Two trends that helped define the Charlotte Hornet’ 36-46 record in the 2016-17 season: They lost a lot of close games and the second unit was dreadful.
These were not unrelated.
The starters, when all five were available, were actually quite good at building leads. But when coach Steve Clifford had to turn to the bench, particularly in the later stages of close games, those leads were as fragile as Papier Mache sculptures.
That was particularly true when Kemba Walker and/or Cody Zeller was off the floor. In the minutes Zeller played, the Hornets were a net 5.4 points per 100 possessions to the plus. When Walker was on the floor, the Hornets were a net 3.6 points better.
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In the minutes Walker didn’t play, the Hornets were a net minus-7 per 100 possessions . When Zeller didn’t play, they were a net minus-3.6 points.
So it’s no coincidence that Walker’s and Zeller’s primary backups last season – point guard Ramon Sessions and center Spencer Hawes – are no longer on this team.
Sessions, whose option was not exercised and has since signed with the New York Knicks, was a net minus-4.8 points last season. Hawes, who was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks and since waived, was a minus-10.2 points.
Naturally, with that as evidence, it was an offseason priority for the Hornets to improve their bench. Last season’s alternatives to Zeller at center – Hawes, Roy Hibbert and Miles Plumlee – were all traded. None of Walker’s backups at the point – Sessions, Brian Roberts or Briante Weber – is still on the Hornets’ roster.
The Hornets didn’t have much salary-cap flexibility, with the team inching toward the NBA’s luxury tax threshold for this season of about $119 million. But general manager Rich Cho still made over the second unit.
The biggest move was trading for center Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star. Clifford plans to start Howard, which makes Zeller the Hornets’ best reserve. The only significant free-agent acquisition was point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who signed a one-year, $2.7 million contract in February.
Carter-Williams was once voted NBA Rookie of the Year for his performance as a Philadelphia 76er, but he has since drifted through three rosters, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls. This is a huge season for Carter-Williams to restore his status among front offices. However, he’s yet to be cleared for contact in practice, following Platelet-Rich Plasma procedures to promote healing in both knees.
Carter-Williams provides size and defense at 6-foot-6. The Hornets signed a third point guard who is also 6-6 in Julyan Stone. Stone, who hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2013-14 season (he was in Turkey and Italy), says defense and physicality are his strengths.
Zeller will be key to this bench, playing many if not most of his minutes this season against opposing teams’ backup centers. As backup power forward Frank Kaminsky put it, Zeller’s frenetic energy makes him “annoying” to opponents and a big plus as a teammate. Zeller has said he’s fine moving back to the bench and it will be a minimal adjustment, since he’s never been the opening-day starter in his previous four NBA seasons.
Asked specifically what was so flawed about last season’s second unit, Clifford said scoring wasn’t much of a problem, but defense was a major one.
So was availability of the five preferred starters: Zeller, Walker, power forward Marvin Williams, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and shooting guard Nic Batum.
That group didn’t play together often enough (Zeller, for instance, missed 20 games), but when they did the Hornets were successful: The 27-20 record with that group starting, extrapolated over a full 82 games, would have given the Hornets 47 victories.
Forty-seven wins would have made the Hornets the fifth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, and potentially would have paved a very different path.