Whoever coaches the Charlotte Hornets next season must get Nic Batum and Dwight Howard on the same page.
That never really happened this season. That was partially about circumstance, most notably Batum missing the vast majority of the preseason with an elbow injury. It was also about Howard being more comfortable as a post-up player than a pick-and-roll player.
Regardless of the reasons. they never fully blended and they must for this team to succeed, assuming both are back in Charlotte. Those two are the highest-paid Hornets, and by a wide margin, each making approximately $24 million against the 2018-19 salary cap. Combined, that’s 40 percent of next season’s projected player payroll.
Center Howard, acquired in trade from the Atlanta Hawks in June, had a very good season statistically. Batum, completing his third season as a Hornet, had a mediocre-to-poor season statistically. But to say Howard succeeded and Batum failed would be a gross oversimplification of the problem.
Here’s the issue: Batum’s strength is creating fluid ball-movement, while Howard is best offensively looking to isolate in the low-post. That can lead to a tug-of-war of sorts. Finding a compromise between the optimum style of player for each of them is attainable, but it never quite got there this season in the 64 games when both played.
Batum missed the first 12 games of the regular season while a torn ligament in his left elbow healed. That doesn’t sound like a big thing, but the timing was: He missed all but a smidgen of the preseason exhibitions, the best chance for him and Howard to experiment in collaboration.
It’s not as if Batum had never played with a dominant low-post scorer before: “I played in Portland with LaMarcus Aldridge for seven years. I’m used to playing with a guy who is a big force in the post. I got the ball to LaMarcus in the post, and did the same stuff this year.”
But not necessarily with the same success, team-wise. Batum and center Cody Zeller, who moved to the second unit when Howard arrived, had exceptional synergy in Batum’s first two seasons in Charlotte. It was a combination of Zeller’s precise picks and Batum’s persistence in finding him rolling to the basket.
That synergy was never replicated this season with Howard. There were snippets, but nothing consistent.
“I try to play through him because he’s so big inside and draws so much attention," Batum said. "A guy like that, you have to use him.”
Did Batum give up some of his game to make this work?
“Yes, maybe, but I’m OK with that for my team. If I only cared about my numbers, I’d go (ask to come off the bench and have Zeller) set a screen, don’t go inside.”
That’s not to shift sole responsibility to Howard. How do you tell someone who has scored 18,000 NBA points, and shot 58 percent from the field doing it, that his way is wrong? This is a sure-thing Hall of Famer who this season had a 30-point/30-rebound game.
“I think we got better as the season went along,” Howard said of his and Batum’s collaboration. “It takes time for a connection to really be made. I thought towards the end of the season the connection got a lot better.
“I’m just upset we weren’t able to get to the playoffs and start doing things – myself and him, two great playoff players.”
Whether it’s Steve Clifford returning or someone new, the coach of this team has to figure out how to make Howard and Batum more efficient together because they are central to any chance the current roster has for success.
“Basketball,” Clifford reminded Wednesday, “is about you being able to play well, and your team playing well.”
For Batum-Howard, that's still a point in the distance.