The Charlotte Hornets are treading water just outside of the playoff picture, in large part because they can't score. They don't have much to lose by making a lineup change — why not try Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at power forward?
Since coming into the league in 2012, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has emerged as one of the most frustrating players on the Hornets.
Kidd-Gilchrist is an elite defender, one of the anchors on a squad that consistently finishes in the top-10 in defensive rating. But there’s some evidence that he’s not vital to the team’s defense: even though the team has been much worse on that end with him off the floor, they were still a top-10 unit defensively last season despite MKG playing in only seven games. Besides, as good as he is on defense, he still struggles on the other end of the floor.
After looking good in a tiny sample last year, his jump shot has completely abandoned him. Opposing teams just don’t guard him, letting his man sag deep in the paint and make life difficult for Kemba Walker and the rest of the Charlotte offense. For a team that’s already low on scorers, that’s especially deadly. Thanks mostly to Walker’s brilliance, they’ve been able to eke out enough points to rank 15th in offensive rating and stay competitive in most of their games.
That combination of good-but-maybe-not-necessary defense and a bad offense has raised the question of whether Kidd-Gilchrist is really all that great. Through this season’s struggles, he’s become underrated. There are definite problems with him in the lineup as currently constructed, but the benefits outweigh the costs.
There’s a lineup change Steve Clifford could make that might help MKG be even more valuable. Sliding Kidd-Gilchrist up a position to power forward could go a long way toward opening the floor and letting the offense breathe. With the team not competing at as high a level as planned, there’s not much to lose by experimenting – especially with the potential upside of the move. It’s time for MKG to play power forward.
That move would push Marvin Williams to the bench, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Williams has crashed down to Earth after a career season last year, no longer the 40% shooter that creates space on the floor for his teammates. He’s still a much better shooter than Kidd-Gilchrist, but taking on a bench role would allow an even better shooter and scorer to join the starting unit, bolstering the offense.
Ideally, the Hornets would dip into the lottery and snag a top-10 pick, allowing them to pick up one of the perimeter studs in this year’s draft to pair with Walker and Nicolas Batum. It would take some pressure off Walker to set up every one of the team’s points and allow Batum settle into what is probably a more natural role as the third banana on a good team. The Frenchman could still handle the ball at times and set up his teammates, but he wouldn’t be forced to attempt to create offense the same way he is this season.
With three good perimeter players spreading the floor, MKG’s offense could improve. He won’t magically get a jump shot overnight, but it would open up space for him to cut to the basket and occasionally post up if he has a favorable matchup. This season, the former Kentucky Wildcat has been surprisingly effective in a limited sample in the post: according to Synergy Sports, he’s scored 1.07 points per possession when posting up, near the top of the league. Again, that’s on a small number of possessions, but it’s an encouraging sign. What isn’t encouraging on the offensive end is the regression of his cutting game. He shot 64.6 percent when cutting off the ball when he was last healthy two seasons ago, but that’s down to 54.8 percent this year.
Outside of transition, cutting was his main contribution to the offense – he’s still great at running the floor, but his half-court offense is worse than ever. With three perimeter shooters creating more room on the floor, alleys to the basket could start to open for MKG.
Whatever his offensive game becomes, it won’t be the reason Charlotte is paying him $13 million per year. Kidd-Gilchrist makes his living on the defensive end, locking down opposing stars and spearheading a team that can make their opponents’ lives miserable. Perhaps the biggest concern with shifting the young player to power forward would be losing that defensive presence against the perimeter stars of the league. Of course, he can still match up with the likes of LeBron James or Jimmy Butler, moving out to the perimeter on the defensive end. Batum probably has the height and length to defend well enough against the perimeter-oriented power forwards of today’s NBA, meaning the two players could easily shift responsibilities on the defensive end.
Teams often try to avoid cross-matching like that, often preferring to keep things as simple as possible on the defensive end. Despite that, Clifford, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Batum are all smart enough to figure it out and work out the kinks.
MKG moving to power forward to make room for another perimeter player to join the lineup – ideally a talented rookie like Malik Monk or Jayson Tatum – would open up the offense without bringing down the defense. Kidd-Gilchrist rebounds at a high enough level to play the four. The move makes a lot of sense, and it’s not like the Hornets are on track to win a championship with the way they’re doing things now. There would be an adjustment period, but MKG is still just 23 years old, young enough to learn a new position.
It’s time to make a change. Play Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at power forward.