Why Kemba Walker and the Hornets could surprise us the same way Victor Oladipo's Pacers did last season
Look just a bit beneath the surface, and you'll see a Charlotte team that is better than you might think
When the Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Thunder last summer for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, they were pretty much universally mocked for having been completely swindled in the deal. Oops. Oladipo became a second-team All-NBA player, Sabonis was much more than a throw in, and the Pacers went on to be the surprise team of the year in winning 48 games, earning the No. 5 seed in the East and taking LeBron James and the Cavs to seven games in the first round.
Can any team pull a similar surprise this season?
There's a case to be made for the Charlotte Hornets.
"What excites me is this team was in fourth quarters last year," new Hornets coach James Borrego told CBS Sports. "Last five, six minutes, they were right there with everybody for the most part. It's just, can we close?"
Borrego is right. The Hornets were very close to being a lot better than their 36-46 record last season. They lost 12 games by five points or less. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass's metrics, last season's Hornets had the statistical profile of a 42-win team. In other words, half of those close losses can be reasonably expected to go the Hornets' way this season simply based on NBA averages.
Now factor in a second-year leap from Malik Monk, whose game really showed signs of coming around at the end of last season. Now add in the potential impact of No. 12 overall pick Miles Bridges, a terrific athlete who can reasonably guard one through four. Throw in the subtraction of Dwight Howard (probably a good thing) and the return of Cody Zeller (most definitely a good thing, whether the casual fan realizes it or not), and suddenly you don't have to squint very hard to see a 45-win team. That's a playoff team in the East. Not last year's Pacers. But not far off.
Borrego isn't afraid to cite last year's Indiana team as a blueprint for surprising success, and when you really start to think about it, you can see a lot of similarities between the Pacers and the Hornets, not only from a personnel standpoint, but from a style-change standpoint as well. Indiana, first and foremost, has a star in Oladipo. So does Charlotte in Kemba Walker. From there, Indiana sped up its pace and shot more threes (even if it still didn't shoot that many, relatively speaking). Charlotte, according to Borrego, will do the same.
"We're going to play faster," Borrego said. "It starts in transition. We'll look at our fast-break numbers, our efficiency in the first eight to ten seconds of the shot clock. We'll look at our 3-point attempts. I want to have four 3-point shooters on the floor as much as possible. Last year, there was always a big lingering somewhere in the paint. This year, the way we're going to spread the floor, there shouldn't be a big in there very often. Primarily, that should be an open lane."
The X-factor in this floor-opening exercise is the aforementioned Zeller, Charlotte's expected starting center who played just 33 games due to a torn MCL. Last year Charlotte's man in the middle was Dwight Howard, who had a nice year and made the Hornets a terrific defensive rebounding team, but obviously clogged the paint. Zeller is no slouch rebounder himself, but in addition he can operate on the perimeter and is something of a master of the dribble hand-off, which he'll use often with Walker. He's a solid positional defender and a better rim protector that his athleticism, or lack thereof, might suggest. Probably most importantly, he's a naturally instinctual player who can operate as a periodical offensive hub -- a huge luxury for an offense predicated on ball and player movement. Look at Al Horford in Boston.
That's not to say Zeller is anything close to Horford. Obviously, he's not. But he's solid, and more importantly, his particular strengths fit perfectly into how the Hornets want to play. He's a talented screener (yes, high-level screening is a talent). He can run the floor (in 2016-17, he scored 1.5 points per transition possession, an elite number). In fact, let's throw out last season because of the small sample size and look at Zeller's 2016-17 campaign from a bottom-line standpoint: The Hornets were 33-29 when he played, and 3-17 when he didn't. He's a difference maker, if not in the most glamorous sense.
"If Cody was healthy last year, this job may not have even been open, to be honest with you," Borrego said.
Zeller could well be the key that unlocks a system designed to make life easier on Walker, whose burden Borrego wants to ease by, in fact, taking the ball out of his hands a bit more. He says Kemba is fine with that. He'll be a floor-spacer for other playmakers. The simple truth is, when the game is on the line, teams in the past have known the Hornets were going to turn to Walker. A predictable offense is easy to defend, unless you're the Rockets with James Harden and Chris Paul or you have LeBron James. Otherwise, even great players struggle when defenses can load up on them with relative impunity. Just look at some of the Thunder's shortcomings over the years in clutch situations with Russell Westbrook at the helm.
To that point, Walker's efficiency fell considerably last season in the clutch (defined as a five-point game with less than five minutes to play) -- his 3-point percentage falling from 38 to 30 percent, his overall shooting from 43 to 37 percent. If Monk can make strides as a consistent shooter, or at least have a few more light-it-up nights, if Nicolas Batum shoots it better than he did last season, if Jeremy Lamb (who has quietly become a solid NBA player) does his thing, if Zeller stays healthy, the personnel is there to give support to Walker, who is still more than capable of largely carrying an offense that was already the 10th-most efficient unit in the league last season at 109.3 points per 100 possession, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Hornets are going to score points.
Question is: Will they score them when it counts?
And can they stop the other team from doing the same?
To the latter question, the defense wasn't terrible in last season -- 16th overall, per CTG. Howard played a role in that, and he's gone. But Borrego likes Charlotte's defensive pieces. Specifically, he likes their length. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Lamb, Batum, Bridges and Dwayne Bacon, the Hornets have six projected rotational defenders between 6-foot-5 and 6-9 who can switch pretty much anything.
"I came out of summer league feeling pretty good about the defensive schemes we'll be implementing," Borrego said. "You could see lineups with Lamb, [Kidd-Gilchrist] and Bridges, [who can] probably guard one through four. We can potentially be pretty dynamic defensively."
As long as we're in best-case-scenario mode, consider that Tony Parker, who the Hornets signed as a free agent, might have a bit more good basketball left in him than people think. At worst, he is a world-class mentor for Walker, who was thrilled with the news that Parker was coming to Charlotte.
"The first thing Kemba said when we were about to sign Tony was: 'I get to learn from Tony Parker?' He didn't ask how are you going to use us together, how many minutes, any of that. He was just excited to learn. When you get that from your best player, that's a big deal," Borrego said.
The cloud hanging over all this optimism, of course, is the very real possibility that Walker might not even last the entire season in a Hornets uniform. That sucks to have to write about a team placing so much of its hopes on its lone star, but it's an NBA reality. It's a tough sell to pursue the No. 7 or 8 seed in the playoffs over cashing in an asset like Walker and building back up through the draft. A scenario in which the Hornets are lingering in the lottery a few months into the season and are suddenly looking to trade Walker -- and perhaps Batum if they can find a taker, and perhaps any other veteran with any value -- isn't at all out of the question.
That said, the Hornets have thus far resisted a rebuild, hanging on to Walker despite his reported availability around the deadline last season. Maybe that will change at some point. Maybe someone will make them an offer they can't refuse. Maybe Charlotte will lower its asking price. But for now, Walker is a Hornet, and Borrego sees no reason to speculate beyond that.
"I'm focused on this year," Borrego said. "When you start getting into down the road and two years from now and all that, you just don't know. Nobody knows. All I know is that I love having Kemba. He has made himself into an All-Star player, and he's done it the right way. Getting better every year. He wants to be here. I want him here. I want him to be my starting point guard for many years to come. And I think if we do the right things this season, that will take care of itself."
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