out much deeper on the perimeter and taking 3-pointers. Not just taking them either, but actively looking for them. He played seven games, and attempted seven for the season and made three of those attempts.
Okay, so Kidd-Gilchrist is clearly a 42 percent shooter from deep the rest of his career right? Not exactly. The small sample size tells us nothing about how he is as a shooter. MKG might have just started off shooting well, but with more time he could have fallen back into a 30 percent range, which isn't great. We won't know how he is as a shooter until he plays more minutes. However, what the sample size does say is that Kidd-Gilchrist is willing to look for that 3-point shot and take it. That in itself is a huge step in his progression as a shooter. It's just unfortunate that we won't get to see the results of that until next season.
Kidd-Gilchrist pretty clearly has a future with the Hornets in the short term. He just signed an extension, and as soon as he was able to play Steve Clifford put him right into the starting lineup to play alongside Nicolas Batum. The Hornets were dreaming of a lineup featuring a perimeter force of Kemba Walker, Batum, and MKG, which defensively sounds like a nightmare for opposing teams. Throw in Marvin Williams at the power forward spot and the length and athleticism that Charlotte has out there fits right into the Hornets defensive scheme. Charlotte likes to leave their perimeter players alone, and then crash inside to provide help when teams try to force their in there. Obviously the two biggest weaknesses here are kick outs to the corner, and great individual scorers. The Hornets were one of the league leaders this season in allowing open corner 3-pointers, but they were okay with that, because they expect their defenders to get back and contest the shot. The more length and athleticism that Charlotte has out on the floor the easier it is to get back out to the perimeter.
The other issue is great individual scorers. Ever since Clifford took over as head coach, he has been known for letting great players explode for huge games. LeBron James and Carmleo Anthony have both recorded career scoring games during Clifford's tenure. This is a result of the scheme, because perimeter guys are left by themselves to try and defend these scorers on their own. Some argue that's a big weakness, but the counter to that would be that it's unlikely for someone to score 50-60 on any given night unless that player just happens to be feeling it.
This is where having a player like Kidd-Gilchrist helps. He's not quite at the Kawhi Leonard level of swallowing a defender whole, but he's someone that can handle himself when he's left on an island to guard someone. Does this mean there will be nights that LeBron James goes off against him? Yes, it does, but James will go off on anybody. Kidd-Gilchrist just happened to be the guy that was guarding him that night.
Charlotte values what Kidd-Gilchrist brings, and he's going to be a part of whatever team they plan on going forward with next season. Most likely it will be an attempt to keep Batum so they can try to get that super long, athletic, and quick perimeter defense they wanted this season. However, it's not easy to have that kind of defense if one of the key pieces to it is rarely healthy. While many of Kidd-Gilchrist's injuries have been bad luck, it's hard to get over the fact that he's spent much of his career on the injured list. It seems unfair to throw the injury prone label on Kidd-Gilchrist, but Charlotte just can't trust him to be healthy for a full season right now. Until he can do that, they'll have to operate with the idea in mind that yes, he's going to miss some games. Considering that they want to put a player like that next to another player known for not always being healthy in Batum, and that dream defense could also be a very injured defense.
The Hornets have a young potential star in Kidd-Gilchrist. He's only 22, and he's improved in some way every year he's been in the NBA. The jump shot looks like it's coming along nicely, but obviously there needs to be a larger sample size before we can say for certain that he's going to be shooting 3-pointers now. We know he's a great defender, and that's not gong to change for a long time, but the concerns about his ability to stay healthy are real. Kidd-Gilchrist showed progress in the short amount of time he was health this season, and the potential for something great with not just him as an individual but the team they want to make him a part of is very real. However, right now that's all Kidd-Gilchrist is. A whole lot of potential without the evidence to confirm it yet.