Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Charlotte Hornets ready to set off on rebuilding season

Charlotte Hornets guard Malik Monk flexes his muscles during the team’s media day.
Charlotte Hornets guard Malik Monk flexes his muscles during the team’s media day. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Hornets are predicted by national media to finish near or at the bottom of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. The players don’t like that much, and a few have talked about playing with a chip on their shoulder.

The national media sometimes is portrayed as the evil national media. But the local media is not scheduling its vacation around the NBA playoffs. The Hornets lost their top two scorers in Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, and their top two leaders in Walker and Tony Parker.

If Malik Monk starts, Charlotte’s starters will come into the season with 15 years of NBA experience, six of them center Cody Zeller’s.

So, Charlotte’s victories this season will be small and likely infrequent. The idea is to establish a program in year one of the Hey, Kemba Left Era. The plan is for the Hornets to run, play intense defense, develop leaders, develop scorers and develop an identity.

“A year from now,” says coach James Borrego, “we’ll know who we are.”

Until then, Borrego is, like the rest of us, guessing. He won’t begin to realize what he has until after Oct. 23, when the Hornets open the season at Spectrum Center against the Chicago Bulls.

We can dwell on more than a decade’s worth of Charlotte’s mistakes. But we already have. You’d walk into Spectrum Center, and before you reached your seat, there it was, the sense of underachievement and failure.

Walker was a reason to go to games. Walker was hope. But even with him, the Hornets were peripheral, forever consigned to eighth place or lower in the standings.

Now, at least, they start over. In Terry Rozier, they have a new point guard, who can do everything but make a shot. The hope is that as a starter who doesn’t have to worry about getting yanked if he misses, Rozier will improve on the 38% field-goal percentage he’s complied during his four seasons in the NBA with the Boston Celtics.

The man runs and plays defense. And if he can’t lift his shooting percentage, he can turn into an old-school point guard, penetrating and passing.

To whom does he pass? He’ll pass to Dwayne Bacon, who was so good in the last 20 games of last season. When he didn’t play in Charlotte, Bacon willingly played for the Greensboro Swarm, Charlotte’s G League team. Rather than view the assignment as punishment, he saw it as an opportunity to play.

“It’s like writing your own story,” Bacon says.

His story has potential. Bacon is 6-foot-7, 221 pounds, and he works.

Rozier will also pass to small forward Miles Bridges, an athlete who last season, his rookie season, avoided the rookie wall, and refused to wear out as the season wore on.

Playing shooting guard will be Monk or Nicolas Batum.

There are moments when Monk is a perfectly good NBA guard. But he shot 34.2% from the field as a rookie and 38.7% last season. He has range and says he added 23 pounds since last season. He also can jump. He says he was too easy to move off his spot last season when, at 6-3, he played at 182 pounds.

Batum is the enemy in Charlotte because he was offered an enormous contract, and he had the audacity to sign it. You would have, too.

Batum is 30, and he sometimes gets lost on the court, his game so quiet that, except when an opponent has the ball – he plays defense -- you don’t quite know that he’s there.

Batum spent the offseason playing for France, which finished third in the FIBA World Cup. Batum led the team in minutes but in no other category. His numbers: 7.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He was the connector. He averaged only 9.3 points for the Hornets last season, and only in his rookie year, 2008-09, did he score less.

Batum says the FIBA competition helped. “I’m not a pickup-game guy,” he says.

If he can be a consistent factor offensively, he will greatly enhance this team.

Rozier will also attempt to develop a pick-and-roll relationship with Zeller, who has almost no post-up game and lacks the outside shot so many big men have acquired. But he runs the court quickly and relentlessly. Nobody has ever questioned his effort.

Regardless of the chip some of the Hornets wear on their shoulders, and you hope it won’t be enough to slow them down, they won’t win many games this season. To win fans, they have to – to use a word on which Borrego relies – compete.

Do that, and as the Hornets work their way to the top of the draft board, Year One of the Latest Rebuilding Effort will not be a failure.

Next for Panthers: beyond parity

Because NFL teams play only 16 games a season, there’s a premium on every outcome. Fans spend Monday and Tuesday talking about what happened, and Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning talking about what will.

On Monday morning you can walk down a street in any NFL city whose team played the previous day and tell whether the home team won or lost. And if for some reason that doesn’t work, you can tell by going into a restaurant, bar, coffee house or gym. You don’t have to ask. You’ll know.

So when the Carolina Panthers lost their first two games this season, both at home, fans loudly worried. Some, but not all, panicked. They were as likely to commit to memory the odds of an 0-2 and 0-3 making the playoffs as they were their phone number or date of their anniversary.

And now that the Panthers have won two straight, on the road, what should we believe? What happens next? What happens next is that they attempt to bust out of parity.

Thirteen of the NFL’s 32 teams are 2-2. Thirteen.

Only two teams, Kansas City and New England, are 4-0, and only one, San Francisco, is 3-0.

Only five are bottom-feeders. The New York Jets are 0-3; and Cincinnati, Denver, Miami and Washington are 0-4.

At this juncture a season ago, only six teams were 2-2 (Carolina was 2-1). So, parity has settled in.

The Panthers are an interesting story. I’ve written too many times that Mario Addison is Carolina’s most underrated player. It’s like a lifetime achievement award. But you can’t ignore him this season. He leads the team with 5.5 sacks, and is third in the league behind Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett (nine) and the Cleveland Browns’ Myles Garrett (six).

Fans who have been around a while have seen some superb Carolina pass rushers and pass rushes. They’re seeing it now. Carolina is tied with New England for an NFL high 18 sacks. In the road victories against Arizona and Houston, Carolina defenders took off as if propelled.

On offense, Christian McCaffrey has been all world, and quarterback Kyle Allen has been good enough. He’s too good to continue to lose the ball after being hit. He is what coach Ron Rivera has long said he was – poised, talented and ready to lead.

The Panthers host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Like the Panthers, the Jaguars lost their first two games, and like Carolina, they won their next two.

They, too, have a quarterback who replaced an injured starter. Like Allen, Gardner Minshew moved around, from Northwest Mississippi Community College to East Carolina to Washington State. Minshew, 24, started part-time for ECU in 2016 and ’17.

His quarterback rating is sixth in the NFL. Allen’s is third, immediately behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson and immediately in front of Dallas’ Dak Prescott.

Sunday will match teams on two-game winning streaks and quarterbacks on a nice streak of their own.

Walk down Tryon Street on Monday morning, and you’ll know who won.

Rebounding from a pathetic week

My NFL picks last week were pathetic. I just want to get that out of the way. If you pick against the team I pick, I don’t blame you. Well, this week you’d be foolish to. Last week, I mean.

Last Week: 6-9

Season: 27-19-1

Lock of the Week: Picked Kansas City (-7) over Detroit. I lost. The Chiefs won 34-30.

This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:

Thursday

SEATTLE 2 over the Los Angeles Rams

Sunday

HOUSTON 6 over Atlanta

Minnesota 5 over the NEW YORK GIANTS

Baltimore 2 over PITTSBURGH

TENNESSEE 7 over Buffalo

Chicago 9 over Oakland (in London)

NEW ORLEANS 7 over Tampa Bay

New England 13 over WASHINGTON

Arizona 2 over CINCINNATI

PHILADELPHIA 9 over the New York Jets

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS 6 over Denver

DALLAS 4 over Green Bay

KANSAS CITY 9 over Indianapolis

Monday

SAN FRANCISCO 1 over Cleveland

Lock of the Week: CAROLINA (-3½) 6 over Jacksonville

Vontaze Burfict’s punishment was fitting

The NFL this week hit Vontaze Burfict with an unprecedented (for being dirty on the field) 12-game suspension. Burfict has hit opponents with his helmet or elbow, twisted their ankles, slapped or stepped on body parts, an unprecedented number of times.

Burfict, in his first season as middle linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, played the previous seven seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals. You might remember him from a 2014 game against the Carolina Panthers.

After Cam Newton scored, Burfict hung onto him, twisting his ankles. After Greg Olsen scored, Burfict did the same. Both Newton and Olsen had injured their ankles earlier in the season.

In the olden days, middle linebackers patrolled the field, letting receivers, running backs and almost everybody else know that if they visited middle linebacker turf, they’d pay.

In the olden days, the league believed what we all did. A concussion was a glorified headache. So put on your helmet, and get back on the field and play.

But we know now. We know about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, and how head trauma can manifest itself after football (and other) careers end.

So the NFL attempts to make equipment safer and, by imposing penalties, change the head-first system of tackling that many players learned as children.

Some people collect art, some coins and some artifacts. Burfict, who is 6-1 and 255 pounds, collects cheap shots. Since he came to the NFL in 2012, he has accumulated 23 personal foul penalties and 15 penalties for unnecessary roughness. The NFL has suspended him 13 times.

The league had to do this. If not, their safety push is undermined. Some will say that Burfict learned the sport at a time when football was football and men were men.

But players also are fathers and sons and husbands and brothers, and their lives don’t end when their careers do.

I don’t know if Burfict, who turned 29 last week, will ever play football again. If he doesn’t, opponents will continue to have the opportunity to.

Short takes: MKG slips to the periphery

I enjoyed spending time with the Charlotte Hornets earlier this week. One of the players I like most is forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. I sat near him at a Charlotte restaurant a few months ago, and there was utterly no pretense. He has always struck me as a regular guy who plays a game and doesn’t believe he is special because of it.

Asked how he fit into the Hornets’ plans on media, he said, “I don’t know.”

His three-word answer explained everything.

Kidd-Gilchrist, who turned 26 last week, has more NBA experience than all but three Hornets. The team is going young, and MKG no longer is. Yes, he’s made a lot of money playing ball. But unless you’re an absolute athletic freak, you don’t make the NBA simply because of talent. You work. And you want to win, and you want to be part of something, and you want to be good.

Kidd-Gilchrist once saw himself as the basketball equivalent of a middle linebacker. Many of us saw him that way, too. Now we see him as, what, peripheral? I hope he gets a chance to play.

A Hornet I also like and respect is center Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo, 27, came to Charlotte the same season Kemba Walker did. Walker went ninth in the 2011 draft, Biyombo seventh.

Biyombo likes life, likes adventure, likes to see what he hasn’t seen. He badly wanted to go to a NASCAR race, and was a fan before we met at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His brother, Billy Biyombo, had a NASCAR video game, and that was Bismack’s introduction to the sport in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He went home during the offseason, and when I asked him about the visit, he talked about fans following him and shouting his name. I can see him inviting everybody to join him.

As Biyombo talked about going home, he wore a great smile. When I envision him, I see him rebounding and occasionally scoring. But mostly I see him smile. That’s not a bad way to be thought about…

The Errol Spence Jr. – Shawn Porter welterweight title fight was very, very good. Spence won a split decision, but as game and gutsy as Porter was, Spence won this fight.

Spence says Manny Pacquiao is the best fight for him. Both fighters work with Al Haymon, promoter and manager.

But Spence is wrong. The other welterweight champion, Terrence Crawford, is the best fight. Crawford is excellent, and I don’t think Spence Jr. wants to fight him, at least not for a year or years. That’s unfortunate. How often do you get two fighters at the same weight, among the best, pound for pound at any weight, who are simultaneously in their prime?

Spence, 29, is 26-0 with 21 knockouts. Crawford, 32, is 35-0 with 26 knockouts. If the NFL had the same schedule boxing does, nobody would play New England or Kansas City.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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