Free Agents: Jason Maxiell (Unrestricted)
The Hornets took a big step towards relevance in 2013, but then promptly erased all of their momentum last season. In all fairness, GM Rich Cho really did make an effort that garnered some praise, but the gamble he took on Lance Stephenson failed immensely. Not only that, but Al Jefferson couldn’t replicate the success he had the season prior, in part because of nagging injury issues. It was up to Mo Williams, of all people, to save them from further embarrassment.
Now, however, the Hornets have responded in a big way. They promptly dumped Stephenson, Henderson, and Vonleh for what basically amounts to Hawes, Lamb, and Batum. Not only that, but it looks like they’ve bolstered their depth behind Cody Zeller with Frank Kaminsky. This could still backfire, however; Vonleh played well in the limited minutes he was given, and Henderson has been a valuable member of the Bobcats/Hornets for years, so they will most definitely be missed. Also, should Zeller be moved, nobody knows how well Kaminsky’s skills will translate to the NBA. On a team starved for three point shooting, the recent additions should contribute well in that aspect, but Lamb hasn’t shown any significant skill nor has Hawes proven any defensive prowess. Batum is a hairy subject altogether, playing through a significant injury as well as a distracting divorce made his stock flatline as he put up a disappointing final season with the Blazers.
If the Hornets have truly bought low, and Batum bounces back in the upcoming season, he might be enough to propel Charlotte into more serious contention towards making the playoffs. Batum provides the all-around game that many expected out of Stephenson, with a much more reliable resume in terms of long distance shooting. As of right now, Jason Maxiell is the only Hornet who could come back to the team, but it seems like the Hornets do not have very much interest in retaining the veteran, whose play is entirely replaceable among other veteran big men. Now, while Charlotte did part ways with the resurgent Mo Williams, keep in mind that Williams’ shooting percentages plummeted with the Hornets. It’s very possible he wasn’t a good fit with the team, and fans shouldn’t lose any sleep over this. They also declined the option for Jeff Taylor, who found himself in a fair bit of controversy last season after pleading guilty for an assault-related arrest. What’s more concerning, however, is the team’s dismissal of Bismack Biyombo (who later found himself on the Raptors). While Biyombo isn’t a skilled offensive player at all (even though he’s going to enter his fourth season in the league), he provides athleticism and defense at the center spot that no other player on the team could provide. Not Zeller, not Jefferson, not Vonleh, no one. When Biyombo was on the floor, the Hornets actually had a slightly higher Offensive Rating, and more importantly, lowered the ORTG of their opponents by a fair margin. Also, Biyombo is just 22; for a prospect that came into the league as raw as he did, it’s entirely possible he can make some use of his physical gifts later on in his career, rather than being limited to just put-backs.
After the draft, the Hornets were left with #9 overall pick Frank Kaminsky, who happened to be the main target of the team. Kaminsky has grown every season he has played for Wisconsin, and it all culminated in a stellar final year for him, as the Badgers made it all the way to the NCAA championship game. Like Dekker, Kaminsky’s skills translating to the NBA have been questioned, but I’m of the opinion that even if his ceiling is low, his floor is high. Kaminsky killed it in the post while at college, and standing 7’1” in shoes, he has the size to stand his ground in the NBA. Kaminsky might not be the best athlete, but he is agile for his size, and that is important in getting the drop on his opponents. Although Kaminsky also has relatively short arms, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the big man, as he has a versatile offensive game. For the past two years, Kaminsky has shot outstandingly from both the floor and from three point territory (he also sports a solid 78.0 FT%, which should reflect well on his shooting ability), and grabs an adequate amount of rebounds (more so on the defensive end). He also averaged over two assists per game in his senior year while managing to keep his turnovers low, clearly, Kaminsky has shown the ability to be a solid playmaker. Finally, his averages of 0.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per game are reassuring athletic indicators that he has the smarts to make defensive plays, even if he isn’t as stifling a defender as other prospects. Although I hesitate to use the label, out of all the players touted as the “next Dirk”, Kaminsky comes closer than most (see: Porzingis) in fulfilling that label.
While management wanted to ship away Zeller before the draft in order to free up space in the rotation for Kaminsky, they might have to live with the crowding of young talent. One of the main takers for Zeller, Boston, happens to be crowded with other forward/centers. Beyond Boston, no real reports have surfaced as to where Zeller might land, but Charlotte might be persistent in finding a deal if they aren’t content with letting the two play out the season.
Prediction: I don’t see the Hornets going anywhere next season, but they are definitely in a better place than they were last year. A flush of new talent could be just what the team needed to reload, although their ability to fit in coach Steve Clifford’s defensive system is questionable (with the exception of Batum). Walker has to make a leap at some point or another if he wants to prove his worth, and Jefferson has to get over his daunting injury history, now that he’s been chosen to build with over Biyombo. Both tasks are tough – at some point, you might have to accept that Walker is who he is, and that Al Jefferson might never be the same player again (he is 30, after all). This is why Kaminsky, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Batum present new hope. In particular, Kidd-Gilchrist emerged as Charlotte’s best player last year – he is on track to becoming an elite defender, and is trying to make some inroads with developing shooting range. But even if he is limited to transition offense, MKG is a devastating weapon on at least one end of the floor, and is the true linchpin of Charlotte’s success. Not drafting Winslow was an overt display of loyalty for his services, and Batum should give him some much-needed help. Overall, I’d expect a similar season from the Hornets record-wise, but this time, the team isn’t attempting to contend. The offense should look a lot less clunkier, and the fans should be happier.