There’s a lot of frustration among Charlotte Hornets fans this season, and backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams is a flashpoint for that anger.
That’s understandable. Carter-Williams has been underwhelming as Kemba Walker’s backup and his shooting – 30 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range – is terrible. His mid-range game is particularly bad this season: He shoots 19 percent on shots 3-10 feet from the basket and 12 percent 10-16 feet from the basket.
But those numbers don’t reflect the advantages of his size (6-foot-6) and defensive ability. He’s not been the complete bust he’s sometimes portrayed. But on to the questions you submitted, via Twitter, for this week’s Hornets Mailbag:
Q. Please explain the enigma that is Michael Carter-Williams, and give insight behind how he is handled by the organization.
A. It’s important to recall the situation the Hornets were in when they signed him in July to a one-season, $2.7 million contract. Six other players were guaranteed $12 million or more for the 2017-18 season. So the Hornets entered summer free agency with minimal financial flexibility below the payroll line (slightly more than $119 million) that would cause the Hornets to pay luxury tax for the 2017-18 season.
Carter-Williams, a former NBA Rookie of the Year, was willing to take that one-season guarantee and modest salary early in the signing period. He made some sense in this situation because his size was a contrast to Walker’s (6-1), and would give coach Steve Clifford the option to have Carter-Williams defend shooting guards.
The bar for Hornets backup point guards has been set high the past few seasons by Jeremy Lin and Mo Williams. Rookie Malik Monk just isn’t experienced enough, or defensively able right now, to challenge Carter-Williams for minutes. Clifford has used Julyan Stone so little that it’s clear he’s not a challenger for the backup job, either.
Q. Do you think the Hornets make some sort of trade before the (Feb. 8) deadline? If so, who seems like the likeliest candidate?
A. I guess Carter-Williams leaving as an expiring contract would make some sense if the Hornets could exchange him for an upgrade at backup point guard.
Q. Is there any chance we trade Kemba by the deadline?
A. There is always a chance, but I don’t think it’s likely based on the high bar Hornets owner Michael Jordan set in an exclusive interview with the Observer. Exploring what Walker is worth as a trade commodity is appropriate due diligence, but actually trading him for anything short of a no-brainer deal would be a terrible message to the fan base.
Q. Why not be a “seller” at the deadline and see what the team can get for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and/or Frank Kaminsky?
A. Again, exploring what any player on this roster would bring in trade, when the Hornets are nine games below .500, is obligatory on this front office. However, keep in mind the NBA isn’t like baseball in dividing teams between “buyers” and “sellers” at the trade deadline. That’s because salary-cap rules so complicate in-season trades. It’s hard to pull off something comparable to a baseball trade that exchanges a veteran for draft picks or young prospects in a clean, simple fashion.
Q. Would the Hornets ever consider moving Jeremy Lamb into the starting lineup and Nic Batum to the second unit?
A. I doubt that would happen with Clifford as coach. Deemphasizing Batum to more feature Lamb would hurt the defense to start each game. Also, playing Batum and Walker together puts another passer/decision-maker on the floor, taking some pressure off Walker to be both the leading scorer and the only playmaker in the starting five.
Lamb is a better shooter than Batum, but is a lesser player in several other ways. Starting in the NBA is overrated, and Batum has had a disappointing season, but I doubt switching Batum’s and Lamb’s roles makes this team better. At best, it’s a wash.
Q. Do you think Clifford’s job is in jeopardy, or does he get a pass due to his time missed for health reasons?
A. I think Clifford has proven to both Hornets ownership and the NBA at large that he’s a capable head coach. That doesn’t mean he’s bulletproof should this roster not play better over the season’s last 30-some games. The six weeks he missed while addressing severe headaches would be a factor in judging his total body of work, but I don’t see that as a “Get out of jail free” card when the evaluations come in post-season.
I know this: If Jordan moves on from Clifford, he’ll find it tough to hire a replacement as devoted to the work, technically skilled, and better at holding players accountable without being so harsh the players tune him out. Dwight Howard is a particularly strong example of this: I believe Howard is having a bounce-back season in part because Clifford’s relationship with him is such a plus.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell