As of this morning, the Charlotte Hornets playoff odds are at 4.6 percent. Like The Soprano’s, its over! It would take a miraculous run plus a team ahead of the Hornets crapping the bed. The five-game winning streak gave some hope, but the five consecutive losses that followed all but killed any realistic chance the Hornets had. I am confident in saying the Hornets won’t make the playoffs, so it’s time to turn our attention to what we can expect from them for the final 16 games of the season.
They should remain competitive
Steve Clifford will play to win until Charlotte is officially eliminated from the postseason. That will likely happen with around seven to ten games left, so almost until the very end. Charlotte may win some games too, which may hurt the team big picture, but with four of the next five games against tanking teams, the Hornets are likely to win most. The starters and veterans are going to continue to play heavy minutes — that is just how Clifford, the players, and the organization are wired. If the Hornets go 6-4 in their next ten, they will be 34-41 with seven games left. By then they will likely be eliminated or very close to it. Then you will start seeing the young players, with one exception!
Malik Monk is getting minutes now no matter what due to Michael Carter-Williams likely out for the season with a shoulder injury. Monk will now get the backup point guard minutes behind Kemba Walker, and he already started on Tuesday’s loss at home to the Sixers. Monk played 16 minutes and had nine points, two assists, and two rebounds. He followed that with 13 points on 6-for-14 shooting last night.
Monk will likely play 15-20 minutes per game going forward both on and off the ball. He will start as the backup point guard when he comes in, but during the game expect him to get some time alongside Kemba Walker. Monk has fared better off the ball this season as a spot-up player, but Clifford will give him the chance to attack out of pick-and-rolls. He has struggled in that department this season, but the only way to get better is through reps. Clifford will simplify sets for him and put him in chances to attack. The good news is Monk has not lost confidence despite not playing much this season, as he jacked up ten shots in sixteen minutes on Tuesday, and 14 last night.
Being able to play point guard is crucial for Monk’s development. Defending ones is even more important, so expect him to guard point guards for the rest of the season. His defense wasn’t great on Tuesday, but it looked noticeably better than earlier in the season. He finished with a team-best +6 plus/minus. These last seventeen games are a growing opportunity for Monk, and since they have to play him, Clifford needs to do all he can to put him in situations to be successful. Expect some growing pains, but hopefully, we can get one more Monk explosion like we did earlier int he season against Milwaukee or at New York.
As I said, the starters will play until the very end. However, once the Hornets are eliminated, I suspect Nicolas Batum is the most likely candidate to get shut down for the season. He may only miss the last six or seven games, but it could give him a chance to get some rest. It could also give him a chance to get elbow surgery, which he still may need this offseason, or get started on rehab. Batum will be likely be impossible to trade this offseason unless the Hornets attach him to Kemba or a first round pick, so Charlotte needs to focus on rehabilitating Batum and trying to get the good 2016 Batum back. Maybe in the last few games, Jeremy Lamb can start.
In Sunday’s loss at Toronto, Cody got crunch time fourth quarter minutes ahead of Dwight. Dwight responded with 30 points on Tuesday, but seeing Clifford manages these two minutes down the stretch will be interesting. Dwight played 30 minutes on Tuesday and Cody only 14, so a lot of it will depend on the game. After the season, Howard has just one year on his contract and in my opinion is a 50/50 proposition to stay. Zeller, on the other hand, is viewed as an integral part of the team due to his intangibles and the little things he brings to the table.
Down the stretch, I expect Cody’s minutes to go up and Dwight’s to go down. Zeller can get some run with the young guys and develop chemistry, while there is little point to playing Dwight beyond keeping him happy (which is true with any veteran, mind you). He has been good this year, but once eliminated he should get some rest. That can be tricky as Dwight is sensitive and if the Hornets want to keep him, that may not be the move. How the Hornets handle Dwight at the end could indicate what they plan to do with him in the offseason. In the meantime, I could see Cody’s minutes increase, particularly in the fourth quarter, for free throw shooting and better chemistry.
Beside Malik Monk, the other young players expected to get some minutes once eliminated are Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez. Hernangomez has gotten a few serious minutes as a Hornet thanks to Zeller’s injury, but he has not been great. If the Hornets view him as part of the future, they need to get him some burn behind Cody Zeller. He is young and has upside, and Charlotte doesn’t want to upset him with lack of playing time. Charlotte needs good young and cheap players. In the last seven/eight games, there needs to be a big dose of Hernagomez so Charlotte knows what kind of player they currently have.
Then there is second-round draft pick Dwayne Bacon. Bacon, like Monk, has struggled in the minutes he has got this season. Clifford has preached confidence in Bacon’s 3-point shooting, and that is the key to Bacon’s career. He projects best as a 3-D starter or legitimate rotation player. Bacon has the size but must improve his shot selection and defensive awareness. Like with Monk, all Charlotte and the fans are looking for is an improvement from the start of the season.
Treveon Graham should still get consistent minutes at small forward and as a small ball four. Charlotte may not be able to re-sign him this offseason, but they need to try. Graham is a real find, and I would like to see him in the 25-30 minute range at the end of the season.
A lineup I would like to see is Monk, Lamb, Bacon, Graham, and Hernagomez. It will struggle, but if all five of these players are on the team next year, Charlotte needs to see what they look like when they play together.
Then there is Frank Kaminsky, who is auditioning for next year. He has been mostly disappointing this season despite a recent uptick in play. The rest of the season will decide if he is a Hornet next year. After this season he has one year left on his deal, and if he struggles down the stretch, the Hornets may look to trade him in the offseason. He will have some value as a cheap young player with an expiring contract. To me, Kaminsky projects as a back up five who can average 12 points and five rebounds and not defend anyone. I would look to move on, but Kaminsky will have the opportunity to prove people like me wrong, and to his credit, he has been better as of late.
Batum and Dwight are the most likely to me to get shut down. Last year, Charlotte didn’t shut down Kemba until the last two games. Expect the same this year, but maybe a few games earlier. The Kemba decision will be Charlotte’s most significant decision of the offseason and its best to keep him happy as possible. If he wants to play, play him, if not rest him. Then there is Marvin, no need to worry about Marvin. Marvin will be a leader and a professional no matter what. His minutes will go down, but he may play some with the young guys to help stabilize things on the court. MKG minutes will go down to make room for Graham and Bacon, but my guess is he will still play until the very end.
The bottom line is Charlotte will fight until they are officially eliminated from the playoffs, and only then will the development of the young guys begin. I expect five to eight games at the end of the season where the young guys get significant minutes. Until then they will be sprinkled in. At least we get 17 games of consistent Monk minutes. I for one can’t wait, Charlotte needs him to hit.