Charlotte Hornets

The unicorn of all Hornets questions: Any chance of Stephen Curry in Charlotte?

It has been a while since I got the unicorn of all Charlotte NBA questions:

Any chance Stephen Curry comes home to Charlotte to play?

It’s understandable I got it Friday, and not just because the Hornets play former Davidson star Curry’s team, the Golden State Warriors, Saturday. It’s because the Warriors’ dynasty is apparently breaking up. Curry will miss at least three months, including the Hornets game, due to surgery on a broken hand, which adds to Golden State’s troubles.

On to your weekly Hornets mailbag questions:

I always assumed the chances of Steph wearing teal and purple were about zero. Does the recent dynasty crumbling for the Warriors improve those odds, or is it still a pipe dream?

First off, never say never. It used to be the norm that NBA superstars spent entire careers with the teams that drafted them. Now, a situation like Kawhi Leonard’s — three teams in three seasons — isn’t such an outlier. Players want to be with contenders, particularly in the later stages of their careers, and teams want to get assets to rebuild. I’d say the hard pivot to rebuild the Oklahoma City Thunder made, getting what they could for Paul George and Russell Westbrook, is representative of the NBA’s direction.

However, specific to Steph: While he still loves his hometown, growing up in Charlotte and then starring for the Wildcats, he has set down roots in the Bay Area over 10 NBA seasons. Also, he’s 31, not young for an NBA player.

The Warriors just opened Chase Center, a state-of-the-art arena, moving across the Bay from Oakland. With Kevin Durant gone, Curry is even more the face of the franchise. The Warriors would need a compelling reason to move on from Steph, or him from them. I doubt the Hornets, at the beginnings of a rebuild, are a logical fit if Curry played elsewhere.

A last-place finish would be good for the Hornets’ draft chances and making the playoffs — while unlikely — would also be good. Which range between these two would actually be a bad finish, leaving the Hornets in mediocrity?

Your question reminded me of that “Goldilocks” description of the economy: You don’t want it too hot (causing inflation) or too cold (causing recession), you want it “just right.”

I already received comments from some fans concerned the Hornets will win too many games and screw up their chances in the draft lottery. That’s overthinking this.

Coach James Borrego has lived by his preseason promise to lean to youth with playing time. If at the end of this season, P.J. Washington, Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon and Malik Monk are all better players for that, it won’t be some big strategic sacrifice if that costs the Hornets a few chances in the 2020 draft lottery.

View playing time this season as an investment in the future: If the young guys perform well enough that they win 30 games, instead of 20, I don’t think that has major long-term downside.

Do you think Monk could replace Bacon as a starter at some point this season?

Bacon has not played well so far this season, and in particular has not shot well (33 percent from the field and 25 percent from the 3-point line). The coaches want him going to the rim constantly because he can be such a physical force at the shooting-guard position. He needs to be more efficient in finishing and in drawing trips to the foul line.

I absolutely think Bacon or Monk is a close call right now, but I wouldn’t focus as much on who starts as the minutes distribution and who finishes close games. Also, when Nic Batum returns from a fractured finger, that would figure into the playing-time mix at the wing positions.

If the Hornets build a close-to-playoff team this season, would they be a bit more tempting to a big free agent with all that salary-cap space the team will have?

I’d be wary of speeding up this rebuild with heavy reliance on free agency.

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak told the Observer in September, “Free-agent signings, for us, are not something to concentrate on going forward. We’re not going to get the ‘Big Fish.’ ”

Kupchak wasn’t saying they’d never pursue free agents, but that cap space, which starts to open up after this season, is better used in trades and re-signing young talent for the foreseeable future.

Cap space, without a realistic plan to use it, might be the most overvalued commodity in pro sports. The Hornets must build a base of complementary talent before they make a pitch to a name free agent. Being premature in that process creates a risk of overpaying for a player who makes little difference.

The Hornets are fun to watch, but rim protection and rebounding are obvious problems. Is there anything trade-wise they can do about this?

The rim protection is truly horrible right now. Through five games, they are not only 30th among 30 NBA teams in points-in-the-paint allowed (62.4 per game), but they are nearly three points worse than No. 29 New Orleans in that statistic. They are 27th among 30 in rebound differential, getting 47.5 percent of total rebounds in their games.

I don’t believe there is a quick-fix trade that would address this in any significant way. Borrego playing Bismack Biyombo over a younger Willy Hernangomez as backup center speaks to trying to address this because Biyombo, for all his offensive limitations, is a far better team defender than Hernangomez.

When Borrego says “prevention is cure” on this issue, it sounds like coach-speak, but he’s right: The best chance to at least marginally fix this is for the guards and forwards to better cut off dribble-penetration before the ball ever gets to the rim. It hurt that point guard Terry Rozier, an above-average defender, has had chronic foul trouble so far with the Hornets.

Do you think the Hornets will surprise some people? They’re extremely sloppy and reckless at times, but I could see them winning some games against good teams if Cody Zeller stays healthy.

The sample size is small, but the Hornets leading the NBA in 3-point percentage (41.9 percent) is surprising and encouraging. I don’t believe they’ll finish the season No. 1 in the category, but they can certainly be in the top third of the NBA in both 3-point percentage and makes per game. That will put them in position to beat good teams on random nights.

Your mention of Zeller avoiding injuries is key, too, not just because he has been available for only half the team’s games the previous two seasons, but because he is probably the player hardest to replace on this roster.

There is a bigger gap in ability between Zeller and any other Hornets center than there is between a starter and a backup at the other four positions, and it’s not close.

Zeller has assembled a double-double in points and rebounds in all four of the games he has played this season (he missed the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a personal absence). He is playing great and has taken to Borrego’s ask that he be more involved with ball-movement/facilitating.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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