Between the changes in the Charlotte Hornets’ offseason and the decline of several Eastern Conference teams, the Hornets belong back in the NBA playoffs.
Trading for a 31-year-old future Hall of Famer in center Dwight Howard says the Hornets are in win-now mode. Since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004, this franchise has made only three playoff appearances, and have yet to win a round.
Training camp starts Tuesday at Spectrum Center for a team coming off a disappointing 36-46 season (12 victories worse than 2015-16).
What of their prospects? Consider five key questions with camp days away:
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What difference will Howard make?
He could be such a good fit for a team that regressed defensively last season. Howard won three consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards between 2009 and 2011. He’s not the athlete he once was, but his savvy and experience, not to mention his size, can provide the rim protection the Hornets have lacked for several seasons.
Howard has never failed to average a double-double (points and rebounds) in his previous 13 NBA seasons. Acquiring him has the side benefit of playing Cody Zeller off the bench, where he should easily be one of the top backup centers in the league.
Those are the positives. However, this is Howard’s third team in as many seasons. The Atlanta Hawks, his hometown team, traded him after one season, and accepted Miles Plumlee’s awful contract to make the deal.
Howard has said often this offseason his reputation has been soiled of late, and he wants to restore his previous status. He has a long relationship with Hornets coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers when Howard played for those teams.
Howard isn’t this team’s best player; that is point guard Kemba Walker. But Howard’s productivity, and how well he blends in with a strong locker room, will go a long way in deciding this season’s fate.
How will Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon contribute as rookies?
Monk was the 11th overall pick in June, but missed much of the summer with an ankle sprain. Second-round pick Bacon looks like a keeper, based on how he played at Orlando Summer League.
However, either one playing big minutes this first NBA season is iffy.
Clifford has total control over playing time; that’s how owner Michael Jordan wants it. So Monk being a lottery pick will not, by itself, guarantee a spot in the playing rotation. Monk can be a gifted scorer, and the Hornets sure need that in the second unit. However, he will have to demonstrate he won’t be a liability defensively to earn his minutes.
Bacon looked promising in summer league, but that’s a significant step short of regular-season NBA basketball. He has a strong, wiry body (he reminds me of Kendall Gill that way), so the physicality of the NBA shouldn’t overwhelm him. This franchise doesn’t have a great history developing second-round picks, but Bacon looks worthy.
Will the bench again be a weakness?
The Hornets did fine last season with the starters in, but leads became very fragile when Clifford had to turn to the second unit. Point guard play behind Kemba Walker was particularly flawed, and got worse when Ramon Sessions needed knee surgery in February.
The biggest upgrade will be Zeller coming off the bench, with Howard starting. His energy and athleticism in the pick-and-roll should be a significant advantage in a league where center depth isn’t all that common.
Clifford has praised shooting guard-small forward Jeremy Lamb for his strong offseason. Lamb enters his sixth NBA season, so he needs to realize his potential soon. Frank Kaminsky is versatile offensively, but still has challenges defensively.
The bench’s performance could come down to how reserve point guards Michael Carter-Williams and Julyan Stone do. Carter-Williams had platelet-rich plasma procedures on both knees this summer. They need him ready when the season starts next month.
What became of the defense?
Clifford blamed himself, during a recent luncheon with Charlotte media, for the regression defensively last season. Defense has been this team’s backbone in Clifford’s tenure, and he wonders if that was taken for granted last season.
Good as Walker is, he’s not so unstoppable a scorer that the Hornets will win a lot of shootouts. The defense was strong two seasons ago, with power forward Marvin Williams directing traffic. They must return to that top-10 status, and Howard still has enough left to make a difference.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the Hornets’ most versatile defender. They need him to return to his prior impact, before two shoulder surgeries two seasons ago.
What will it take to make the playoffs, and possibly advance?
The Hornets awarded huge contracts to retain Nic Batum and Williams two summers ago. Batum is a near-maximum player making about $22 million this coming season. Williams is third-highest paid Hornet at more than $13 million.
Batum and Williams are huge in keeping this team organized; Williams defensively and Batum offensively. Both shot worse last season than they did the previous season. It’s big they both bounce back.