2016/17 Record: 36 – 46 (11th in the Eastern Conference)
2017/18 Salaries: $118,895,026 (Over The Cap Team) – full CHA salary cap situation – here.
Incoming Draft Picks: CLE/BKN ’19 2nd (less favourable)
Outgoing Draft Picks: MEM/HOU ’18 2nd
The Charlotte Hornets were disappointing in season 2016/17, missing the playoffs after starting the season 8-3. Many valid reasons played a part in their failure to make the playoffs: Cody Zeller’s 20 game absence (the Hornets went 3-17 during this period) highlighted the list of injuries to key rotation players, including the failed experiment of Roy Hibbert after his previous injury history came roaring back from game two of the season onwards. The reality is much more simple; the Hornets were not good enough in a weak Eastern Conference.
In keeping with the theme of the Hornets’ injury woes, the club’s biggest acquisition this offseason, Dwight Howard, hasn’t played the full 82 games in a season for the last six years. The Hornets’ second biggest offseason acquisition, 11th overall pick Malik Monk missed the Orlando Summer League after injuring his ankle in training.
Franchise stereotypes aside, Charlotte has undoubtedly improved through the offseason, a statement that cannot be leveled at many teams in the Eastern Conference. On the back of the major loss of quality players in the East, the Hornets will view themselves as a legitimate chance to push into a top four position. Such success will undoubtedly require a lot of things to go right, not the least of which is staying healthy. Yet, in a diluted Conference, anything is possible. The trade for Howard and to a lesser extent, signing Michael Carter-Williams and the drafting of Monk are moves which will have the biggest say in just how possible that is.
Malik Monk fell into the Hornets’ lap at 11 in the 2017 NBA draft. There has been a spark missing from the Hornets’ roster ever since Jeremy Lin and his ridiculous hairstyles left for Brooklyn, and Monk has all the scoring tools to make a splash as a true sixth man as early as his rookie season. If there is any doubts as to what kind of scoring punch Monk can bring, reclamation can be found in watching his 47 point game against eventual NCAA Champs North Carolina.
Michael Carter-Williams is another welcome addition for the Hornets, who have been searching for a play-making backup point guard for a few seasons. MCW would seem to be a perfect complement for Monk, an undersized pure scorer and shooter at 6’3″. MCW, at 6’6″ covers up for any deficiencies Monk’s height may bring, and furthermore his defensive capabilities will help offset Monk’s defensive liabilities. MCW and Monk, along with Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky, will look to push a traditionally average offensive team (they finished 13th in bench points in 2016/17) to the next level.
In fact ‘average’ is the choice word to describe the Charlotte Hornets of last season, finishing both 14th in offensive and defensive rating, and 15th in Net Rating per basketball-reference.com. As last season’s offensive and defensive ratings attest, to be successful, you need to be elite on one side of the floor at the very least.
Moving out of ‘average’ next season will rest largely on the shoulders of the player once dubbed Superman. In making the Howard trade, General Manager Rich Cho is betting that the evolution of the NBA big man towards more multi-skilled players hasn’t progressed far enough to make a player like Howard obselete. The risk is that if the big man evolution is too far along and Howard’s influence is blunted, the Hornets will have to fork out $47 million over the next two years for what essentially would be an immovable asset.
It was a deal worth making for the Hornets for the simple fact that it got rid of Miles Plumlee and his (seemingly immovable) albatross contract. Even if Howard doesn’t live up to the hopes and dreams of the Hornet front office, his 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game far outweigh Plumlee’s per game numbers of 2.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.3 blocks. Not only that, but Howard last season finished top 10 statistically in the below categories:
644 DRB (8th), 269 ORB (4th) 940 TRB (6th), 12.7 rpg (5th) 62.7% TS% (8th), 63.3% eFG% (4th), 15% ORB % (2nd), 31.7 DRB% (4th), 23.5 TRB% (4th), 100.4 DEFrtg (5th), 4.5 DWS (10th) and 2.8 DBPM (8th).
The hope will be that – at the very least defensively – Howard’s presence pushes them to the top echelon of NBA teams.
This is why Dwight Howard and the Hornets need each other. The Hornets are in ‘win-now mode’ after re-signing Nicolas Batum on a large deal last offseason, and with Kemba Walker entering his prime. For the Hornets, they will hope that Howard is the missing jigsaw piece. In return, the Hornets will provide one last opportunity for Howard to save his legacy.
Howard will one day likely be a Hall of Famer. Yet looking over his career to date leaves one unfulfilled. Howard once seemed on the precipice of greatness, and a ‘Dwight Howard Era’ was very possible in 2009 after he led the Orlando Magic passed LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. That series seemed like a symbolic passing of the torch of the East’s Championship hopes from James to Howard, despite the Magic ultimately falling prey to the Lakers in the Finals. Nevertheless, it seemed that it was only a matter of time before Howard would raise the Larry O’Brien trophy as the best player on a championship winning team. The reality was that the Magic and Howard would get washed up in the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat resurgence.
The Dwight Howard-era could have had a second coming when he forced a trade to the Lakers to team up with Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. Yet clashes with Bryant led to continual dysfunction and disappointment, ending in another destination left unfulfilled by the Dwight Howard experience. Howard then used free agency to join James Harden in Houston. Again, dysfunction reigned and after a brief stop at home town Atlanta (… which didn’t work out), a feeling of ‘what could have been’ arises when it comes to Howard’s career. At 32 years of age, multiple injuries which have pegged back his once dominant physical advantages and an offensive skill set that heavily relies on others, there are few teams left that would have any need for Howard; especially at over $23 million a year.
The Hornets-Howard marriage could work. It will depend on whether Howard can can accept that Kemba Walker is offensive option number one and that Batum, Lamb and potentially even Monk will all have their turns as a go-to option. If he can do that and not become the offensive demanding Howard that plagued the Lakers, Rockets and Hawks and instead focus on defense, we could again be applauding the heroics of Superman.
If it does work (and the Hornets stay relatively healthy), Charlotte could find themselves in the top four in the East. Such a high finish won’t re-make Howard’s legacy, but it could just help start the re-defining process.
Projected Starting Five:
Project Depth Chart:
Overall Offseason Grade: B+
2017/ 18 Prediction: 46-36
There are a few teams that have a legitimate chance to finish with home court playoff advantage in the East next season, one of which are the Hornets. A lot will depend on the impact of offseason signings, particularly Dwight Howard and Malik Monk. The Hornets will also look for a jump in productivity from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. With three teams from the top eight losing their star power (Atlanta, Chicago and Indiana), the Hornets will make the playoffs, and have a chance to make it past the first round.
Player to Watch: Michael Carter-Williams
Michael Carter-Williams can be labelled a journeyman of the NBA, joining his fourth team in five years. Such a label doesn’t seem right for someone so early in their NBA career, especially when one remembers he is a Rookie of the Year award winner, but it is no less correct. The Hornets have been looking for a play-making Point Guard since Jeremy Lin’s departure, and MCW has the billings to end the search. The biggest knock on MCW is his shooting (he cannot shoot, at all), but at 6’6 he could play alongside smaller scoring guards like Walker and Monk. The Hornets bench was the seventh worst defense in the league last season, and will hope that MCW can provide at least some resistance entering 17/18.
Four Key Questions:
1. Can Michael Kidd-Gilchrist improve and live up to the billing of a second overall pick?
There are certain expectations that come with being a top five overall pick. To date, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has not lived up to them. In four NBA seasons (not counting the 7 games in the 2015/16 season, missed through injury), MKG has averaged less than 10 points a game, largely due to a jump shot that wasn’t just broke, it was shattered. Yet MKG has found dominance on the defensive end, averaging 3.1 win shares in 2016/17. For the Hornets to take a big leap and compete with the big boys, they’ll need MKG to show the billing of a number two overall draft pick.
2. Can Dwight Howard and Cody Zeller co-exist?
A big reason the Hornets’ 2016/17 season failed to impress was due to the 3-17 record posted when the player dubbed ‘The Big Handsome’ went down with injury, which is massive considering the Hornets won 36 games last season. With Dwight Howard the likely starting Center, the question will be how much can Coach Clifford play both Cody Zeller and Howard together, noting the poor floor spacing it’ll bring; Zeller takes over 70% of his field goal attempts from 10 feet away or less.
3. Can Malik Monk be a legitimate ROY contender as a 6th man?
Malik Monk was the best offensive talent in the 2017 draft. His lack of size for a Shooting Guard no doubt played the largest hand in his fall. It’s that lack of size that has inhibited similar undersized scoring guards like Monta Ellis, Ben Gordon and Lou Williams. Yet, there is a proven niche for such players as a spark off the bench. Monk has that opportunity for the Hornets from as early as his Rookie year. The Hornets were 14th in the league for Offensive Rating and any significant improvement will come with the help of Monk. If he can provide that spark – and he certainly has the skills that the Hornets need, he surely would put his name forward in what seems like a deep Rookie of the Year pool.
4. Can Kemba Walker reach the next level?
The Hornets can’t ask for more from Kemba Walker. He has steadily improved throughout his NBA career culminating in his first All Star Game last season. Walker has provided hope for an organisation that since its re-introduction, has had scarcely little of such a precious commodity. Similar to what TFPP’s thoughts were on John Wall last season, Kemba needs to take that next step to join the pantheon of dominant contemporary Point Guards. The addition of Dwight Howard may just help that, but it’s equally possible he could hinder it. Either way, the Hornets will again put an inordinate amount of faith in the Charlotte Ranger.