Why doesn’t rookie Malik Monk play more? Why don’t the Charlotte Hornets try shaking up the starting lineup? What’s the deal on Nic Batum’s season? Why doesn’t a roster this experienced, and this expensive, have a winning record?
I get those questions a lot from Hornets fans. So with the Hornets reconvening Tuesday for practice, following the All-Star break, I posed those questions to coach Steve Clifford. Here were his answers in an extended conversation Sunday:
Q. You have often said this is the most talented roster you have coached in Charlotte. Why has that not translated into a winning record?
A. Simply put. (A lack of) balanced play. As we sit here, we are 17th in offense (efficiency) and 16th in defense (efficiency). To win in this league, and be playing at a playoff level, you are usually going to have to be top 10 in either offense or defense. Two years ago (when they won 48 regular-season games) we were ninth in both. Last year was the first year that we weren’t top 10 in defense. To win consistently in this league, and to put good stretches of play together, you have to play well at both ends of the floor, and we haven’t been able to do that.
Q: What would be your perception why that connection hasn’t been made?
A. I would say purpose of play. Nobody is more responsible for that than the head coach. Execution, which I think has always been a strong point here. I think if you watched us play, our purpose of play has been better and more consistent (in the past). It’s not that we’re not capable. Winning in the NBA, when you play 82 times, is establishing a way to play, and then playing that way every night. That’s what we have struggled to do. We have two three-game winning streaks this (season). I don’t know if this is a team that can win 10 in a row, but at our best, we should have more than a three-game winning streak. Again, some of the things we have been very good at in the past, we just haven’t been this (season).
Q. Such as?
A: Consistency, sustaining play ... I’m not trying to be vague, but it’s not as simple as “We don’t do this” or “We don’t do that.” One of the things that is important is we have to find a way to create more easy offense off our defense. That’s something we haven’t been consistent with. When we do, like with any other team, it makes offense easier because you are getting those energy baskets that put you over the top sometimes.
We’re in the top half of the league in (attempting) layups, but we’re in the bottom 10 of converting those layups. That’s not always transition. The layup-shooting has been a problem for a couple of years. We do get the ball going to the basket, but we aren’t great at finishing those shots. Our bigger weakness, frankly, is we’re (26th) in steals, and we don’t create a lot of turnovers with our defense.
Q. Why has it been difficult for you to play Monk in significant minutes with the game on the line?
A. First off, he did play a lot of games (early), where he finished some games. I should preface this by saying I think Malik is going to be a good player, (and) he could be a very good player. He is a shotmaker, he has good quickness, he is bright and he has a good feel for the game.
Playing the point, because it’s not his natural position, he wasn’t utilized in the best possible way. If you look at the numbers when he played, we just didn’t function well. We didn’t function well defensively, and we also didn’t function well offensively. I don’t think, going back, that it was fair to him. The next part is, when (Michael Carter-Williams) started playing with that group (after recovering from two knee injuries), that group has played much better. It’s because (Carter-Williams) is someone who creates things defensively with his length, his quickness, his instincts. With that second group, it’s obvious he complements that group well.
With Malik, then it became, ‘Do we play him over Jeremy?’ when (Lamb) is playing so well? For Malik to be an every-night starter, which he has the talent and potential to be, he’s going to have to play both spots. To be an every-night starter you have to play at both ends of the floor unless you can (score) 26 a night. You have to be able to guard your position. He is undersized, so to say he’s going to be a (shooting guard) every night against every player (is a stretch). I do think he can play both spots, but I don’t think it was in his best interest to use him the way that I did.
Q: How much do you think it impeded Malik that he missed all the summer before training camp, with a sprained ankle?
A: I think that’s a big part of it. He did everything he could, but you’re not playing, you’re not getting the reps. It’s not the same (just watching and listening). He just didn’t get to work on the things individually that he wanted to. It’s about figuring out the NBA game. That’s what makes the summer league experience so important.
Q. Do you consider it a priority that you know what you have in Monk and fellow rookie Dwayne Bacon by the end of the season?
A: Those guys are evaluated every day. There is a lot that goes into playing well in this league. It is not just minutes on the floor (during games). Is it better (for their development) to be on the floor every night? Yes, in the right situation. Frankly, I think the first priority for a young player is to learn how the league works and how they have to play for them to play well, and also for the team to function well when they are on the floor.
So many young guys are given playing time because they’re in a rebuilding situation, and they put up numbers, but when you watch them play, you see they will struggle when the team gets better. That’s the whole trick about the NBA: The level of discipline is much different in college and the 24-second (shot) clock is much different. It’s a league of high execution because the players are so good. Every day they are evaluated. The second thing is this team was put together to be a playoff team. I know in the players’ minds and in the coaching staff’s minds, we’re going to have to play well but (reaching the playoffs) is still our goal. As long as we have a realistic chance, that’s what we are going to do.
Now -- and I hope this doesn’t happen -- we don’t have a chance to make the playoffs, then certainly those guys will get more time. But as I’ve told Malik and Dwayne, I hope their mindset is they’re going to be ready if there is a sprained ankle (to a rotation player) and their name is called. Be ready to go into a game, have their games in rhythm, and be experts on what we are doing. The fact that they are not playing, it might not be as good, but there are plenty of teaching opportunities every day for them.
Q: How would you describe Nic Batum’s season so far?
A: He basically started playing games without a training camp (due to the torn ligament in his left elbow). I think that is very difficult to do, no matter what kind of shape you are in or how many years you’ve played. Once we start playing the games, you can’t do a lot of contact in practice, you don’t do a lot of 5-on-5. There might be two weeks before you get two days off between games (and can schedule that sort of grueling practice). It’s mostly 3-on-3 (with deep reserves).
With Nic, I think that has been a big part of it, and now he’s playing at a very high level.
Q. Fans ask me all the time, is there anything different to try with the rotation. Is there anything you have considered along those lines?
A. Frankly, there has been a ton of experimentation, other than if you’re talking about starting lineups. Since I’ve been back, we’ve tried subbing in a number of different manners.
Our starters going into this last week were top half of the league (as a group) in plus-minus. Somebody asked me about putting Jeremy (Lamb) in the starting lineup. First off, he’s leading the Eastern Conference in scoring off the bench, so he’s playing extremely well in his role. And our starters have played well when they are all on the floor. If you’re a positive (in points) with everybody (starters and reserves), then you’re the Celtics or Toronto (at the top of the Eastern Conference). When you’re a group that plays well together, you also have to be careful about how much you break them up, because then you are taking a strength away.
Q: Obviously, the most significant change in the offseason was trading for center Dwight Howard. How would you evaluate Howard’s season so far?
A: I think he deserves a ton of credit for this: It’s been his best season since his second in Houston (2014-15, when he averaged 15.8 points and 10.5 rebounds). It’s a direct result of all the work he did over the summer; really committed in all areas. We’re talking about a guy who had significant back surgery and has had a knee injury (throughout his NBA career). The beginning of the season was difficult because of Nic (being injured, impeding synergy). What (Howard) brings is the ability to control the paint. When we’re executing well at both ends, he has had games where he has been terrific. It made sense to (make the the trade) and he’s done it well.
Q: Do you think Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back to where he was before the two shoulder surgeries?
A: Yes. This has been his best (season). I’m not saying plus-minus is always the biggest factor (in evaluating performance), but he has the best plus-minus on our roster. That doesn’t mean he has been our best player, but it does mean we have functioned very well with him on the floor.
Q: As you said, this team is built for the now. Going into this offseason, what would be the tweak you would like to see made to the roster?
A: It’s ways to create 3-point shots. If you look at our offense, there are things we’re good at: We don’t turn the ball over, we lead the league in free-throw attempts. What we’re not (good at) is the shotmaking. Our layup shooting, our midrange shooting. There isn’t an area we’re above 15th in. With the spread offenses everyone plays, the stat most indicative of really good play is shotmaking.
Q: Off the Hornets, from what you see around the NBA, who are the teams most capable of winning the championship?
A: Golden State and Houston in the West and Toronto, Boston and Cleveland obviously in the East. Cleveland is hard to gauge because they (remade the roster at the trade deadline), but they have LeBron and they really added a lot of quickness, which was their problem; it’s hard to defend right now if you don’t have (great) athleticism. They improved that. Golden State is just terrific and Houston is right there with them.
Q: Do you see the Rockets as a more viable challenger to the Warriors in the West than teams in the previous few seasons?
A: Yes. I think (Houston’s) roster has more balance. They’ve always been terrific offensively since they got Harden, but now their roster is much more balanced to be able to defense, also.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell