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Size and skill: The subtle de-athleticization of the Charlotte Hornets

How the Hornet’s answer to one problem created another.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Athleticism is like pornography. While difficult to define, you know it when you see it.

Last summer, Steve Clifford was not thinking about either. Instead he told the front office he needed them to provide him with both more "size and skill." — in the form of players that is (I'm sure Steve's ball handling is just fine).

Were his needs met?

The Hornets and size

Via HispanosNBA, here is where the 2015-16 Charlotte Hornets ranked, size-wise:

  • 19th in height
  • 9th in weight
  • 4th in height
  • 5th in weight
  • 25th in height
  • 28th in weight

Not terrible, not great.

While there is no breakdown of this data for the 2014-15 season (and I, a lowly writer, am bereft of a research assistant) I have here a comparison of some of the heights and wingspans of players the Hornets ended with last season, and the ones they ended with this season based on their role with the team:

Lance Stephenson, 6'7.75" with a 6'10.5" wingspan, became Nicolas Batum, 6’7.75" with a 7’0.75" wingspan.

Gerald Henderson, 6’5" with a 6’10.25" wingspan, became Courtney Lee, 6’5" with an estimated 6'7" wingspan.

Bismack Biyombo, 6’9.5" with a 7’6" wingspan, became Frank Kaminsky, 7’0.75" with a 6’11" wingspan.

Mo Williams, 6’2" with a 6'5.5" wingspan, became Jeremy Lin, 6’3.5" with a 6’5" wingspan.

P.J. Hairston, 6’5.25" with a 6’9" wingspan, became Jeremy Lamb, 6’5.25" with a 6’11" wingspan.

Jason Maxiell, 6’6.25" with a 7’3.25" wingspan, became Spencer Hawes, 7’0.75" with a 7’0.5" wingspan.

Noah Vonleh, 6’9.5" with a 7’4.25" wingspan, became Tyler Hansbrough, 6’9.5" with a 6’11.5" wingspan.

Slightly better, but still not amazing.

It's clear Cliff is a size queen. His success in the league came from a team in Orlando with one of the largest front lines in the NBA with Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis, and it's understandable why he (or really any basketball coach) would want bigger players in a game where the rims stand pat at 10 feet no matter what who's on the floor.

The Hornets and skill

As far as skill is concerned, it's fair to assume Clifford wanted offensive versatility by way of shooting, passing, and ball handling, the traditionally dexterous base-line basketball things you can (mostly) learn.

How did the front office respond here?

2014-15 Charlotte Hornets (30th being the worst)
  • Offensive Rating: 28th
  • True Shooting Percentage: 29th
  • Assist Ratio: 26th
  • Effective Field Goal Percentage: 30th
2015-16 Charlotte Hornets (30th still the worst)
  • Offensive Rating: 9th
  • True Shooting Percentage: 12th
  • Assist Ratio: 17th
  • Effective Field Goal Percentage: 13th

While the changes in the team's size were modest at best, the jump in offensive skill was massive. Yuuuge, one could even say. The kind of responsiveness the American electorate only dreams of.

The results

The Hornets won 15 more games than they did the previous season; that's a 45 percent increase in wins. If this kind improvement occurred every year, the Hornets would win every Finals from here until eternity.

So yes, it's impossible to argue that the personnel changes pushed for by Clifford and carried out by Cho were not a success.

But I will try.

Or rather, I will say what most of us saw, that while improved, this iteration of the Hornets suffered from a different set of flaws that ultimately culminated in a loss to the Heat in the first round.

The Heat thoroughly out-athleted the Hornets. Game 1 was like watching an AAU squad playing up an age bracket. The Heat were quicker, faster, stronger — possessing every physically performative advantage that was to be had.

Yes the front office made the necessary changes to be more competitive — but they over-corrected.

They were so responsive that a trade off was made, perhaps without totally realizing it — or perhaps realizing it totally, with fingers crossed that it wouldn’t come back to bite them in the ass (which of course it did, although every team in the league would prefer this problem to the lack of meaningful adjustments that is all too common among teams on the precipice of something).

In their quest to find players who exhibited offensive skills, they became a team who lacked athletic ones.

For example, here are the three most important players (determined by minutes played) that the Hornets lost coming into the 2015-16 season:

  • Gerald Henderson
  • Lance Stephenson
  • Bismack Biyombo

And here are the three most important players (same qualification) that the Hornets acquired coming into the 2015-16 season:

  • Jeremy Lin
  • Nic Batum
  • Frank Kaminsky

Say what you will about those former three (and you could say a lot) but they were three of the most bonafide athletes on that team (all due respect to MKG). All of them would rank as "good" athletes by NBA standards while arguably only Batum would qualify as that — with Lin as average, and Frank as below average.

This offseason and the future

Athleticism is like pornography in that, while appealing to our most superficial level, it cannot stand alone. Every puberty-crazed 13 year old boy with a laptop and even a passing interest in the NBA draft understands this.

And so does Rich Cho, the man who drafted both Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Two players assuredly in the 99th percentile of physical specimen/project/upside players in the NBA, and whose drafting you can directly attribute to everything that happened last summer, culminating in the selection of an all-around nice guy that will never be confused with Bo Jackson named Frank Kaminsky.

The fact that neither Biz nor MKG had developed offensively and weren't particularly big for their position, (along with a franchise point guard who wasn't either) paired with a league where skill-ball became a premium, made it a pressing need that size and skill be addressed.

And so now this off season the Hornets have a different issue: they need athletes.

Let's see how they do.