The Charlotte Hornets have a new coach and a disjointed collection of young talent and veterans that, at least on paper, doesn’t appear to have much a fit.
On the positive side, the Charlotte Hornets enter the 2018-19 season with Kemba Walker, their two-time All-Star, still in the fold to run the offense and get the buckets.
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So they’re only about seven players short of having one heck of a rotation.
That’s not entirely true. The projected starters in Charlotte have been together for awhile now and have been competitive. They just haven’t been competitive enough to do more than occasionally make the playoffs and lose in the first round or end up at the bottom of the lottery.
There is a new administration in Charlotte, with general manager Mitch Kupchak entering his first full season after taking the job last April and a first-time head coach in James Borrego, a 40-year-old who has 10 years in two stints as an assistant under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs.
Borrego got a taste of the top job in 2015, when he finished the final 30 games as interim coach for the Orlando Magic after serving as Jacque Vaughn‘s top assistant in Orlando prior to that. He went 10-20 and went back to San Antonio.
Kupchak is an NBA lifer who at age 64 gets a chance to clean up some of the mess he made of his legacy over his final years as GM of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kupchak built championship teams in L.A., but also presided over the worst stretch in the history of the franchise after a couple of his moves went galatically sideways.
There was the Steve Nash sign-and-trade in 2012 that was followed by Nash seldom being healthy enough to play and eventually cost the team a first-round pick. And there was the Dwight Howard experience, when Kupchak traded much of the farm for the former Orlando Magic star and watched him walk after one year.
Fired just before the trade deadline in February 2017, Kupchak’s final bold moves were to throw $64 million apiece at Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in the summer of 2016 after none of the good free agents bothered to even take a meeting with the floundering Lakers.
Since coming to Charlotte, Kupchak has fired coach Steve Clifford after a 36-46 season a year ago, brought in Borrego and maneuvered his way to getting rookies Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham at the NBA Draft.
He also briefly reunited with Mozgov, acquiring the big man from the Brooklyn Nets while jettisoning Howard from the Hornets’ roster. But Charlotte was able to move Mozgov the next day to Orlando, getting Bismack Biyombo back in a swap of big men on bad contracts.
Oh, and he signed 76-year-old point guard Tony Parker (OK, only 36, two a two-year deal.
Four of last year’s starters return. Besides Walker, there is Nicolas Batum — another guy whose contract hasn’t quite matched his production in Charlotte, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the former No. 2 overall pick who does not score, rebound or facilitate and might be the one-man argument for offensive and defensive platooning in basketball.
The Hornets also have last year’s first-round pick, Malik Monk, who struggled to find playing time under Clifford.
It’s hard to see Charlotte getting better than last year’s 36-win total with this roster. It’s not hard to envision things getting much worse, however, as Walker will hit free agency next summer.
36-46, 10th in Eastern Conference
108.2 PPG (10th), 108.0 OPPG (19th)
109.4 Offensive Rating (13th), 109.1 Defensive Rating (16th)
Team Leaders (minimum 42 games/82 made 3-pointers)
Scoring: Kemba Walker 22.1 PPG
Rebounding: Dwight Howard 12.5 RPG
Assists: Kemba Walker 5.6 APG
Steals: Kemba Walker 1.1 SPG
Blocks: Dwight Howard 1.6 BPG
3-point shooting: Marvin Williams 41.3 pct.
Kemba Walker (All-Star Game)
Dwayne Bacon, G
Jaylen Barford, G
Nicolas Batum, F-G
Bismack Biyombo, C-F
Miles Bridges, G-F
Joe Chealey, G
Devonte’ Graham, G
Willy Hernangomez, C
Frank Kaminsky, F-C
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, F
Jeremy Lamb, G-F
J.P. Macura, G (two-way)
Malik Monk, G
Tony Parker, G
Zach Smith, F
Kemba Walker, G
Isaiah Wilkins, F
Marvin Webster, F
Cody Zeller, C-F
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (draft), Arnoldas Kulboka (draft, not signed), Miles Bridges (draft-night trade, L.A. Clippers), J.P. Macura (undrafted free agent, two-way, July 2), Timofey Mozgov and Hamidou Diallo (trade, Brooklyn, July 6), Bismack Biyombo (trade, Orlando/Chicago, July 7), Tony Parker (free agent, San Antonio, July 22), Isaiah Wilkins (undrafted free agent, July 25), Zach Smith (undrafted free agent, July 25), Jaylen Barford (undrafted free agent, July 25), Joe Chealey (undrafted free agent, July 26).
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (draft-night trade, L.A. Clippers), Marcus Paige (free agent), Michael Carter-Williams (free agent, Houston, July 6), Dwight Howard (trade, Brooklyn, July 6), Timofey Mozgov (trade, Orlando/Chicago, July 7), Julyan Stone (trade, Chicago/Orlando, July 7), Treveon Graham (free agent, Brooklyn, July 30), Mangok Mathiang (two-way contract ended, Aug. 15).
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Against the Brooklyn Nets
Last season (home team in CAPS)
Feb. 22: HORNETS 111, Nets 96
March 8: Nets 125, HORNETS 111
March 21: Hornets 111, NETS 105
Dec. 26: at Brooklyn
Dec. 28: at Charlotte
Feb. 23: at Charlotte
March 1: at Brooklyn
Projected Depth Chart
C: Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez
PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon
SG: Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk
PG: Kemba Walker, Tony Parker, Devonte’ Graham
The Hornets actually underperformed last season, when their numbers translated to 42 victories while the actual scoreboard tallied just 36.
That 36-win total was the same as it was in 2016-17, a stretch during which the Hornets have been absolutely off-the-charts awful in close games — just 1-14 in games decided by three points or less the last two seasons.
Part of that could be that defenses can quintuple-cover Walker and not worry about anyone else making a big shot.
And therein lies the problem in Charlotte: Walker is good enough to keep the Hornets in games and the core is familiar enough with one another to remain competitive, but they continue to remain stuck in the dreaded middle — not bad enough to move up into the upper echelon of the draft and not good enough to do more than compete to lose in the first round.
Maybe the addition of Borrego can teach this group some new tricks, but until they can develop or add a second legitimate scoring option to take at least some of the weight off Walker’s shoulders, the Hornets appear doomed to remain in NBA no-man’s land.
Projected record: 37-45