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What went wrong for the 2017-18 Charlotte Hornets

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From injuries to not winning close games, a break down of a tough season for the Charlotte Hornets.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Believe it or not, the Charlotte Hornets made history this season. They became the first team to finish consecutive seasons with a losing record and a positive point differential. How is that possible? Last year I figured it happened due to bad luck in close games and a few untimely injuries. But it would be an aberration; there was no way it would happen again this year, right?

Kevin Pelton of ESPN and his RPM projections projected the Hornets for 44 wins. Most people including me thought they would be a six or seven seed in a weak Eastern Conference. Instead, it was deja vu, as the Hornets finished 36-46 again despite having a positive point differential.

This time it had consequences. General Manager Rich Cho was fired and replaced by Mitch Kupchak, who immediately fired head coach Steve Clifford. Staff members from the analytics department and training staff were also let go, and you can expect a significant roster overturn in the summer. Before we look to the future, however, we should look what went wrong with the 2017-2018 Charlotte Hornets

Injuries

No one likes the injury as an excuse card, and injuries were surely not the only reason Charlotte under performed. Still, they were a factor. In fact, they were a small part. Only nine other teams were healthier than Charlotte this season according to mangameslost.com. Twenty other teams had it worse than the Hornets. Charlotte’s players lost 159 total games to injuries. However, dig closer, and you see the injuries were more impactful for the Hornets than for other teams. Charlotte was 13th in win shares lost due to injuries. They were 11th in lost VORP (value of a replacement player).

Charlotte was relatively healthy, but an injury on a team like Charlotte costs more because of the lack of depth. So what injuries were the most impactful?

Nicolas Batum: Missed 18 Games

  • Record without Batum: 8-10
  • Record with Batum: 28-36
  • Points per game with Batum: 108.9
  • Points per game without Batum: 105.7
  • Points per game allowed with Batum: 110.9
  • Points per game allowed without Batum: 102.8
  • Net Rating with Batum: -2
  • Net Rating without Batum: +2.9

The Batum injury impact is tricky. Because even though Batum played 64 games, his elbow was bothering him for at least 25 of them. Still, the Hornets were better without Batum this season. He still had value to the offense due to his passing, but Charlotte relied heavily on it due to their lack of playmakers. Even though he didn’t shoot well for the second straight season, his ball movement helped create good looks for others.

His defense was the more significant problem. Charlotte was way better on defense without Batum. Batum was eight on the team in defensive rating and 67th amongst all shooting guards in defensive RPM. Last year he was 28th, so perhaps the injury affected him more on that end, or perhaps he is just getting old. Either way, it’s a concerning trend for a player we are likely stuck with. His playmaking is not enough to make up for his poor shooting and horrible defense. The Hornets would have had a better record if Jeremy Lamb had started the whole year.

Michael Carter-Williams: Missed 30 Games

  • Record with MCW: 23-29
  • Record without MCW: 13-17
  • Points per game with MCW: 106.6
  • Points per game without MCW: 110.9
  • Points allowed per game with MCW: 106.8
  • Points allowed per game without MCW: 109.9
  • Net Rating with MCW: -0.2
  • Net Rating without MCW: +1

MCW was not the Hornets fan favorite player this season. MCW did play great defense though, and the Hornets were better on that end with him on the floor, but it was not enough to make up for his horrific offense. It’s close, but the Hornets were slightly better without MCW this season, so his injury honestly didn’t have much of an impact.

Michael Kidd Gilchrist: Missed Eight Games

  • Record without MKG: 2-6
  • Record with MKG: 34-40
  • Points per game with MKG: 111.5
  • Points per game without MKG: 102.3
  • Points allowed per game with MKG: 107.8
  • Points allowed per game without MKG: 109.3
  • Net Rating with MKG: +3.7
  • Net Rating without MKG: -7

MKG only missed eight games, but his absence was felt in those games. Charlotte was better on both ends with MKG. MKG draws a lot of frustration from Charlotte fans, and we will talk more about that later, but he is valuable to the Hornets. He is by far their best perimeter defender, even though he never became the great stopper we all hoped, he is still very good and can guard positions 1 through 4. On offense, he brings energy and gives Charlotte some easy points they desperately need like offensive rebounds and transitions points. He has not developed as we hoped, but there is no question the Hornets are better with him than without.

Cody Zeller: Missed 49 games

  • Record with Zeller: 14-19
  • Record without Zeller: 22-27
  • Points per game with Zeller: 107.3
  • Points per game without Zeller: 108.7
  • Points per game allowed with Zeller: 103
  • Points per game allowed without Zeller: 107.1
  • Net Rating with Zeller: +4.3
  • Net Rating without Zeller: +1.6

Cody Zeller was worth an extra 2.7 points per game. His injury didn’t cause as big as of impact as last year thanks to Dwight Howard, and Zeller wasn’t as good this year even when healthy, but you can see Charlotte still missed him when he was out. They missed him more on defense because Johnny O’Bryant III, Frank Kaminsky, and Willy Hernagomez all had lower defensive ratings than Zeller.

Ultimately, the Zeller and MKG injuries were the only ones that mattered. Zeller’s injury meant more playing time for poor defensive bigs and MKG’s injury came at a time that Batum was also hurt and the Hornets were thin on the wing. Both were missed on both ends, but especially defense. Zeller’s injury once again was a significant factor in Charlotte underachieving, but it was a just a part of it, and his absence didn’t do as much damage as it did last season.

Close Games

Charlotte could not win a close game to save its life last season. Fans and experts alike chalked it up to bad luck and a fluky season. In the 2016-2017 season, the Hornets were 8-13 in games decided by five points or less. This season they were even worse, going 6-13. The Hornets cost themselves about four games this year with their inability to finish close games. If things had evened out this year would have been different.

It is tough to pinpoint why Charlotte is so bad in close games. However, digging deeper reveals the Hornets played in 41 close games defined by NBA.com and went 16-25, which was 24th in the league. Only one playoff team was below them, and the rest were awful lottery teams.

The more significant problem was the offense in clutch time. The Hornets ranked 26th in offensive rating in clutch minutes. Teams took away Walker in those minutes and dared other Hornets to beat them. Charlotte’s lack of ball movement was magnified in clutch situations as they finished 26th in assist ratio. The Hornets did not have enough willing or capable playmakers to get a good shot when it mattered most.

Charlotte was also 26th in offensive rebound percentage in clutch time, meaning the Hornets usually only got one look and that was it. That one look was often a bad one. Some of that you can blame on Steve Clifford not drawing up better plays and some is that was Charlotte just a lousy shot-making team and when the defense was locked in, they were an awful one. The Hornets were 27th in clutch true shooting percentage and 29th in clutch effective field goal percentage. This is more than bad luck; it’s a combination of poor design and even worse execution.

That is why it is hard to blame Kemba. He was by far Charlotte’s best clutch player averaging 3.4 points in clutch time. The next highest was Dwight Howard with 1.6 (he made some big free throws this year, believe it or not). Walker also led the Hornets in clutch time assists with 0.5 assists in clutch situations. Kemba did only shoot 37 percent in clutch time and 81 percent from the line, but it’s hard when no one else is doing anything. There were times where Kemba could have taken a better shot or made an extra pass, and he did lead the Hornets in clutch time turnovers, but he was just a part of the problem.

On the positive side, Charlotte was third in clutch defense, which speaks to how bad there clutch offense was to lose that many close games. Five Hornet players posted positive plus/minus’ in clutch time. Dwayne Bacon, Jeremy Lamb, Treveon Graham, Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker. They are all at least solid defenders, willing passers in clutch situations and beside Dwight low turnover players. Hopefully, next season Graham, Lamb, and Bacon are on the team and get to play some minutes that matter; they are capable.

Who got worse/got better from last year?

Here are the players who were on the roster both this and last year and if they got better or worse:

  • Kemba: Better

Career high in true shooting percentage and free throw percentage. Also a career-best in offensive and defensive RPM, plus a career best in wins added. This guy, obviously, remains a stud.

  • Batum: Worse

As I pointed out earlier, his defense fell off a cliff. On offense, his points, rebounds, and assists were all down, and he got to the free throw line way less this season hurting his already poor efficiency.

  • MKG: Worse

(See below).

  • Marvin: Better

A solid year from Marvin. Improved field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and true shooting percentage and assist ratio. Far better defensive season as well — his defensive RPM jumped from -0.7 to 1.03.

  • Zeller: Worse

Mainly due to injury, wasn’t healthy in a lot of games he even played in. Points, rebounds, assist, blocks and steals were all down partly due to coming off the bench behind Dwight, and partly he just had a bit of a down year even when he played.

  • Graham: Better

Simply got more minutes and improved his 3-point shooting.

  • Lamb: Better

Career Year! Lamb had a career best in points, assists, 3-point percentage, true shooting percentage and defensive RPM.

  • Frank: Worse

(See below).

Frank/MKG’s development

Charlotte got improvement from Lamb and Graham, but they needed it more from MKG and Frank. Batum and Zeller’s decline you can least partially attribute to injury; however, you cannot do that with MKG and Frank, and that is what is so disappointing.

Let’s start with Kaminsky. There were some areas where he improved. Frank posted career highs in PER, TO ratio and TS percentage. His field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and free throw percentage were all career highs, so how was he an overall worse player?

For one, his passing declined. This has been a strength of Frank’s, and he didn’t use it as much this season. His assist ratio was a career low, and perhaps since he was making a few more shots, he decided to pass less. Charlotte was desperate for ball movement and could have used some more passing from Kaminsky.

Then there is rebounding. Kaminsky has always bad in this department, but this season he was horrendous. For the season he averaged career-low 3.6 rebounds per game, his rebound ratio was a career low, and his rebound percentage was eighth on the team. A lot of time I feel like Kaminsky has the mindset of “Dwight or someone else will get it, and I won’t even try.” He is a bad rebounder on both ends, and why he is more of an outside player.

Finally, there is defense. Like rebounding, it has always been a weakness, and this year it was horrible. Frank finished second to last among all power forwards in defensive RPM. He was 12th on the team in defensive rating. Last year he was a little better, but I think that was because he spent more time at the five.

Kaminsky simply can’t defend most power forwards in the league. He is a bad combination of slow and not particularly strong, and he needs to win with effort and positioning. The five is more comfortable for him, and unless he makes drastic changes this offseason, I doubt he will ever be a plus defender at the four. His awful defense took away from his improvement on offense and, therefore, Frank was overall worse this season.

MKG remains valuable to the Hornets, but this was one of his worst seasons.

A strength of MKG has always been rebounding, and Dwight was bound to take a few away, but not enough to drop MKG’s rebounding ratio from 13.2 to 8.8. His assist ratio was also way down, and MKG just seemed to lose a little of the frantic energy he always brings this season. While he shot better this season and improved his midrange jumper, his free throw percentage dropped 10 percent. 10 PERCENT!

Even with his offense suffering, you can usually count on MKG for defense. That was not the case. While he was fourth on the team in defensive rating, his defensive RPM dropped from 2.47 to 0.23. Something was off about him this year — his energy just wasn’t what we are accustomed to

Perhaps he is tired of being barely used on offense. Clifford could have put him at the four more, gave him more post-ups, some elbow touches, give him an opportunity to be a passer more, but no he was reserved for cuts and transition buckets. That is not an excuse but maybe an explanation.

With his defense suffering and his offense not developing, I doubt he is a Hornet next season. It’s a shame I always believed in him, but I don’t think it will work out in Charlotte. I would not be surprised if he has a nice bounce-back season on a new team that allows him to do more.

What else went wrong?

Coaching for one. Steve Clifford. Steve Clifford missed 21 games with health concerns. When he was coaching the players seemed to tune him out for the first time in his tenure. Perhaps after five years, the same voice gets old. My ATH colleague Jonathan DeLong pointed out in a recent piece that Clifford’s offensive and defensive principles are no longer a fit in the modern NBA. I tend to agree; I liked Clifford and thought overall he did a good job in his time in Charlotte, but it was time for a change and a fresh start with a new identity on both ends.

Charlotte finished 13th on offense, and if you told me that at the start of the year I would have taken it considering the talent we had. The letdown was on defense. We finished 16th, and I thought we would be a Top 10 defensive team. Batum, MKG, and Frank all regressed mightily on defense. Dwight was solid, but he can’t make up for tons of mistakes like he could in his prime. Zeller’s injury also hurt the defense. Still, this team should have been better than 16th, their effort on that end was the weakest I have seen in years, and perhaps that is due to the players tuning Clifford out and not emphasizing his principles.

Finally, Charlotte got less from their rookies than they hoped. First-round pick Malik Monk was last on the team in net rating. An ankle injury in training camp stunted his growth, and then his defense was so bad he couldn’t play early in the season. Late in the year when he got to play again, he showed flashes that are exciting for the future, but it was too late to help this season

Bacon played early in the season, but he wasn’t ready. Late in the year he got another chance and showed great defensive promise, but then he unfortunately got hurt. I am high on him as a 3-and-D player in the future, but he wasn’t healthy/ready enough to help the Hornets win this year.

In the end, these past two years were very similar, the problems might be slightly different, but the result was the same. Significant changes are needed and expect more to come. Too much went wrong this year and when that happens, you need to stop what you’re doing and start from the ground up.