Last year was a rough one in Charlotte. Dropping from 48 wins to 36 hurts a lot. The offseason losses of Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin were a significant factor. Injuries and close losses were a more significant factor. After such a disappointing season, Charlotte made some nice moves in the offseason.
They traded nothing to get Dwight Howard. Howard is not the same player he once was, but he trusts Steve Clifford, who used to coach him in Orlando and Clifford should get the most out of him. Even at age 31, he brings Charlotte some much-needed rim protection. Charlotte was limited on money so they couldn't go free agent shopping. However, they did pick up Michael Carter-Williams on the cheap.
Carter-Williams has had a rough stretch recently, but he is the former rookie of the year and is an upgrade over Ramon Sessions at the backup point guard spot. A one year $2.7 million deal is worth it for him. Then Charlotte drafted Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon in this year's draft. Monk is a combo guard from Kentucky who can fill it up from deep. Bacon is another wing scorer.
Charlotte's bench was a disaster last season and all these moves should help shore up the bench. The rookies need to produce even more now, after starting shooting guard Nicholas Batum injured his elbow and is out 8-12 weeks (more on his loss later). These additions will help, even though relying on rookies is always risky. For Charlotte to improve, they need improvement from within. Young players like Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and even unsung hero Cody Zeller need to take another step. Jeremy Lamb is another guy to keep an eye on. Kemba Walker was spectacular last year making his first all-star team, this year especially without Batum he will need to be just as good if not better. If he can kick it into another gear than Charlotte's ceiling is high.
Injuries killed the Hornets last year, and they are off to a rough start with the Batum injury. If he only misses eight weeks, Charlotte can survive, if he misses’ 12 things could get tough. The schedule in October is soft, but there are rough parts in mid-November and December; hopefully, Batum can get back before the Hornets go out west for the first time in late December. Charlotte has the benefit of being in the east. Thank goodness. This season will come down to the rookie's development, surviving Batum's injury and improvement from Charlotte's other young players.
3 storylines to Keep an Eye On
1. Batum's injury impact
Batum is Charlotte's Swiss army knife. Players who can average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists don't grow on trees. Last season Batum averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists. He is a versatile player, who can play and guard multiple positions. Last season he was essentially Charlotte's back up point guard and figured to get a lot of time there this season. Batum is the Hornets best passer and led them in rebounding last season.
Now Batum is not perfect; he only shot 40% from the field last season and 33% from three. Sometimes he is lazy on defense and not aggressive enough on offense. The problem is he does things no one else on Charlotte can do as well as him. Like, initiate the pick and roll. His pick and roll chemistry with Cody Zeller is money. Even though his decision-making skills in pick and roll is not always excellent, you take the good with the bad. Where he excels on offense is a spot-up player, a post up player, using handoffs and as an iso scorer. Last season he didn't iso enough, it's not a big part of Charlotte's offense.
He spotted up 15% of the time, used handoffs 10% of the time, and posted up 9% of the time. These numbers only account for 34% of his offensive possessions, but it's where he was best even though the sample size is small. I did expect his off-screen and pick and roll numbers to improve with better offensive players around him. Charlotte will need Monk, Bacon and Jeremy Lamb to fill his role as a spot up player and using handoffs. Better post play will need to come from Kaminsky, Dwight, and even MKG. I have faith in Monk as a spot up shooter, but none can use handoffs like him, and none can pass like him. Kaminsky may have a more prominent role as a passer now. While Batum may not having the best scoring numbers out of the pick and roll, he is a great passer in the pick and roll. Watch this clip here
This is the chemistry between Batum and Zeller that I was talking about. Zeller goes to set the screen and then slips it. Batum is then able to throw an on-time perfect bounce pass to the side of his defender and feed Zeller for the easy dunk. Charlotte will miss this, as no one can throw passes like this consistently out of the pick and roll beside Batum on the Hornets.
Then there is Batum off the handoff, where he is deadly. Especially handoffs from behind the three-point line. Batum comes off the handoff quickly and uses his long limbs and quick release to launch from deep and draw fouls. He was seventh in the NBA in and on threes. Here's what I mean.
Batum comes racing off Kaminsky who gives him the ball as he sets a screen. Batum then immediately squares up and drills a three. A simple play, but one Batum has mastered.
There are some things on offense that Batum does, that Charlotte just can't replace. While there are some things that they can replace by committee. Defensively Batum is solid, not spectacular. He is better than rookies and Jeremy Lamb, however. Lamb will have to improve; luckily the Hornets now have Dwight to erase some mistakes. Bottom line is Jeremy Lamb and Malik Monk need to replace a lot of Batum's production. How well they step up will decide how well Charlotte survives Batum's absence. Speaking of Monk!
2. Malik Monk's Development
Charlotte took Monk with the 11th overall pick in the draft. Monk is a 6'3 combo guard who played one year at Kentucky. At Kentucky, he averaged 19.8 points per game, on an impressive 39% shooting from deep. This guy can fill it up. Monk was projected to have a significant role off the bench. Now with Batum out his role will get even more meaningful. Monk will still come off the bench as Lamb is starting at shooting guard. Here are the pros of Monk's game that should translate to the next level. He shot 39% from deep, 45% from the field and 82% from the line. Monk attempted 14.7 field goals per game. That means he's not afraid to put it up, and he also scores with excellent efficiency. Watch this!
Monk runs off a screen and catches the ball with his back to the basket behind the three-point line. Then Monk immediately turns and rises and then fires. As Mike Breen would say BANG! You have to love Monk's stroke, quick release, and confidence.
As an athlete he is underrated. He can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. You can see courage in Monk; he wants to take and make the tough and clutch shots. As a passer, he is solid, not spectacular. He averaged 2.3 assists per game last season. Monk should get some time at point guard this season.
The concerns are on defense. At 6'3 and only 205 pounds, he is undersized. Monk must get stronger to overcome his lack of height. Most rookies struggle on defense, but Monk must compete and not be a liability. To earn minutes for Steve Clifford, you have to defend. Offensively his game looks good; defense will decide how many minutes he gets. Good news Hornets fans Monk is looking good in the preseason. Watch this:
Monk gets the ball takes on dribble steps back and drills the long jumper over Marcus Smart. Get ready for a lot more of this Hornets fans. The kid can flat-out shoot.
3. Getting the Most Out of Dwight
Dwight Howard has had a rough couple of years. Between injuries, chemistry issues and not getting along with teammates and coaches. Now he is on his third team in three years. In his prime, Dwight was the best center in the league. Things are different now. He is not the same athlete. However, that doesn't mean Dwight can't be reliable for the Hornets. Clifford can get the most out of him and put him in a position to succeed.
Last season with Atlanta averaged 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. Charlotte is only expecting the same along with great defense. Dwight needs to be happy with that. The key is Charlotte's offense fits Dwight well. Charlotte is a pick and roll team, and Dwight can still finish out of the pick and roll. According to Synergy Sports, Dwight had a score percentage of 63% out of the pick and roll, one of the best marks in the league. That number is so high because he can finish like this.
Dwight goes to set a side pick and roll for Dennis Schroeder and then slips the screen and rolls to the rim. Schroder throws him the lob, and Dwight does the rest. Howard gives the Hornets an above the rim threat and should fit perfectly with Kemba Walker and Batum when he gets back.
Charlotte as a team doesn't crash the board on offense; they prefer to get back to stop easy transition points. They should let Dwight hit the boards this year because he is a beast at it. His score percentage was 64.8% on putbacks a near elite mark. Here's what I mean.
Paul Millsap misses the shot, and Dwight fights off three Magic defenders for the ball. Then he rises and finishes with a nice left-handed layup in traffic. These are the moments where Dwight merely is stronger than everybody and wants it more. Clifford needs to let Dwight go after some misses this year.
Defensively Dwight is no longer elite, but still very good. He has lost some quickness so he struggles to defend in space and some shooting bigs can give him problems. Good news is Clifford has the answers! In Clifford's conservative scheme Dwight will hang back towards the rim where he's best. Dwight is still a dominant defensive rebounder and an above average rim protector. While not the shot blocker he once was, he still alters a lot of shots. Last season he averaged a career-low 1.2 blocks per game. That would have been the best mark on the Hornets last year. Charlotte and Dwight need a few more of these kinds of blocks this season.
This is Dwight at his best. Rising and then challenging a dunk attempt and swatting it away ferociously, while also making K.J McDaniel’s fall.
Howard is still capable of these kinds of plays. Now he is in a situation where he is happy and motivated. More importantly, he has a coach who he trusts and who will get the most out of him. I expect 14 points, 12 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game for Howard. If Charlotte can get that, then the trade was a winner. People hoping for Orlando Dwight need to realize he is gone. However, he is still a terrific player who can help the Hornets win. The Batum injury will hurt Howard a bit. Batum would have given him some easy looks, but I still expect Dwight to perform at a high level.
Player Primed for Breakout: Jeremy Lamb
Like Monk, Lamb was posed for a significant role off the bench this season. Now he is the starting shooting guard with Batum being injured. Lamb has had an up and down first five seasons in the NBA, now he is expected to put it all together. The good news is Lamb had his best season last year, and I think he will be even better this year. Lamb averaged a career-high 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds on a career-best 46% shooting from the field.
It was good to see Lamb being more aggressive last season as he attempted career-high 9.7 field goals per game, along with 2.1 free throws per game, in which he shot 85%. Dig deeper and you see that Lamb had a career-high PER at 17.09 and a career-best true shooting percentage of 55%. His turnover ratio was also a career low 6%. Efficiency has finally come to Lamb's game. The downside was that he only shot 28% from deep last season that must improve this season.
In good news, he rated in the 82% percentile as a pick and roll ball handler according to Synergy Sports. His attempts will inevitably go up this year in that area. Lamb was also in the 85th percentile using handoffs, so expect him to replace Batum in handoff action. There is a lot to like about Lamb as a scorer. He was in the 91st percentile as a cutter, 98th on putbacks and 87th in iso situations. Off screens, he was a solid 68%.
No real week marks beside the long ball, he could improve a little more in transition and as a spot up player. Lamb gets his three-point percentage up to at least 32-33% along with a larger role he is capable of averaging 15 points per game. What I like most about Lamb is his slippery drives and finishes at different angles around the basket. Watch this clip here.
Here in semi-transition Lamb goes away from the screen drives right and crosses to his left. Then gets deep into the paint and rises over Robin Lopez. He attacks the body of Lope to avoid the shot block and goes back to his right hand to release over Lopez and kiss the ball high off the glass for the layup. Plus Lamb should have been fouled on this play. This guy can score people.
While Lamb can score he is an average defender at best and he is not a good passer. Lamb only averaged 1.2 assists per game last season and his assist ratio was only 11.2%. Both low marks. On defense, he rated as worse than average across the board. He gets sucked into the first action to easily and loses sight of his man too often. Being inattentive and lazy is a bad combination and that's Lamb a lot of the times. He is a great athlete, so he should be better. Hopefully this year as a starter he commits to defense more. He has too for Charlotte to stay afloat while Batum is out. Even if his defense is just average, I expect Lamb to have his best season especially now as a starter. So far in the preseason, he has looked great.
How Will the Season Play Out?
Batum's injury hurts and will impact the Hornets win total. If he misses only two months the Hornets will make the playoffs as the seventh seed. I have them behind Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto, Milwaukee, and Miami. However, if they are healthy come playoff time they are a dangerous team. Charlotte controls the glass, doesn't turn the ball over and doesn't beat themselves.
Last year they had horrible luck in close games, which should even out this season. The bench will be better and that will help Charlotte from blowing leads like it did a lot last season. Cody Zeller off the bench behind Dwight should ensure 48 minutes of good defense at the center position. Charlotte is capable of being a top ten defensive team and a top 15 offensive unit. Someone will have to step up to help Kemba at that end. Charlotte is a solid team, well coached and they played hard. With Batum I had them at 45 wins, without him I will put them at 42. He is worth three wins, if not more.
Being in the east saves Charlotte and allows them to still make the playoffs. There are a lot of questions and x-factors on that team, and that makes for an intriguing season. The rookies will take their bumps; Charlotte will struggle against the elite but beat the bad teams. Add it all up you get a 42 win, seven seed who will lose in the first round in five-six games.