Charlotte Hornets' Steve Clifford believes he has a playoff roster
Some teams need to stay healthy. The Charlotte Hornets need to get healthy. If they do, they make the playoffs – easily.
The Hornets opened the season Wednesday in Detroit and play their home opener Friday against Atlanta. They are without starting guard Nic Batum, who will miss six to eight weeks as he recovers from an elbow injury. Batum does nothing great but everything well. When he’s on, he’s like room service. Points, assists, rebounds – order what you need.
I like the veterans. I’ve been a fan of point guard Kemba Walker and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist since they arrived. MKG was muted last season after coming back from two serious injuries. That, however, has never been who he is. He’ll never shoot like, say, Charlotte rookie Dwayne Bacon. But MKG will play free safety/linebacker defense, go the hoop and, I hope, become fearless again.
Kemba, meanwhile, will remain Kemba. He’s been fearless since he stepped onto a court. That he annually improves is a testament to his offseason commitment.
But it’s the newcomers that excite me. Center Dwight Howard is an old new guy. He’s 31 and has miles on him. He came into the NBA in 2004, the same season the Charlotte Bobcats did.
The No. 1 pick in the ’04 draft (the Bobcats took Emeka Okafor with the second pick) Howard played every game his first four seasons. He was Superman before fellow Atlanta native Cam Newton was. And then Howard wasn’t. The Hornets are his fourth team in six seasons.
Howard became expendable. He can be petulant when he doesn’t get the ball, not a good look for a man 6-11 and 265 pounds with shoulders so broad they don’t look real.
He’s also is a big-time rebounder and a big-time defender who offers the Hornets a big-time presence. There are inducements for him to become Dwight Howard again. He’ll play for Michael Jordan, whom he wants to impress. He’ll play for head coach Steve Clifford. Their relationship is solid; Clifford twice coached him as assistant. He’ll also play for his legacy. Find me a once great player wants to finish his career as a temp.
I watched Howard in an exhibition against the Boston Celtics last week. On two occasions he worked to tip a rebound, and tip a rebound and tip a rebound again, hammering to keep the ball alive. He and Kemba ran the pick and roll as if they had played together for years.
That Howard will play the home opener against his hometown Hawks, who tossed him after a season, ought to be interesting. A bonus: Howard will free former starter Cody Zeller to impose his speed and athleticism on Zeller’s new second-team counterparts.
Also new is Dwayne Bacon, the smooth shooting second round pick out of Florida State. I asked Paul Silas, the former NBA star and long-time Hornets coach, about Bacon. He smiled his Paul Silas smile and said, “This kid can shoot.”
There’s going to be a temptation to write that Bacon sizzled. I recommend that you Google Bacon Sizzling. For four minutes, you can watch and hear bacon sizzle. I especially recommend it to those who want to forgo their vegan ways. A promise: I will never write (except for this) that Bacon sizzled. Consider this an oath.
A player you will like is Malik Monk, the No. 11 pick out of Kentucky. There will be evenings on which he’s used on defense. But Clifford says that Monk, who is a lean 6-3, wants to be not a good scorer, but a good player. That will entail defense. Clifford talks about defense the way other people talk about their Bentleys. He says Monk will do what’s necessary to be a good player.
Monk is only 19. Watch him play and you smile. He can shoot and go to the hoop, and his confidence is absolute. He has a Charlotte connection. His brother Marcus, who is 12 years older, played for the Carolina Panthers.
Marcus was a big time football player (who also played two years of basketball) at Arkansas. He led all SEC receivers as a freshman and set a school record for touchdowns as a junior. He badly hurt his right knee as a senior.
Despite the injury Chicago took him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft and then let him go. He was signed and waived twice by the New York Giants. The Panthers signed him on May 1, 2009.
“Great guy,” Marty Hurney, then and now Carolina’s general manager, said Monday. “He was a possession receiver, worked hard and he could jump. He was just a guy you liked.”
But Monk never came all the way back from the knee injury, and the Panthers released him four months and four days after they signed him.
Malik Monk and Howard have stories. So does Bacon.
Since the Hornets’ inception in 1988, they have drafted 18 players in the second round. The only one to make a major impact is Tony Bennett, whom Charlotte drafted in 1992. And he didn’t make a major impact until he became a college head coach.
The Hornets drafted two decent players in the second round. They took Malik Rose in 1996 and Lee Nailon in ’99. Between them Rose and Nailon played 1,119 games and started 181. They were helpers.
Since Nailon they’ve drafted nine second-round players. To see most play, go to the YMCA nearest you.
A 6-7 guard, Bacon appears to be a second round exception. It’s as if he arrived at Spectrum Arena fully formed. He’ll get more playing time with Batum out.
Are the Hornets good enough to attain home court advantage in the playoffs? Probably not. But it will be interesting to watch them try to get there.