Charlotte Hornets fans expect change, now and in the long run.
The Hornets are on a four-game losing streak and are 23-33 entering Wednesday’s road game against the Orlando Magic. That’s the last game before a break of about a week for All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford hasn’t given up on still qualifying for the playoffs, but the fan base seems to have moved on from that possibility, based on the questions I received for this week’s mailbag. Pretty much all the questions fans posed via Twitter were of the “what next?” variety, whether rotation changes now, or roster makeover this summer or potential management restructuring.
On to the questions:
Q. Why have they not tried a different rotation? Like (playing Nic) Batum off the bench?
A. I hear a lot of advocacy for making Jeremy Lamb a starter, and moving Batum to the reserves. My gut feeling about that is Batum has struggled off and on this season (his 0-of-10 shooting Sunday against the Toronto Raptors a low point), but that doesn’t mean this team would be better leaning more on Lamb than Batum.
Lamb is clearly having his best NBA season, averaging 13.4 points and 45 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. Batum is averaging 12 points on 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3.
Other than those scoring and shooting numbers, Batum is still the superior player. He’s a better defender and a much better passer-playmaker. Batum will throw the ball away once every game in a way that is frustrating, but he’s also the best connector this team has. He takes pressure off Kemba Walker to be both this team’s top scorer and its only real facilitator.
Batum has become the flashpoint of fans’ frustration with this team, and I think that’s at least as much about the size of his contract ($120 million over five seasons) as how he’s performing. Does he deserve criticism? Sure. Should he be de-emphasized? Not really. He has skills that make the game easier for teammates, and every one of those teammates would endorse that.
Q. If the Hornets were to raise the white flag (i.e. give up on the playoff pursuit), and the young guys get into the rotation as a result, how does Steve Clifford’s coaching strategy change?
A. If (when?) the playoff chase is over, center Dwight Howard should play far fewer minutes. Why add a lot of pointless mileage on Howard, when he’s already logged more than 35,000 career minutes?
The Hornets owe Howard $23.5 million guaranteed next season. To risk his health in meaningless games in April doesn’t help anyone, particularly if instead Clifford can explore what new Hornets center Willy Hernangomez can provide.
Q. Do you think Herenangomez will see significant minutes after the All-Star break?
A. Not immmediately after the All-Star break. As of now, he’s the Hornets’ fifth among five big men, and the third center behind Howard and Cody Zeller. He doesn’t have the shooting range to play power forward the way Clifford wants to use that position.
Once they are out of the playoff chase, one option would be playing Hernangomez some at center with Zeller moving over to power forward. Zeller doesn’t have 3-point range, but he’s slightly better equipped than Hernangomez to operate outside the lane offensively and defensively.
Q. At what positon do the Hornets need the most help? How do you see the Hornets addressing that, between the draft, free agency and trades?
A. They need an upgrade at backup point guard. They haven’t been solid at that position since Jeremy Lin left in free agency the summer of 2016, signing to be the starter with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Hornets were so strapped financially in July, inching toward the luxury-tax threshold, that they had to sign Kemba Walker’s backup on the cheap. Michael Carter-Williams accepted a one-season, $2.7 million contract.
Carter-Williams shoots just 32 percent from the field and 28 percent from the 3-point line. In fairness, his above-average defense and his 6-foot-6 height have been useful here. But it’s obvious this is an area of need.
The draft comes before free agency on the NBA calendar. It would be cheaper to draft a point guard on the rookie pay scale than sign one in free agency. The counter argument to that is whether you want to entrust immediate backup minutes at the point to a rookie.
Q. Are there any buyout players who could help this team?
A. The problem with signing a veteran who has accepted a buyout from his previous team is that player’s salary, even if it’s at the minimum, pushes the Hornets closer to the tax line. Also, those veterans logically are looking for a new team with a great chance to make a playoff run. The Hornets aren’t that right now.
Q. Has coach Clifford lost this team? I have not seen much improvement since his return from medical leave.
A. I don’t think they have stopped responding to him. I know the core players on this team all respect him. Barring a total collapse in the remaining 26 games, I’d bring him back for another season.
Q. What is your strategy going forward if you are (Hornets owner) Michael Jordan? Continue with this core or start over, like in 2011?
A. The Hornets might not have the option of blowing this up and starting over on the quick. With 10 players signed under guaranteed contract, the Hornets already have payroll obligations of about $115 million for next season.
There are just a handful of the 30 NBA franchises projected to start the new fiscal year in July under the salary cap. So there are very few places for the Hornets to move contracts, in order to blow it up.