One of better TV shows currently on air is The Good Place, which takes a comedic and smart look at the afterlife and how our actions determine whether we end up in heaven or hell (or, rather, in the “Good” or “Bad Place”). Without revealing too much (though minor spoilers ahead), one depiction of the Bad Place isn’t a fiery inferno but rather a ruse: characters are granted things from their life they covet, but with a twisted catch that is so subtle they don’t realize they are actually being tortured. Eventually the main characters discover this, and when faced with the prospect of what the Bad Place would be for each of them, one character named Jason Mendoza, a dumb but lovable Floridian with a passion for the Jacksonville Jaguars, EDM music, and throwing Molotov cocktails says, “I’ll probably go to a Skrillex concert, and I’ll be waiting for the bass drop, and it...it’ll never come.”
For Charlotte Hornets fans, The Bad Place could be any number of things: watching the team attempt to win a close game, watching Nicolas Batum go 1-for-4 from the field, or hoping the team can defend a fourth quarter lead (or any lead for that matter). And since all of these things and more have been true this season, it’s not a stretch to say that we may actually be in The Bad Place.
Frankly, it’s all quite maddening. The Hornets aren’t a bad team, and I’ll go as far to say that they are actually pretty decent. The numbers, for the most part, have backed that up in areas. But combine an All-NBA season from Kemba Walker and a promising rookie in Miles Bridges with the continued losses by five points or less and the tendency to play up and down to the competition, and the Hornets are doing their best to give us hope while simultaneously torturing us.
This past weekend is a prime example. After winning the previous three games in a row, capped off by an important victory over the Detroit Pistons, the Hornets proceeded to blow a double-digit fourth quarter lead to lose in overtime at home against New York and then were blown out by the Lakers the following night.
It would be funny if it wasn’t all too familiar.
Trying to make sense of just how good or bad this team is difficult when looked at as a whole. It seems that every compliment about this team can be nullified with a complaint, and it speaks to why this team is muddling around .500. As I’ve watched this team from a purely fan perspective for the first time in five years, the only solace I can take is that when things turn for the worse, I can simply turn the TV off.
Still, while we may very well be in one version of hell, things could be much, much worse. We can debate what worse is, and I plan to touch on that. Before we get there, though, here are a few things I’ve noticed through 30 games.
The Hornets might (or might not) have their second scorer
For years we’ve harped on how little scoring help the Hornets have provided Walker. It all came to a crashing head when he dropped 60 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in an overtime loss. Suddenly, the national media was paying attention, but the “imagine if Kemba had help” tagline got old real quick. And to be quite honest, the notion isn’t entirely true. Kemba has had help in seasons past, most notably during the team’s last two playoff appearances. Whether it was Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin, or Courtney Lee, the secondary scorers have been there. And the kicker in all this is that outside of the 2015-16 season, Kemba wasn’t even the team’s best player. It’s right to point out how poorly the team’s attempts have been since 2016 to find secondary help, but the unfortunate truth is that Walker’s help came before Walker became an All-Star.
But help might be coming (or it might be here), and not in the form of Bradley Beal. Jeremy Lamb was pegged by many as the likely candidate to take a step forward before the season. That prediction didn’t get off to a good start, as Lamb’s October was pretty poor with a scoring average of 10.9 points per game and a shooting percentage of under 40 percent. His November, however, was much different. Averaging nearly 18 points per game and shooting 48.1 percent from the field, Lamb played some of the best basketball of his career. He scored in double figures in all 14 games and scored 20 or more in six of them. His increased scoring numbers can be partly attributed to an uptick in minutes -- Lamb averaged nearly five more minutes a game in November than in October, playing near starter level minutes for the first time in his career. It indicates an increased level of trust from James Borrego, who hasn’t hesitated to cut his players’ minutes if they aren’t performing.
Lamb hasn’t quite maintained this level of production through six games in December, which has me short of suggesting he is the Hornets secondary scorer moving forward. But given that the likelihood of a Beal-like scorer isn’t high unless the team is willing to part ways with its young talent and a draft pick or two (and even that might not be enough), we have to put some faith in Lamb and hope he can continue to produce.
The Hornets finally have a backup point guard
It’s fairly safe to say that without Tony Parker, the outlook of the team would be far worse. The Hornets have desperately needed a backup point since Lin left three seasons ago, and Parker has filled that role better than most would’ve expected. Averaging 9.9 points and 4.2 assists in 19.3 minutes per game, Parker’s 16.6 PER ranks fourth among regular Hornets rotation players. What’s more, the team is +3.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor thanks in large part to a 115.9 offensive rating.
Charlotte has sought a calming presence with its second unit, and Parker is just that. Borrego has often (probably too much so) inserted Parker when things have started going wrong but it’s worked more often than not. To top it off, playing Parker alongside Kemba has contributed to the All-Star’s near All-NBA season.
Parker has made it nearly 30 games without missing significant time, and doesn’t look at all close to a 36-year old player in his 18th NBA season. He has shed the track record of washed old vets moving to a new team for one last underwhelming season (think MJ with the Wizards), and is instead playing like the old guy at the rec whose mission is to embarrass as many of the faster, younger players around him. If there’s any reason to want to make the playoffs, it would be to watch Parker get one more crack at playoff basketball.
The frontcourt is kind of a mess
If there’s an area the Hornets could do well to figure out, it’s the frontcourt. Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams are nice players to have, but as complimentary pieces, not regular starters. Zeller’s potential may have been worth the investment a few years ago, but a combination of injuries and a lack of offensive skill development has stunted his growth to what we see today. He can be very good at times, but he isn’t a dominating presence. Williams, meanwhile, is no longer an above average long-range shooter, and while he’s shot a bit better of late, I have major doubts that he will replicate what we’ve seen from him in the past.
The team’s other options have left some to be desired as well. Frank Kaminsky has quieted down after a good stretch of player in late November and early December, Willy Hernangomez has been highly inconsistent (and my personal biggest disappointment this season), while Bismack Biyombo has shown nothing to suggest he should be even getting the random spot minutes he’s received so far.
The only positives are Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Miles Bridges. MKG has seen a renaissance of sorts playing as a poor man’s Draymond Green off the bench. He’s playing with a high level of confidence and is highly effective when switching on-ball defenders and playing in small ball lineups. The problem is, he’s best off the bench, as playing him with the starting unit leaves the team with no outside shooting threats in the frontcourt. Bridges, meanwhile, isn’t quite ready to be a starting power forward (or starter period).
Most of the Hornets trade talk has been on finding another perimeter scorer. I don’t deny that they need one, but upgrading the frontcourt with a more dangerous forward or center shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
The growth of this team in the immediate future will depend on how much the young core develops
The team’s most recent losses have reignited the debate over what direction the Hornets should take: stay the course and sneak in as a 6-8 playoff seed, or trade away Walker and begin a rebuild. The answer would be easier if Walker wanted out, but as it stands he wants to remain, and trading away the best player in franchise history isn’t a simple matter when he actually wants to be part of the building process.
But can the team build with Walker? I think so, but that will depend primarily on how much the team’s current young core develops. Specifically, I am focusing on Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte’ Graham, and to a lesser extent, Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon. Bridges looks at worst a competent NBA starter, but we should expect his development to be gradual. Monk is a bit too erratic at the moment, but has the look of a player that by the end of his rookie contract could be a very dangerous scorer, if not still a little inconsistent. Graham, Willy, and Bacon all have the looks of solid rotational players.
There may not be an All-Star among this group, but this five could be a competent and productive bunch playing with Walker. If the front office can draft well again (because let’s be honest, they did fairly well with their available picks last summer), the team could theoretically rebuild while keeping Walker and waiting for the big contracts to expire.
Admittedly, there’s a bit of wishful thinking in all this, but it’s a strategy that has worked for small to mid-level markets in the past. The likes of Toronto, Indiana, Portland, Utah, and Milwaukee managed to build strong NBA rosters without tanking at all or for more than one season. I understand the logic behind tanking, but need I remind everyone that this very strategy is what led the Hornets to where they are now. A team can get as many high picks as they want, but picking well matters just as much, if not more. Charlotte’s track record of that is poor overall no matter who the general manager has been, and while the early decisions of Mitch Kupchak have been favorable, it’s too early to give him a full vote of confidence in making the right picks during a rebuild.
There are worse positions to be in
This gets to crux of where I stand: The Bad Place isn’t just a ruse of false hope where the Hornets currently reside, it’s the literal bottom of the league. I’m old enough to remember those days and how demoralizing it felt to root for them. Yes, torture is being led to believe in a team only to be let down over and over, but it’s also attending your first game in person and watching the Bobcats go up by 20 points at halftime only to watch Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Hornets erase that lead and end up winning by 20. Torture is watching your team lose the last 23 games of a season and getting told by Rudy Gay that, “Your team has seven wins, it’s everybody’s house.” Torture is watching a terrible basketball team attempt to rebuild for three years only for them to return to nearly the same position they were in before.
I won’t apologize for wanting to avoid that again. If Walker’s mind doesn’t change, then the team should stay the course. As frustrating as things have been, the Hornets remain in the playoffs. Tanking now or at any point this season won’t do any good when the team is already too far ahead of the current bottom of the league. Ultimately, I’d rather watch a team that is good enough to compete on most nights, even if they lose a few more than they should. I can endure another season and a half of that (when, by then, cap space will free up), but three to five seasons of 15-30 wins? I’d rather wait for a bass drop that never comes.