2016-17 Charlotte Hornets Season Preview: All Hail Steve Clifford

The Dunkyard’s NBA season preview hits the home stretch as it unleashes last season’s top 10 teams by record – beginning with the Charlotte Hornets.

Last season by the numbers

  • Record: 48-34 (6th East)
  • Offensive rating: 105.1 (9th)
  • Defensive rating: 101.8 (9th)
  • Pace: 97.8 (18th)
  • True shooting: 54.5 (12th)
  • Turnover rate: 11.7 (1st)
  • Offensive rebounding: 20.0 (29th)
  • Defensive rebounding: 79.8 (1st)
  • Giveashitameter: 18th
  • Highest PER*: 20.8 (Walker)

(*) – minimum 1,000 minutes.

At a glance

(Converts the above rankings into a rating out of 10).

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Recap

The Hornets showed how far a roster of unheralded players can go when they buy into a smart coach’s strategy and stay disciplined. Two things stood out in particular:

  • Firstly, the Hornets were the league’s best team at looking after the ball. Walker, Jefferson, Lamb, Kaminsky and Williams were all fantastic. All those extra shots managed to turn the league’s 12th best shooting (and worst offensive rebounding – more on that in a minute) into the league’s 9th overall ranked offense.
  • Secondly, the Hornets punted the offensive boards in favour of getting back defensively and maintaining their shape. Any notion that the Hornets were poor rebounders is completely dispelled by the fact that their defensive rebounding was the best in the league.

While the above strategies are hardly new (the Spurs and Celtics of yore have used them very effectively), Steve Clifford deserves a lot of credit for utilising them with this group of players and getting them to buy in.

The smart offensive design didn’t stop with the ball handling and ditching the offensive boards. The Hornets had a heavy focus on three point shooting – ranking 4th in attempts and makes and 8th in overall accuracy (36.2%). On the inside, they kept the midrange jumpers to a minimum and focused on getting to the line, ranking 11th in attempts and 5th in accuracy. The volume numbers here are even better when taking into account that the Hornets played at a relatively slow pace (18th).

On defense, the Hornets kept up the smart tactics. At face value, ranking 23rd in opponent three point attempts allowed doesn’t look like a good thing – particularly when also ranking 14th in percentage allowed (34.9%). However, that 34.9% on threes equates to a TS of 52.4% – well below the league average. So long as the Hornets could keep their opponents shooting like this, they were happy to encourage the threes – particularly if it meant not exposing the likes of Jefferson and Williams down low. Overall, opponents took the bait, with the Hornets ranking 4th in free throw attempts allowed.

Reasons to be optimistic

After years of criticism, Cody Zeller has actually turned into a handy pro after three seasons – posting a PER of 16.1 last season (following on from 13.1 and 14.1 in his first two seasons). In particular, Zeller has cut down his turnovers to a very respectable level (10.0%) and gone from being an awful shooter to a downright handy one (TS 59.2%, ranked 6th among power forwards) who knows his limitations. His defense was half way decent too.

Many people are low on Zeller improving any more. However, despite his notoriously short arms, The Big Handsome only just turned 24. Further refinement is definitely possible. If so, the Hornets will have a very handy and underrated role player on their hands.

A lot of people have also trashed the Hornets in recent years for not taking:

Since then, Vonleh was turned into Batum – who just signed a long term max deal to stay with Charlotte – while Frank the Tank quietly had an effective rookie season (PER 12.5).

Batum is definitely overrated when taking into account his $120m, five year deal (for a PER of 15.9 last season, with a turnover rate of 13.1% – ranked 68th out of 77 shooting guards). That said, his overall contribution extends beyond this with his above average defense on the wings and secondary facilitating. The latter is particularly handy in light of Walker being a shoot first point guard (who the Hornets desperately need to keep shooting).

If Batum can find a way to cut down his turnovers, he’ll be a borderline All-star and more or less worth the money. Money issues aside, he’s a solid utility guy and Charlotte is better off for having him.

Despite his horrible injury record, Kidd-Gilchrist is still only 23 years old and one of the best defenders in the league. If he can show up to the games this season, the Hornets will effectively have a new player on their hands who immediately improves the team significantly.

Despite losing Lin, the Hornets managed to replace him with Sessions. While Lin is arguably the better defender, the Hornets overall defense won’t miss him. Sessions on the other hand is a far superior offensive player – and significantly cheaper. This was a good move by Charlotte.

Reasons not to be

The Hornets will miss Jefferson’s low post abilities and will need to find offense elsewhere. While his shooting was awful (TS 50.7%), he was far and away the league’s best center at looking after the ball (TO 5.8%) – proving yet again that even the worst shot is better than no shot going up at all.

The Hornets are banking on organic growth, particularly in the front court. If the likes of Zeller, Lamb and Kaminsky have more or less already reached their ceilings – and Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury record continues – then regression will be on the cards with Jefferson now gone.

Strategically, there isn’t much more the Hornets can do – they’re already playing about the smartest basketball possible. Finding the next level with this group of players is going to be very difficult.

Major Ins 

Marco Bellinelli, Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert.

Major Outs 

Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin.

The Dunkyard’s recommended ‘death’ lineup

  • Walker
  • Kidd-Gilchrist
  • Batum
  • Williams
  • Zeller

Dave’s lowdown

Thankfully owner Michael Jordan has taken a backseat in recent times when it has come to basketball operations, finally allowing his staff to make more of the decisions. This has led to some shrewd moves, the acquisition of Nicolas Batum being high up on that list. If Kidd-Gilchrist can overcome his injury issues, the combination with Batum and Kemba Walker should see the Hornets return to the playoffs.

The addition of Hibbert is an intriguing one, the team having taken a one year $5m flyer on a player whose value and confidence is at rock bottom after having been about as useful as Anne Frank’s drum set last season. Coach Steve Clifford will be allocating the ‘Roy Hibbert Rejuvenation Project’ to assistant Patrick Ewing – if it works, then they could find themselves with the defensive linchpin they need to challenge the Eastern Conference elite.

Forecast record: 45-37

This one could go either way. The Hornets have a good group of contributors who play the right way for their coach. If they maintain the discipline, then a season like the last one is achievable. If Zeller, Kaminsky and Kidd-Gilchrist get going, then the Hornets may even improve on last season’s 48 wins.

That said, the Hornets don’t have an out and out star and are very light up front. Their big man rotation of Zeller, Kaminsky, Hawes and Hibbert (a complete shell of his former self) looks suspect – particularly on defense.

The Dunkyard is banking on more or less the same from the Hornets this season – albeit with a few less W’s this time around.