One and Done for the Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets were one of the NBA’s biggest surprises last season.  After years of mediocrity, they finally put together a stellar campaign, finishing 48-34.  This earned them the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and they acquitted themselves quite well in the playoffs taking the third seeded Heat all the way to seven games.

Will the Hornets use this as a springboard to catapult them as a threat in next year’s Eastern Conference?   Or will they regress and miss the playoffs?

First, free agency hasn’t been too kind to the Hornets as they lost their starting shooting guard Courtney Lee, and key bench cogs Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson.  Lee’s loss puts the starting two guard spot in a state of flux.  Further, Lin’s subtraction leaves a tremendous scoring void from the bench.

So it begs the questions, who will step up and start at the two spot and where will bench production come for the Hornets this season?

Secondarily, and perhaps more importantly, can the other player’s in Charlotte’s starting lineup, namely Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller be relied on consistently?

Last, is it possible that the Hornets become the odd team out after many teams in the East significantly upgraded their rosters through free agency?

The loss of proven shooting guard Courtney Lee and the depletion of the bench will hurt the Hornets significantly next year.  When the Hornets acquired Lee from the Grizzlies at the trading deadline, he was an instant spark, supplying quality defense and timely scoring, particularly from three. Once it seemed clear the Hornets weren’t going to bring him back next season, they pulled a draft day trade acquiring Marco Belinelli from the Kings for Malachi Richardson.

RealGM.com currently pegs Bellinelli as the Hornets starting shooting guard for next season.  Belinelli is a nice player, but he’s coming off his worse shooting season to date.

Known as a three point marksman, Belinelli shot a measly 38.6% from the field, and an even more underwhelming 30.6% from three.  538’s prediction tool expects Belinelli to play better this year, with his WAR “improving” from -2.0 to -0.3. Nonetheless, the system still labels him a scrub with a market value of -1.7 million dollars.  If the Hornets are going to build on last year, they need to have a better starting two guard than Marco Belinelli.  Otherwise, he’ll be the real weak link in the starting lineup and will be exploited over and over again.

Furthermore, the loss of veterans Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson off the bench is a crucial blow to the Hornets.

Losing Lin, in particular, really stings.  Lin was the catalyst for a Hornets bench that ranked 10th in the league in bench points at 37.1 PPG, with Lin contributing 11.7 PPG.  The loss of Jefferson will be a bit easier for the Hornets to absorb because after he returned from injury, he lost his starting job, and was largely a non-factor.  Nevertheless, Jefferson’s loss diminishes the Hornets toughness and size in the frontcourt, something that can’t get overlooked.

To replace Lin and Jefferson, the Hornets signed Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert.  Sessions is certainly capable of anchoring a bench with his scoring, but he has been far too erratic to be counted on regularly.  With Hibbert, the Hornets are rolling the dice, hoping that a union with fellow Georgetown alumnus and current Hornets assistant coach Patrick Ewing will help Hibbert rediscover his abilities from his time with the Pacers.  But Hibbert’s intangibles will really make the Hornets miss Jefferson.

Hibbert is softer than a plush teddy bear, and often plays like he’s four feet tall.  On the bright side, however, the Hornets do get Michael Kidd-Gilcrest back from injury.  But will he be able to stay healthy for a full season? That remains to be seen.  There are just far too much uncertainty surrounding the Hornets bench, which hinders them from taking the next step and really becoming a challenger in the East.

Besides Kemba Walker and Nic Batum, the Hornets other returning starters, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller have question marks.  Let’s start with Williams.

The former second overall pick by the Hawks in 2005, finally found himself a home in Charlotte last year.  Williams averaged his most points since the 2008-2009 season and shot a career best 40.2% from three.  Williams parlayed his terrific campaign into a four year $54.5 million dollar contract with the Hornets.  Can Williams use last season to jumpstart his maddeningly disappointing career?  Or was his season a statistical outlier? 538’s player projections predict Williams will regress next season.  After posting a 6.1 WAR last season, 538 expects Williams’ WAR to come down to a mere 3.8. Moreover, can the Hornets really expect Williams to be healthy? After all, he has only played in more than 80 games twice in his career.

For a team with limited frontcourt depth, Williams will be counted on heavily, which is not ideal if the Hornets want to be playing deep into the Spring.

Let’s look at Zeller.   Zeller, the fourth overall pick by the Hornets in 2013, has not yet lived up to his potential.  Zeller did post his finest season yet, averaging career highs in PPG (8.7), RPG (6.2), and FG% (52.9%).  Needless to say, all of these numbers are abysmal for a starting center in the NBA.  Granted, Zeller has never averaged more than 25 MPG in a season, but still, 8.7 PPG and 6.2 RPG will not get it done in a conference that features some of the best centers in the game.  For a team already lacking frontcourt depth, the Hornets will need to count on Zeller next year to raise his level of play—far from a guarantee.

Even if the all the Hornets’ question marks answer the bell this season, it is quite possible that they miss the playoffs because teams in the East are just superior. Through the draft and free agency, the East has gotten much better.  The Knicks have improved, adding Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and snatching Courtney Lee from the Hornets.  The Magic have improved with Frank Vogel as head coach, and Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka to anchor the frontcourt. These conference dwellers a season ago should be competitive this year, and could possibly supplant the Hornets in the postseason.

The top of the East is talented so wins might be harder to come by for middle-of-the-pack teams like the Hornets.  Cleveland is a juggernaut in the East; the Raptors have finally exorcised their playoff demons; the Celtics have added Al Horford; and the Pacers have completely upgraded their roster adding Jeff Teague to run the point and Al Jefferson to anchor the frontcourt.  Meanwhile, the Hornets moves this offseason pale in comparison to those of their superior conference foes, something they might rue come playoff time.

With too much uncertainty surrounding the Hornets, it seems inevitable that they will take a step back and miss the postseason this year.  The Hornets lack consistent proven players on their roster, and this coupled with a stronger Eastern Conference, could leave them on the outside looking in.

 

photo via llananba