Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford was asked Friday what becomes of incumbent starter Gerald Henderson now that the team has signed free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
Clifford used the question to make a more general point.
“The NBA is a competitive place, and there’s nothing wrong with competition,” Clifford said. “It’s a good thing to have within a team.”
There wasn’t always a lot of competition within the Bobcats’ roster. The depth of talent sometimes wasn’t sufficient to make a starter fear losing playing time. Maybe that changes now.
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Only two positions – center and point guard – seem to have locked-in starters. Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker are so clearly better than their backups that it’s hard to imagine a shakeup.
Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist figures to continue as a starter, but Jeff Taylor used his rehab time from a ruptured Achilles tendon to strengthen his upper body. He looks like a linebacker now, and he seems hungry to have an impact.
The other two spots look wide-open. With Josh McRoberts gone to Miami, second-year pro Cody Zeller and free-agent signing Marvin Williams will face off to be the starter at power forward. Stephenson would seemingly have the edge to start at shooting guard, but Henderson has had that spot the last couple of seasons and won’t give it up without resistance.
A look ahead at what should be a competitive training camp in Asheville, come October:
Power forward: The Hornets took a hit when McRoberts chose the Heat over a return to Charlotte. McRoberts was a stabilizer, the savvy veteran Clifford could count on to keep his less-experienced players organized.
The Hornets used the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft to select 7-footer Zeller. He gets frequent praise for his athleticism, and deservedly so. But it took most of his rookie season before Zeller adjusted to NBA basketball.
His performance in Las Vegas summer league was uneven. He was bad in his first game against the New York Knicks but played better as the tournament wore on.
To hedge their bet on Zeller’s development, the Hornets are signing 6-foot-9 Marvin Williams, a veteran of nine NBA seasons. Williams is more a combo forward than strictly a power forward, but he’s long enough to guard the position. One of his advantages is 3-point range (36 percent last season). Clifford wants power forwards with the shooting range to help pull the defense away from Jefferson in the lane.
Shooting guard: After agreeing to pay him $9 million a season, the Hornets obviously intend to play Stephenson a lot. That figures to eat into Henderson’s 32-minutes-per-game average.
Though Stephenson is billed as an upgrade offensively, Henderson actually had a slightly higher scoring average (14.0 points, versus Stephenson’s 13.8), but Stephenson is the better shooter (49 percent, versus Henderson’s 43 percent).
The issue at shooting guard isn’t simply Stephenson-vs.-Henderson. There’s a glut at the spot when you consider veteran Gary Neal and rookie P.J. Hairston are both in the mix. Neal (11.2 ppg.) played a significant role in helping the then-Bobcats reach the playoffs last season. Hairston was a first-round pick and demonstrated at summer league he appears ready for immediate playing time.
One possible solution: Henderson has played part-time at small forward in the past. He figures to get some minutes there on a regular basis.
Small forward: Kidd-Gilchrist has worked hard this summer to fix his jump shot. He’s a tremendous defensive player, but he needs to contribute more offensively than the 7.2 points he averaged last season.
Taylor played just 26 games last season before that Achilles tendon rupture ended his season. Taylor has been so driven in his rehab that Clifford sometimes tells him to slow down, for fear or re-injury. In the seven months since the injury, Taylor has dramatically added muscle to his upper body.
Anthony Tolliver, who averaged 20 minutes per game for the Bobcats, signed with the Phoenix Suns. Taylor and Henderson figure to absorb those minutes going forward.