In the season opener, the Charlotte Hornets will fly north to take on Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons. Detroit won three of four meetings between the sides last season, so will like their chances of getting off to a dream start with the visit of his former assistant coach’s new-look Hornets.
The additions of Michael Carter-Williams, Dwight Howard and Malik Monk, among others, had pulses racing in North Carolina, with optimism at heights not seen in Charlotte for quite some time. That was until Nic Batum went down in preseason and was ruled out for the first two to three months of the campaign. The absence of Batum and Cody Zeller, who will be bumped to the bench to make way for Howard, will change the entire identity of this Hornets team, making them something of a wildcard coming in.
While preseason results are largely irrelevant, the Hornets will be encouraged that they posted over 100 points in four of their five games, including a 108-106 win over Detroit. Despite their major offseason acquisition having slowed down quite considerably from his peak, Howard’s strengths (that of strong interior defense, offensive rebounding and finishing in the pick and roll) will be a nice fit in a system he’s familiar with, having worked with head coach Steve Clifford during their time under Van Gundy in Atlanta.
For Detroit, while no wholesale changes have taken place, they have a clear upgrade at the shooting guard position after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s departure paved the way for Avery Bradley. Marcus Morris is an undoubted loss, yet Bradley’s elite-level lockdown defense should not only mesh well with Van Gundy’s system, but also go some way to masking Reggie Jackson’s deficiencies without the ball in the backcourt.
The migration of top talent from East to West should help the Pistons, who missed the playoffs by just four wins last year, as they attempt to make the postseason after a year away from it. Their other offseason acquisitions of Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard and Anthony Tolliver are little more than rotation players, meaning much of the expectation falls on Jackson and Andre Drummond. In a year where much of the East have taken backward steps, Detroit may have moved up the queue by standing still.
Three Keys to the Game
Reggie Jackson’s health – Jackson is an explosive force out of the Detroit backcourt, and the team’s fortunes will largely depend on the former Boston College man reaching his full potential. After recently recovering from a knee injury, Van Gundy recently confirmed that the point guard would be playing and practicing with no restrictions – something that changes the landscape both for the Pistons and their opponents.
Accounting for the loss of Batum – Speaking of a landscape change, Batum’s injury changes everything for Charlotte. Whilst there’s never a good time to lose your best player, doing so on the dawn of the new year has to be up there with the worst possible scenario. How Charlotte account for his absence will largely determine how they fare in the early part of the season.
The battle in the paint – With one of the most impressive looking one-two punches in the NBA at the center position, Charlotte will be hoping to dominate the interior with Howard and Zeller. Drummond, however, will certainly have other ideas. The All-Star has the talent to carry his team at any given moment, and this will be a key area to watch if the former Connecticut Husky is on his game.
Matchup to watch
Dwight Howard vs Andre Drummond – Slower, less mobile and less durable than ever before, Howard is going to have to rely on all of his veteran smarts to get the better of Drummond in this one. Rotation between Howard and Zeller is likely over the course of the season, yet without both Batum and possibly Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (who has missed time due to an extended personal absence), former first round pick Zeller is likely to move into power forward, meaning Howard will have to play a lot more minutes than Clifford would like.
Hornets Projected Starting Lineup
PG – Kemba Walker | SG – Jeremy Lamb | SF – Marvin Williams | PF – Cody Zeller | Dwight Howard
Pistons Projected Starting Lineup
PG – Ish Smith | SG – Avery Bradley | SF – Stanley Johnson | PF – Tobias Harris| C – Andre Drummond
Drummond will get even more opportunities than usual in the Pistons backfield with Jackson not yet up to full speed. That, combined with the fact that he’ll be up against Howard and his tired legs for much of the second half makes him a solid start.
In a close one to call, Detroit come in as slight favourites with a -4.5 spread to cover. With Charlotte having a lot of change to deal with, and relying on Howard lasting the course, expect them to cover it.
This is a tough one, but expect Detroit to ride Drummond (and Jackson off the bench) to a hard-fought home win.
Unless you’re in Detroit or the Carolinas, where this game is covered on Fox Sports, you’ll have to make do with streaming this at 7PM Eastern time.
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