For much of the past two seasons, the Charlotte Hornets’ bench has been a time bomb, and no one ever knew what the timer was set at game-to-game.
Then-coach Steve Clifford could enter the fourth quarter with a small lead but wondering how much he could trust his reserves. Five minutes? Three minutes? He couldn’t play point guard Kemba Walker or power forward Marvin Williams all 48, so the second unit had to participate at least a little, but the messes that ensued were frequent and costly. A team that had back-to-back 36-victory non-playoff seasons couldn’t afford for that to continue.
So the new Hornets regime — general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach James Borrego — spent what little salary-cap flexibility they had over the summer on a 36-year-old point guard with a Hall of Fame-type resume, searching for 15 minutes a game without the constant chaos and resulting face-palms.
I asked Tony Parker, who spent his previous 17 NBA seasons as the San Antonio Spurs’ iconic point guard, if he was aware how fragile the Hornets’ second unit has been. He cited evidence as if it was his birthdate.
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“Last year this team lost like 15 games (by margins) between three and five points, so obviously holding leads is a big thing,” Parker said.
That big thing becomes Parker’s problem. Not exclusively, of course, but the Hornets used what precious little room they had under the luxury-tax threshold to sign Parker to a two-year, $10.25 million contract (the second season, at $5.25 million, is unguaranteed).
Wednesday is the season-opener at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, and Parker’s ability to lift the bench will go far in determining the Hornets’ record.
Parker said the day before training camp he didn’t sign here to be a “player-coach,” as in just to mentor in a warmup suit. His job is to play (in limited minutes) and bring some organization and poise to a second unit that has contributed greatly to the Hornets’ disappointments of late.
Borrego, who spent 10 seasons as a Spurs assistant, is direct in describing the crucial role Parker must play to fix the Hornets bench.
“It starts with Tony Parker: He stabilizes the group. He’s the father figure of the group,” Borrego said.
“He gets Malik (Monk) what he needs to get, he understands the offense, Tony is very aware. He’s been doing this for 17 years. He understands what that unit needs to look like.”
It needs to look radically different than before.
Collectively last season, the Hornets reserves couldn’t shoot and sure couldn’t guard. They were last among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency and third-worst in field-goal percentage (42.2 percent).
All sorts of things factor into second-unit performance, including injuries to both starters and reserves. Obviously, Nic Batum missing the first month of the season with an elbow injury put stress on the Hornets’ depth. Perhaps of even more impact, center Cody Zeller played only 33 of 82 games last season because of left knee surgery and then ongoing knee pain. Zeller as the backup to Dwight Howard should have been the biggest strength of the second unit (he’s now a starter with Howard traded).
But the core of the bench problems was the misadventures trying to find a suitable, affordable backup to Walker at the point.
Two seasons ago, it was an over-the-hill Ramon Sessions and a not-really-an-NBA-player Brian Roberts. In the summer of 2017, looking for a bigger point guard who could also defend shooting guards, the Hornets signed 6-6 former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams.
That signing couldn’t have gone much worse. He was hurt a lot (entering training camp with a sore knee and ending the season needing shoulder surgery). In-between he missed dozens of layups in a way that seemed to wreck his self-confidence, like a golfer with a case of the yips standing over a putt.
Kupchak said right after the draft the Hornets needed to add a veteran ball-handling guard. Parker actually reached out to the Hornets in July, in search of a larger on-court role than staying with Spurs figured to entail.
Tony Parker, lord of the rings
Fellow Frenchman Batum says Parker was screaming out instructions to his new teammates two minutes into his first pickup game with the Hornets. He’s not viewed as an interloper or a know-it-all, but the guy with four championship rings and a wealth of knowledge.
Walker said his only concern about Parker is that “TP” will eventually grow tired of all the questions Walker asks. More to the point of his role, Parker has become the second unit’s “father figure” already.
“He is certainly already one of our leaders. He’s always one of the first ones to say something, and that’s how it should be because everyone respects him and wants his advice,” said backup center Willy Hernangomez. “It’s super-fun playing with him because you know if you set good screens, he’s going to find you when you’re open. He knows everything: The players, the plays and the tempo.”
That experience and credibility counts for more specific to this circumstance because, other than previous starter Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the second unit is Hernangomez in his third season, Monk in his second and rookie Miles Bridges. The bench’s play was promising in five preseason games (tenth in field-goal percentage and ninth in net efficiency rating), but there’s no way to know how that will translate to the regular season.
Malik Monk, growth stock
If Parker is the stabilizing force, then Monk is the growth stock of this group. His rookie season mixed the spectacular with some mystifying defense and dubious offensive decision-making.
“Malik has great energy, gives us great offensive explosion and potential off the bench,” Borrego described.
It’s Parker’s job, as much as any one thing, to refine Monk into a contributor to a playoff run.
“Malik is going to be our main force,” Parker predicted of the second unit. “He’s going to score the basketball as instant offense.”
No more instant, though, than the gravitas Parker wields with this group.
“Make sure we’re organized. Make sure we don’t panic,” Parker said of his job.
“Not worry about our personal stats or our egos. Just play as a team, play together. If we had a lead, keep it. Or if we’re down, bring the energy to bring it up.”
Do all that, and Parker’s $5 million will be the best Hornets investment in a very long time.