Plenty has changed about the Charlotte Hornets since they last played a game, although those shifts aren’t yet widely reflected on the roster.
A new general manager, Mitch Kupchak, replaced the head coach and most of the rest of the basketball staff. Kupchack hired former San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego.
Because Kupchak inherited a slew of guaranteed contracts, the players haven’t changed a lot. Center Dwight Howard was traded to the Brooklyn Nets after a single season as a starter here. The Hornets added two rookies - Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham - and signed veteran point guard Tony Parker, who has a long history with Borrego with the Spurs.
Don’t misconstrue this as same old, same old. Borrego might be taking over a mostly pre-existing roster, but was hired as an agent of change. He said recently that two-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker is the only Hornet assured of a holdover starting spot. The rest - starters, rotations, minutes - is subject to what Borrego sees in practice and preseason games.
Training camp opens Tuesday at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. The top 10 Hornets storylines entering the preseason:
Every coach has an imperative, something he expects players to accept as gospel. For Borrego, that is quick, decisive ball-movement. The goal is choosing whether to shoot, drive or pass within a half second of receiving the ball in an offensive possession.
It looked like the summer-league players got that message, although it’s obviously easier to get a bunch of rookies and minor free agents to conform. But, by and large, I don’t see this as a difficult sell to the veteran core of this team. The player who would have had the hardest time adapting would have been Howard, and that was a factor in the trade.
Borrego sees the Hornets finishing last season 24th among 30 teams in assists as a key weakness. He says he’ll “demand” a higher level of ball movement..
Best of Batum
The Hornets still owe Nic Batum about $75 million guaranteed. He is coming off a poor season, and I’m sure he knows that as well as anyone. Borrego must find a way to utilize Batum to better value.
Batum averaged 11.6 points, 5.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds, all down from the previous season. There were circumstances beyond Batum’s control that contributed to his struggles: an early-season elbow injury that cost him the preseason and Howard’s ball-stopping interfered with Batum’s playmaking.
It sounds like Batum will play more small forward and less shooting guard than he did under prior coach Steve Clifford. Regardless of position, Batum is still this team’s best facilitator. He needs to be better, but just as importantly the new coaching staff has to take advantage of this team’s widest skill set.
To quote Borrego recently on Malik Monk, “I think he would admit his first (NBA season) didn’t go the way he expected.”
Former Kentucky star Monk anticipated being a contender for rookie of the year. Instead, he averaged about 14 minutes a game and didn’t show much promise until the last 15 or so games after the Hornets were out of the playoff hunt.
Monk could play more alongside Walker this season and possibly as a starter. That would make for a small, offensively-potent backcourt similar to what the Portland Trail Blazers have been trying with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If Borrego goes that way, he’s betting Walker-Monk would be so hard to guard that the plus would outweigh the strain that would put on the Hornets’ defense.
Whether he starts or comes off the bench, the best wager involving this team would be a bigger role for Monk this season.
A new role, Part I
The Hornets drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist second overall in 2012 and he’s started all but four of his 357 NBA games. Looks like MKG’s role will change; the question is by how much.
Count on the 6-foot-7 Kidd-Gilchrist to play a significant percentage of his minutes this season at power forward (he’s been primarily a small forward). It’s far from a given that Kidd-Gilchrist will continue to be a starter. He’s a strong defender who can guard a wide range of opposing positions, but his offensive limitations are well-documented, particularly his lack of 3-point range.
Borrego has an abundance - you could call it a clutter - of wing players. Of last season’s Hornets starters who are still here, Kidd-Gilchrist could experience the biggest change in how he’s used.
A new role, Part II
Seven-footer Frank Kaminsky was a college center at Wisconsin, then played primarily power forward in his first three seasons in the NBA. Now, he’ll be playing more center again for Borrego. At least that’s one of the experiments you will see in the preseason.
Like Kidd-Gilchrist, Kaminsky is a one-way player in a league putting a greater premium on players who can excel at both offense and defense. Kaminsky can score, but has struggled to effectively guard power forwards. So perhaps he’ll have a better chance defensively against centers, who typically play in a tighter space offensively.
Figure on Kaminsky to still spend time on the perimeter offensively, taking 3s, regardless of his defined position. This is a big season for Kaminsky. Next summer Hornets management will decide whether to make him a qualifying offer of about $5 million to restrict his free agency. As this franchise showed years ago regarding Bismack Biyombo, it’s not automatic they would make that qualifying offer because said player was a lottery pick.
I’d say the minutes at center are very much up for grabs and might vary by the game.
Kupchak traded Howard to the Nets, taking back the contract for Timofey Mozgov, then soon after traded Mozgov to the Orlando Magic for Biyombo, who spent his first four NBA seasons in Charlotte. In a media conference call following the Biyombo trade, Kupchak said he could imagine a mix of minutes at center that changes game-to-game relative to the matchup.
I think Cody Zeller is the favorite to start based on ability and experience, but I liked what I saw at summer league from Willy Hernangomez, particularly how he’s extended his shooting range. The wild card in this is Kaminsky, in part because Borrrego wants plenty of outside shooting on the court offensively.
I have no feel for how much or little Biyombo plays, but he’s the only real rim protector now on this roster.
The rookie factor
Borrego said recently that Bridges is better than he anticipated on draft night. The 12th overall pick, Bridges lost about 20 pounds between the end of his season with Michigan State and the draft. It appeared at summer league that weight loss made Bridges quicker and more explosive. I was impressed with how well he handled the ball and I can see why the Hornets feel he can be a switching defender.
I’m sure Bridges will get plenty of looks in the preseason, but it could be complicated finding him minutes in the regular season. The small forward position is packed between Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb and Dwayne Bacon. It won’t surprise me if Bridges plays some power forward as well.
This is the last season on Lamb’s contract and he’s coming off by far the best of his six NBA seasons (12.9 points per game and 37 percent shooting from 3-point range). It took two seasons in Charlotte for him to establish himself, but trading for Lamb and signing him to a multi-year contract was probably one of former general manager Rich Cho’s better decisions.
It wouldn’t have surprised me had Kupchak traded Lamb over the summer in a payroll move, but Borrego clearly likes Lamb’s skill set (he wants the Hornets taking more 3s and Lamb can produce outside the arc). It’s conceivable Lamb could be the opening-night starter at shooting guard with Batum shifting to small forward.
While Parker can help Borrego convey his approach, he isn’t here to be a coach in uniform. He’s going to play behind Walker, I’m guessing 15 to 17 minutes per game, and he’ll finish some games alongside Walker.
His long and close relationship with Batum from their time together on the French national team is a bonus.
Borrego reinforced at a recent media gathering that he views his first responsibility as winning as many games as possible. That doesn’t mean he will disregard player development, but the notion the Hornets would sacrifice this season in a youth movement isn’t in the plans.