Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego
How much should position labels matter, particularly in evaluating a special talent such as Kemba Walker?
That’s a topic a Charlotte Hornets fan raised to me as a mailbag question: Can Walker be considered an elite point guard at his current rate of assists? Does he pass enough?
That got me thinking about team-building, as in how coaches adapt the talent they inherit from an existing team to maximum value.
So that question leads this week’s mailbag.
Q. Does Kemba understand the importance of the assist as the point guard?
A. Walker averages 5.9 assists. If that’s the number for the entire season, it would be second-highest among his eight NBA seasons. That 5.9 average ranks him 17th in the league, tied with the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant and right behind fellow Warrior and two-time MVP Stephen Curry at 6.1. Nice company to keep.
Walker is third in scoring at 28.1 points per game, tied for third in the league with Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin. The email I received suggested the Hornets would be a lot better if Walker was more focused on averaging closer to 10 assists per game than the current circumstance.
I disagree. First, I don’t think Walker’s teammates believe he shoots too much or doesn’t pass enough. Second, I think the problem for the Hornets is other players stepping up more, not Walker stepping back.
Walker averages about 20 shots per game because he’s making them at a rate of 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. There are other players on this roster - Nic Batum and Tony Parker, for instance - who are as good passers as Walker, but no one else is nearly as equipped to be a night-in/night-out primary scorer at the NBA level.
I like that coach James Borrego has found ways to play Walker minutes off the ball. It lowers some of his burden while averaging 33 minutes per game and opens new ways to use him as a scorer.
Q. How long do you think it takes for (Hornets general manager) Mitch (Kupchak) to extend Kemba?
A. The way NBA salary cap rules work, it’s not possible for the Hornets to offer Walker a new contract that would reflect his market value until Walker becomes a free agent in July. A lot of factors go into that, including the Hornets being over the salary cap this season and Walker having such a low salary this season ($12 million), relative to his productivity.
Bottom line, there is no way to preemptively take Walker off the market right now. The good news is both he and the Hornets are predisposed to him continuing in Charlotte beyond this season.
Q. It seems like defense is the real weakness of this team. Any idea why Borrego is giving Bismack Biyombo so few minutes if that’s his greatest attribute?
A. I would say this team’s real weakness is an inability so far (this isn’t new) to win close games in the fourth quarter. That’s a flaw that involves both defense and offense.
In NBA efficiency rating this season, the Hornets are stronger offensively (fourth) than defensively (11th), but 11 out of 30 isn’t bad.
Specific to the center situation, we knew going into the season that Borrego had four options, but none of them great. So far, most of the playing time has gone to Cody Zeller and Willy Hernangomez, who I’d say are the best compromises as far as offense and defense. You could argue that Biyombo isn’t playing much because of his offensive limitations for an equal-but-opposite reason to why Frank Kaminsky isn’t playing (a scorer who has struggled offensively).
By the way, the Hornets average 6.5 shots blocked per game, which ranks fourth in the NBA. That’s a surprise and I don’t know that it will last over time, but it indicates they aren’t as hurting for rim protection as I and many others projected in the preseason
Q. Is Marvin Williams’ best use as a small-ball center?
A. It is a use, but I wouldn’t call it his best use because its limited in how often you can use that kind of lineup. I like that Borrego isn’t reluctant to experiment with a roster that is new to him, such as occasionally trying to play Walker, Parker and Malik Monk together or in trying rookie Miles Bridges at multiple positions. Using the 6-9 Williams, who started his NBA career as a small forward, some at center is yet more experimentation.
Wherever Williams plays, his primary responsibilities are keeping the defense organized and presenting a 3-point threat to both score points and improve spacing.
Q. Who was the Hornets’ greatest dunker of all time? LJ? Baron? Could it end up Bridges?
A. That tomahawk Bridges threw down in the first half against the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday was sweet. I sure hope he gets an invitation to the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte in February.
You mentioned two fun dunkers in Larry Johnson and Baron Davis. I’d add Ricky Davis, who played in Charlotte from 1998 through 2000. Also, Jeff Taylor, a second-round pick during the Bobcats era, could really get above the rim. His teammates loved to watch him at the end of practices because he could hang in the air so long it made for dunk creativity.
(I’m sure there is someone memorable I’m missing. It’s been 30 years of basketball in Charlotte, after all.)
Davis is probably my favorite because he attacked the rim with such ferocity and creativity in his prime. I agree with Bridges that great dunks in the course of a real game are very different from what a player can dream up just for show. Davis was super in-game.
Q. As currently constructed, is this a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs? If not, what is the Hornets’ ceiling?
A. Through Tuesday’s games, the Hornets’ 6-5 record was tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for fifth-best in the East. Two thoughts about trying to project what we’ve seen so far over an 82-game season:
First, their efficiency ratings (combined to a net rating of sixth among 30) suggest they are better than 6-5, but that winds back to them still needing to prove they can win the close ones more than occasionally.
Second, they have yet to suffer any injury that has cost them a player for an entire game. The bench is clearly better and a 36-year-old Parker is essential to that improvement, so they need to stay lucky with health.
Barring major injuries to other rosters in the East, I think the Hornets are more at risk of slipping below sixth than they are equipped to get up to fifth or even fourth.