So many Charlotte Hornets fans seem exasperated with Nic Batum.
Ever since Batum signed that five-year, $120 million contract in the summer of 2016, he’s been this team’s most scrutinized player. He has contributed to the criticism with some inconsistent play and certainly that has been the case this season. When he has clunkers, like scoring two points against the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday on 1-of-7 shooting, he invites complaints.
Some of you wonder if that means he should go to the bench. That leads this week’s Hornets mailbag.
Q. Why is Nic Batum starting?
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A. The short answer: Because warts and all, he’s still a better option for now at small forward than Dwayne Bacon or rookie Miles Bridges.
The long answer: Is Batum performing like you’d expect from a player making $24 million this season? No, and that’s a problem. But as then-Hornets coach Steve Clifford said after Batum signed that contract, the salary wasn’t going to transform Batum into a 25-points-a-game scorer. That stuff was all fan expectations, not reality.
The Hornets offered him that contract because they felt competitive pressure to retain talent after Batum had a career season, his first after the trade from the Portland Trail Blazers. The Hornets weren’t the only team prepared to pay him that way.
This season, in order to get scorer Jeremy Lamb into the starting lineup, new coach James Borrego is asking more of Batum defensively. The opposing team’s better wing scorer is now Batum’s responsibility, rather than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s.
If you replace Batum in the starting lineup with Bacon or Bridges, it will be a rocky ride. As Borrego said post-game Sunday, he needs to search for ways to get Batum more involved offensively than he’s been. Batum is best as a passer and decision-maker, and that doesn’t happen as much as it once did (how much of that is Batum’s doing or Borrego’s, you could debate all day.)
Q. What do you think the odds are of the Hornets trading for Bradley Beal or someone else before the trade deadline who could help make a push for a higher seed in the playoffs?
A. It was always a long shot that the Washington Wizards would give up Beal, particularly during this season. Of the three highly-paid Wizards - Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter - Beal looks like the most cost-effective relative to his contract, and therefore the player they’d be least receptive to trading.
It was right for the Hornets to inquire about Beal’s availability because Kemba Walker needs help, but the Wizards don’t seem ready to blow up their core.
I think Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak will be proactive in looking to improve the roster; that is certainly the agenda owner Michael Jordan has set for years. However, as I’ve written several times of late, this team has limited trade assets. Acquiring a starter-quality player would entail giving up multiple young players and/or first-round picks. It’s a “is the juice worth the squeeze?’ judgment whether a trade happens before the February deadline.
Q. Why don’t Malik Monk and the other younger guys play more?
A. Borrego was very direct Sunday after Monk played just 10 minutes against the Pelicans: Monk has to play more consistent defense to play more regular minutes. Nothing new there; it’s the same concern Clifford had last season, which limited Monk’s minutes his rookie season.
Q. When are the Hornets going to start playing defense?
A. They haven’t been awful defensively, but they also haven’t been good. They are 15th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency (measured as points allowed per 100 possessions).
They have been much better in offensive efficiency (sixth). That dynamic is partially talent and partially a function of coaching philosophy. When Borrego chose to replace Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting lineup with Lamb, it was an effort to add offense at the potential expense of defense.
Also, the Hornets are playing defense differently this season than they did under Clifford, specifically how much they now switch. In the long run, that’s a good thing to install, but there was always going to be a challenging transition. As Marvin Williams noted in the preseason, all that switching puts a premium on more defensive communication and trust between teammates, and that isn’t instant.
Q. What is the post-Tony Parker plan (at backup point guard)? Regardless of time frame, is the idea to groom a young guy or bring in veteran talent when their salary cap situation improves?
A What we know is rookie Devonte Graham is earning Borrego’s trust, as reflected in the 18 minutes he played Sunday.
This franchise has had no real success in the second round of the draft since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004. Graham is mature and skilled at point guard. Trading up with the Atlanta Hawks to early in the second round to acquire Graham looks like a good call, based on the evidence so far.
Q. Do you see any situation where the Hornets are able to keep both Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb beyond this season?
A. There is nothing in the rules that would restrict them from re-signing Walker and Lamb. The question, as I wrote in a column recently, is whether Lamb sustains a level of play so good that he prices himself out of what the Hornets can sensibly afford to pay.
Salary caps are intended to make teams make hard choices. If you have Monk, Bridges and Bacon under relatively cheap contracts, and if the terms of Batum’s contract guarantee him more than $25 million next season, then can you justify paying Lamb $14 million or more next season to fill a wing position?
You could probably only justify that if other moves are made that thin out the wing positions.
Q. If the Hornets need to set their sights on the seventh or eighth seed (in the Eastern Conference playoffs), who do you see as the bigger threat to get into that mix, the Miami Heat or Washington Wizards?
A. Very close call there, as reflected by the standings. So close that it wouldn’t surprise me if injuries decide those last two playoff spots.
But if I had to pick between the Wizards and Heat, I’d say Miami. The Wizards might have more collective talent, but they have long-chronicled chemistry problems. Also, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra is terrific at maximizing whatever talent he has.