The Charlotte Hornets are finally close to the intact roster they envisioned before training camp opened in September.
Good fortune as that is, it will come with complication.
Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back with the team, after missing the last three games with an excused personal absence. Coach Steve Clifford said Kidd-Gilchrist will start Friday against the Boston Celtics, moving rookie Dwayne Bacon to the second unit.
Shooting guard Nic Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow Oct. 4. He’s been cleared for some contact practice, and it’s possible he’ll be cleared to play as soon as Wednesday’s nationally-televised home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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Clifford said after practice Thursday it’s overdue to get this team’s best players on the court, and establish playing groups. The Hornets have gotten by, starting the season 5-6. The team also played games without key reserves Cody Zeller and Michael Carter-Williams.
The defense has declined severely lately; the Hornets allowed an average of 113.3 points per 100 possessions in the past three games, all road losses. As Clifford said, “Defensively we’ve been smart and hard to play against, and right now we’re not.”
On the other hand, Clifford believes this is the most talented roster he has coached in his four-plus seasons in Charlotte. Asked to specify how he meant that, Clifford said this team has three All Star-caliber players in Kemba Walker, Dwight Howard and Batum.
Change is imminent. Clifford has to figure how to blend in Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum, while still taking advantage of development by Jeremy Lamb and rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon.
“We’ve got to get to our (planned playing) groups; we’re 11 games in,” Clifford said. “It will take some time. But when they get back, they’re going to start.”
Clifford can’t play everyone who has earned minutes once this team is close to full strength. Any NBA rotation is generally nine players, 10 at most. Clifford has said throughout his tenure in Charlotte that NBA players can’t perform optimally until they know when they’ll play, who they’ll play with, and roughly how much they’ll play.
So guys who have been on the fringes of this rotation, like Treveon Graham and Johnny O’Bryant, will likely sit. The more complicated question is what becomes of Lamb, Monk and Bacon with this roster closer to full strength.
In a broad discussion Thursday of the roster and the rotation Thursday, Clifford said:
▪ Kidd-Gilchrist is essential as a defender, and returns as a starter. In the five games he played this season, Kidd-Gilchrist guarded Houston Rockets superstar James Harden and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley.
“A defensive stopper, a guy who can play against primary scorers,” Clifford said of Kidd-Gilchrist. “That’s critical in this league.”
▪ Batum will work his way back up to starter’s minutes. He’s been intent on maintaining conditioning and participating in practice when possible, while recovering from his elbow injury. Much of Batum’s usefulness as a Hornet has been keeping the second unit organized.
“It’s going to take Nic some time to get back to his minutes,” Clifford said, “but there are going to be some nights where (other) guys don’t get to their normal minutes, depending on matchups.”
▪ Lamb, averaging 17.4 points per game, will likely go back to being a reserve. However, Lamb’s minutes (currently 30.4 per game) won’t plummet.
“He doesn’t care whether he starts, but we’re not going to change his role. He has a way to play to allows him to play well,” Clifford said of Lamb. “He’s got to get that kind of minutes."
▪ In just less than 22 minutes per game, Monk is averaging 9.9 points and 2.4 assists. While he was a shooting guard his one season at Kentucky, his 6-3 height and slim build suggest point guard.
“Malik’s position is to be a combo guard,” Clifford said. “He may not be a pure point guard, but to be a starter in this league, he’s going to have to be a (point) eventually.”
▪ Bacon, the 40th overall pick, has started six games. In just more than 24 minutes, he averages six points and 4.8 rebounds.
“I didn’t really picture him being an every-game rotation player (this season), and he is,” Clifford said. “He’s proven that.”
▪ After missing the summer and the preseason with soreness in both knees, 6-6 point guard Michael Carter has played in the past two games. Clifford saw a glimpse of why they signed Carter-Williams against the New York Knicks Tuesday.
“In the first half the other night, he was our best player,” Clifford said. “He got the ball going into the paint and his defense was terrific.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell