Matchups, lineups, and in-game adjustments are what the NBA is all about. Your starting five is not always your closing five. Things change from game to game and within a game.
Last season’s Charlotte Hornets were not as potentially deep or versatile as this season’s group. The bench was a constant issue. Head coach Steve Clifford had limited options, especially with injuries to key guys like Cody Zeller. Last season, the starting five of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Zeller only played in 47 games together. When they did play they played well, finishing with a plus/minus of 5.1. However, that was not their best line up.
Their two best line consisted of Walker, Marco Belinelli, Batum, Frank Kaminsky, and Zeller. The second? Walker, Belinelli, Batum, Williams, and Kaminsky. With both lineups, only Zeller could not shoot 3’s.
Both lineups finished +22. You’re probably wondering how. The first line up shot an astonishing 57 percent from the field, 48 percent from the 3-point line and 85 percent from the line.
So how did they win just 36 games last season? The Hornets played this line up in only 29 games due to injuries, and the Hornets were a disaster in close games. That's a topic for another day. The second line up wasn't as good at shooting, but rarely turned it over and rarely fouled, showing that there are different ways for a lineup to be effective.
You have your best shooting line up, your best defensive line up and your best combination of the two, which is usually your starting five but not always. Let’s look at which lineups will be the most effective for Charlotte this season.
Best Three-Point Shooting Lineup!
Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, Malik Monk, Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky
A similar line up to a very effective one last year, the exception is rookie Malik Monk replacing Belinelli. Monk is a similar player to Belinelli, so Clifford can run a lot of the same action for him. The bonus is even though Monk is a rookie he can potentially do more. Monk is a better athlete, capable of putting the ball on the floor to attack closeouts. He also is a better ball handler, capable of running high or secondary pick and rolls.
Don’t expect Monk to be the first option though. With five shooters on the floor Walker will have plenty of room to attack down hill, plus he will be harder to trap with so much spacing around him. That will leave him open for pull up threes, and attacks to the rim. Expect Williams and Kaminsky as the primary screeners for Kemba when they don’t isolate him.
Williams can pick and pop, or slip the screen and cut. A secret skill of his. Kaminsky can also pop, or draw a switch and then post up a smaller player. They can also use Kaminsky as a passer. Kaminsky improved immensely as a passer last season finishing with a good 14.6 percent assist rate. He can catch the ball on the move and kick it out to Monk, Batum or Williams.
At first Monk will mostly be used to spot off these pick and rolls. The secondary action will belong to Batum. If Kemba’s initial action is stopped, Batum will come in and run a secondary pick and roll. Batum’s favorite screener buddy Zeller is not in this line up, so expect Kaminsky and Williams again.
Batum made an effort to get to the line more last year, averaging a career high 3.7 free throw attempts per game. If the lane is clogged, expect him to go to the pull up jumper he loves. If he draws a switch, he likes to post smaller players. In the post his passing is a weapon. He is great at finding cutters, most likely Marvin in this line up, and spot up shooters.
The total 3-point shooting percentage of this group minus Monk is 34.7, which isn’t great. The good news is they take a lot of them, and the sheer volume makes defenses respect it. Combined the four of them average 22.3 3-point attempts per game. Williams shot 35 percent for his career and last season, so it’s safe to say he will shoot around there again. Walker may have a tough time repeating 39 percent from three. Hopefully, Batum will bounce back after a down year at 33 percent and Kaminsky should benefit from better looks and should his increase his percentage from 32 percent. In college, Monk shot 39 percent from deep. If this group can go from 34 precent to at least 36 percent it will make a huge difference. Expect this line up if Charlotte is down big.
The obstacles that this group faces are rebounding and rim protection. Batum is the best rebounder and Williams is the best shot blocker and that's not good. For this line up to work they will have to gang rebound, and Kaminsky in particular will have to improve on the glass. He is 7’0 and only averages 4.5 rebounds per game. Yikes!
There is no quick fix for the lack of rim protection, and it will come down to great perimeter defense. Protect the lane, stay tight on shooters, switch pick and rolls that don't involve Kaminsky and limit second shots. Kaminsky’s development and Monk’s growth as a rookie will decide how effective this line up is.
Best Overall Offensive Lineup!
Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb
I gave rookie Malik Monk a lot of props by putting him in the best shooting line up, but I can't put him in the best offensive line up yet. Obviously depending on his growth that can change. I have inserted Jeremy Lamb in his place. Lamb has his flaws no question, but he is one of the few players who can get his own shot when the play breaks down. That is useful in the NBA, as it can bail you out of some bad possessions.
Lamb improved in a lot of areas last season. He had a career high in PER at 17, true shooting percentage of 55, rebound percentage at 12.7 and a career low turnover percentage of 6. Combine that with a career high 46 percent from the field and 2.1 free throw attempts per game, and Lamb looks to be slightly on the rise.
The down side is he shot an awful 28 percent from 3 last season. That should improve this season with better looks from added playmakers. Plus, his career average is 32 percent. While it’s not good for a spot up specialist, his ability to break down his defender is bested only by Walker. Lamb took a step forward last season, I expect him to take another in 2017-18.
The other newcomer to this line up is Zeller. Hornets fan knows how valuable Zeller is after last season. The Hornets were a pathetic 3-17 without him. Screening, high IQ, and efficiency make Zeller valuable. Zeller shot 57 percent from the field and posted a true shooting percentage of 60. Zeller has good hands and can finish around the basket. If he didn't have a random down year at the free throw line at 67 percent (down from a career average of 75 percent), he would have been even more efficient.
Zeller excels at running the floor, getting putbacks and rolling hard to the rim. This combination makes him a strong screening threat. Zeller was third in the league at on ball screens per game at 30.6. Those screens didn’t go to waste, as he was also third in the league in screen assists per game at 5.9 (which mean his screen led directly to the player being screened for scoring). Zeller is a master screener who is capable of rolling and popping. His real skill is flipping his hips at the last second to confuse the defender on which way the screen is coming from. Zeller simply gets better looks for his teammates.
Batum and Zeller are beautiful to watch in pick and rolls. Their timing is perfect, and Batum often looks for him. With Walker it’s different, as he looks to score off Zeller’s screens. Both are effective and they offer spice to the Hornets offense.
The last part of this group is Kaminsky. He offers another floor spacer and is the best post up option in this group. In this line up he will be more of a floor spacer, however I would like the Hornets to post up Kaminsky more. This line up features great shooters, screeners, one on one players, post up players and ball handlers. It is the most complete offensive line up the Charlotte Hornets has.
Best Defensive Lineup!
Michael Carter-Williams, Nicholas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchirst, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard.
This line up will feature two newcomers to the Charlotte Hornets. The first is Dwight Howard. Howard is 31 and on his fifth team, but he still has a lot to offer. This is a three-time defensive player of the year. Howard is not the athlete he once was, but is still an excellent rim protector. While he is not as good at switching out on smaller guards, he is the best rim protector Charlotte has. Clifford knows this and his defensive scheme will tailor to Howard’s strengths. He had a career low 1.2 blocks per game last season, but that would have led the Hornets.
Howard has the ability to erase mistakes by the Hornets perimeter players. The other area where Howard will fit right in is defensive rebounding. Charlotte was already second in the league in defensive rebounding, this season with Howard they will be first. Adding Howard with Zeller means the Hornets will have 48 minutes of good defense at the center position.
This line up also includes newcomer Michael Carter-Williams. The former rookie of the year is now on his fourth team, looking for a bounce back season. It's a one-year deal, and I still question his offense, but there is a lot to like defensively. In limited action last season with Chicago, Carter-Williams had the 5th best defensive RPM in the league. At 6’6 with long arms, he can swallow up smaller guards, and can battle through screens. His size also gives him versatility, as he can guard 2’s and even some 3’s. That is the theme of this unit they are all versatile defenders.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who I wrote about last month, is the best defender on the team. He finished 6th in defensive RPM among small forwards. He’s added ten pounds of muscle this offseason, so he may be able to handle guarding power forwards more. MKG can handle the other teams best scorer and doesn’t need help doing it. He is also a elite rebounder for his position, another reason Charlotte was and will be a dominant defensive rebounding team.
Finally, there is Williams and Batum. They are the weakest defenders of the group, but when engaged they can be solid. Batum is the best in the group in getting steals in over 1.0 per game. He has solid length and quick hands. This allows him to get steals, while fouling at a really low rate. Marvin offers more versatility, as he can guard both three and fours. Williams is also a decent shot blocker, blocking shots at a decent rate for a power forward.
The key to this unit is versatility. Williams, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist and Carter-Williams can all switch their matchups and defend in space. This should allow Howard to stay close to the basket and do what he does best; block shots. With Howard, Carter-Williams, and Kidd-Gilchirst all on the floor, this unit will struggle with shooting and spacing on offense. However, if the Hornets need to get a couple of stops in a row, Clifford could utilize this group. He can also easily insert Zeller for Howard if the matchup calls for it.
Conclusion/Best Overall Lineup!
The Hornets likely starting five opening night is Walker, Batum, MKG, Williams and Howard. This culd change throughout the season if Kaminsky pushes William and Zeller overtakes Howard. Matchups may change starting line up at times of course. It is hard to say whom the best overall line up combining offense and defense will be. You don’t know which players will improve and how rookies Monk and Dwayne Bacon will do.
By season’s end my prediction is it will be Walker, Batum, MKG, Kaminsky and Zeller. This offers the best overall combination of spacing, offense and defense. Kemba, Batum and Kaminsky can all hit threes, while Zeller can roll hard to the rim or hit some midrange jumpers, and MKG can post, cut or hit some midrange jumpers as well if his shooting form finally develops
For the line up to work a few things need to happen. First, MKG needs to improve his offense. A reliable midrange jumper and a decent post game is enough. Second, Kaminsky must improve his ability to defend in space. On defense it's better to play Kaminsky at the 5, so Zeller can defend quicker 4’s, something he is better at. Either way, Kaminsky will have to improve on that end. Kaminsky and MKG’s growth will be the key to this being Charlotte’s most successful line up. We will find out October 18th at Detroit.