The Charlotte Hornets suffered quite a regression last season as they went from 48 wins in 2016 to 36 wins. They finished 11th in the East, five games out of a playoff spot. But the Hornets got to work this offseason on improving the team with the goal of making it back among elite company, and on paper at least, those moves looked pretty good.
Arrivals: Dwight Howard, Malik Monk, Michael Carter-Williams, Dwayne Bacon, Isaiah Hicks, Mangok Mathiang, Julyan Stone
Departures: Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee, Brian Roberts, Ramon Sessions, Briante Weber, Christian Wood
After a disappointing 2016/17 season in which they missed the playoffs, the Hornets went out and addressed two of their biggest needs. First off, they traded for Dwight Howard to bolster a center rotation that suffered mightily whenever Cody Zeller went out injured. Their mid-season trade for Miles Plumlee turned out disastrously, and they did well to get out of the remaining years of that contract by including him in the Howard deal.
The Hornets went a horrific 3-17 without Zeller in the lineup last season. But now they have Howard to start over Zeller and keep him fresh over the course of the grueling regular season. Secondly, they also added more offensive firepower to a bench that struggled to produce consistently whenever Kemba Walker was off the court.
They caught a big break with Malik Monk slipping way down to No. 11 in the draft. The Kentucky guard is just the type of instant-offense combo guard who can help the Hornets. They also added second-rounder Dwayne Bacon, who impressed with his offensive skills during summer league.
The Hornets were the very definition of mediocre last season; they finished No. 14 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. However, they are just a year removed from being No. 9 in both of those categories, and it’s not inconceivable to see them bounce back this season.
The defense, in particular, could see a marked improvement with Howard now an option to man the middle. Head coach Steve Clifford knows Howard well from their time in Orlando, and while that Defensive Player of the Year-caliber Howard is long gone, he’s still a competent interior defender and Clifford should have a decent idea how to integrate his new big man into his system. Charlotte also has one of the top defensive wings in the league in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who takes on the opposing team’s best perimeter players.
The Hornets aren’t anything special offensively, but they do have a couple of floor-spacing bigs in Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky who help offset MKG’s lack of shooting. They also have a special player in Walker, who took his game to yet another level last season. Walker set new career-highs in points (23.2), field goal percentage (44%) and three-point percentage (40%) to earn his very first All-Star nod.
Walker still needs more help in terms of carrying the load on offense, but if Nicolas Batum can recover from his awful shooting year and if Monk can live up to his potential and provide some scoring off the bench, the burden on Walker’s back could be significantly lightened this season.
Now that the Hornets have a couple of reliable big men and more weapons on the bench, there doesn’t seem to be a glaring weakness on the team.
Probably the biggest area for improvement is their lack of game-changing star power. While Walker has been outstanding in terms of continuing to improve his game over the past couple of years, he still has limitations as a true No. 1 option, and the team lacks comparable talent around him to compensate.
If they play up to their abilities, they are a solid team on both ends of the floor and can challenge for a playoff spot in the East. But without that other true star next to Walker, their ceiling is not nearly as high.
Player to Watch – Malik Monk
Speaking of that other star, Monk might just have the potential to be exactly that. Monk was a streaky scorer in college, although he didn’t provide much else when he wasn’t putting the ball in the hoop. His defense was bad, and his ball-handling and playmaking clearly need a lot more improvement. But his scoring can be that lethal when he’s on his game, which makes Monk a steal at No. 11.
It remains to be seen how effective Monk will be playing alongside Walker (that combination could be too disastrous defensively) or running the offense as the primary ball-handler on bench units during his rookie year. If can do those things adequately enough and score at the level he’s capable of, though, he raises the team’s ceiling for this season just that little bit higher.
Howard’s addition in the frontcourt is a huge help for the Hornets. Meanwhile, Monk has his pros and cons as a rookie but contributes enough offensively to ease the burden on Walker. The Hornets make it back to the postseason with a 44-38 record, which should be good for a 5-6 seed in the East.
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