These aren’t the same Charlotte Hornets who pushed the Miami Heat the full seven games in a first-round playoff series.
Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee are gone. Roy Hibbert and Marco Belinelli are here. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back. It’s a team that probably won’t score as well, but could be better defensively.
How does this team fit together heading into Wednesday’s season-opener at the Milwaukee Bucks? A position-by-position look at this roster:
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Who’s there? The starter will be Kemba Walker. Reserves are Ramon Sessions and Brian Roberts.
What’s new? Sessions and Roberts are both back with this team after trades sent them elsewhere. There is a sense of familiarity in their presence, Sessions has a knack for getting to the foul line. Roberts is a hard worker who doesn’t mind being the third option at the position. Coach Steve Clifford always wants to know he has a third point guard he can rely on, and will live with with one less wing player to lock down that spot.
Bottom line: Walker vastly improved last season and could be in the All-Star discussion as an Eastern Conference reserve. Lin’s departure for the Brooklyn Nets weakens the Hornets in that he effectively defended shooting guards last season. That allowed Clifford to play Walker and Lin together late in games. Sessions doesn’t figure to be as effective defensively against shooting guards, reducing a late-game option.
Who’s there? Nic Batum will be the starter. Reserves are Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb and Aaron Harrison.
What’s new? The Hornets traded the rights to the 22nd pick in June’s draft (Malachi Richardson) for veteran shooting guard Belinelli. He shot a career-low 30.6 percent from 3-point range last season with the Sacramento Kings. The Hornets need him to provide scoring to a bench that was weakened over the summer by the departures of Lin and Jefferson.
Bottom line: Batum is the highest-paid player in Charlotte NBA history, having signed a five-year, $120 million contract in July. Batum’s gift is his versatility, providing points, rebounds and assists on a consistent basis. He took some playmaking responsibility off Walker, allowing him to focus on being an attacking scorer.
Who’s there? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the starter. Reserves are Belinelli, Lamb and rookie Treveon Graham.
What’s new? Lamb is looking to bounce back from a poor finish to last season. He played well the first 25 games last season, but wore down and fell out of the rotation, for the most part, in April and May. He has worked at getting in better shape and is more disciplined about sleep and diet to better navigate an 82-game NBA schedule.
Bottom line: Kidd-Gilchrist played only seven games last season because of two separate injuries to his right shoulder, both requiring surgery. Kidd-Gilchrist is the Hornets’ best defender and among the best rebounding small forwards in the NBA. There’s a contagious quality to his energy that is key to the Hornets playing well.
Who’s there? Marvin Williams is the starter. Frank Kaminsky is the primary backup. Cody Zeller, Spencer Hawes and Kidd-Gilchrist can all play some there.
What’s new? Kaminsky says he’s devoted to improving defensively. Switching from center in college to power forward in the NBA is a big adjustment, in that he has to guard opposing forwards all over the court. Playing center at Wisconsin, he mostly stayed in the lane. Kaminsky is recovering from a right foot strain.
Bottom line: Williams (who is playing with a broken left middle finger) is the prototype for what the modern “stretch 4” is in NBA basketball – he made 40 percent of his 3-point attempts last season and can interchangeably guard power and small forwards. That, plus the return of Kidd-Gilchrist, will allow the Hornets to play switching defenses and also adjust when opposing teams downsize to smaller lineups.
Who’s there? Roy Hibbert will start opening night. Spencer Hawes and Cody Zeller are available as backups.
What’s new? Former All-Star Hibbert is looking to reignite his career after two down seasons (one with the Indiana Pacers, the other with the Los Angeles Lakers). Jefferson signed with the Pacers, meaning there is no longer an obvious low-post scoring option with the Hornets to demand double-teams.
Bottom line: Hibbert and Zeller were expected to compete throughout the preseason for the starting spot here. However, the deep bone bruise to Zeller’s right knee took him out of contention for weeks. He’s just back from the injury and won’t play a lot initially. Hibbert is the best defender. Hawes has perimeter shooting and passing skills.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell