BDL's 2017-18 Season Previews: Charlotte Hornets, with a new center of attention

The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent AllStars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.

Dwight Howard joins his third team in three years hoping for a fresh start and a return to the playoffs. (AP)

CHARLOTTE HORNETS

2016-17 finish: 36-46, 11th in the East
Offensive rating: 106.4 (14th)
Defensive rating: 106.1 (14th)

Additions: Dwight Howard, Malik Monk, Michael Carter-Williams, Dwayne Bacon, Julyan Stone
Subtractions: Ramon Sessions, Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, Brian Roberts, Christian Wood, Briante Weber

Did the summer help at all?

It looked like it did … right up until Charlotte lost its second-best player for the first couple of months of the season.

That Howard could be had for only a pair of middling rotation players and a second-round draft pick, so long as the acquiring team was willing to take on the final two years and $47.3 million of his contract, tells you all you need to know about how the league views him at this stage. But whatever you might think of Howard as a character in the broad entertainment spectacle that is the NBA, or about his decline in the years since he forced his way out of Orlando, it sure seems like he could help.

Adding Howard bumps incumbent Cody Zeller to the bench. On one hand, that might not be all that great a thing, considering the Hornets outscored opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with the former Indiana standout in the middle last season, and got outscored by 3.6 points-per-100 when he was on the bench.

On the other hand, that difference was so vast in large part because Charlotte gave nearly 1,500 minutes to the likes of Plumlee, Spencer Hawes and The Artist Formerly Known As Roy Hibbert last season. Even at a significant distance from his former All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA form, Howard should provide an upgrade over that group, giving the Hornets a much cleaner path to keeping a solid five on the floor at all times, and a better chance of finding more productive inside-out pairings with stretch bigs Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky.

Howard’s strengths — acting as an interior deterrent, rebounding, shot-blocking, finishing in the pick-and-roll — aren’t nearly as pronounced as they were several years, injuries and teams ago. But he should be a solid fit in the schemes favored by head coach Steve Clifford, who helped Howard grow into one of the game’s best centers as an assistant on Stan Van Gundy’s staff in Orlando.

On defense, rather than hedging high up on the floor to try to keep ball-handlers from turning the corner off a screen, Clifford wants his bigs to drop back and protect the paint. That’s something Howard can still do effectively, as he held opponents to 48.7 percent shooting on attempts at the rim last season, a top-20 mark among rotation big men, according to the NBA’s SportVU player tracking data.

Much ink has been spilled over Howard’s insistence that he needs to touch the ball in the post on offense, and his tendency to pout when he goes too many trips without such service. (He averaged only 8.3 field goal attempts per game last year in Atlanta, his lowest mark since his rookie year.) But if given a bit of leash to attack, his productivity on the offensive glass could help generate more second-chance opportunities and easy baskets for a team that’s long preferred punting offensive rebounds in favor of getting back in transition.

And when Dwight sets his mind to just setting a mean screen and rolling hard to the rim, very good things can still happen:

Even if Howard hews to screening, rolling, soaring and slamming, though, a Charlotte club that sputtered last season when All-Star point guard Kemba Walker wasn’t running the show — a Spurs-y 109 points-per-100 with Kemba on the court, a Sixers-y 100.7 points-per-100 when he wasn’t — figured to need more firepower on the floor. Enter first-round pick Monk, one of college basketball’s premier flamethrowers at Kentucky, and second-round pick Bacon, who developed into one of the ACC’s most dynamic scorers during his two years at Florida State.

It’s tough for rookies to earn big-minute roles on teams like Charlotte, who thrive on precision and execution on both ends of the floor. But if they start putting up buckets in bunches when they get the chance, it could be hard for Clifford to keep them off the floor.

With question marks at backup point guard and Nicolas Batum injured, All-Star Kemba Walker will have to shoulder an even bigger load. (Getty)

Howard should fortify the frontcourt, and the rookies could add depth on the wing, but Charlotte’s still looking shaky at the point behind Walker. What two years ago was an area of strength, thanks to the presence and play of Jeremy Lin, last year became a trouble spot with vets Sessions and Roberts manning the controls. This year, they’re gone, replaced by Carter-Williams, a non-shooter whose career has seriously stagnated since his Rookie of the Year run with the 76ers and who’s coming off platelet-rich plasma injections in both of his knees, and Stone, taking his third whack at sticking in the NBA after stints with Denver and Toronto wound up with him heading to Europe and the D-League.

Lacking a top-flight backup wouldn’t be such a big deal if Batum was on hand to lead second units. But he’ll be starting the season on the shelf after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.

The good news: Batum doesn’t need surgery, and is now expected to miss six to eight weeks rather than the initial reported estimate of eight to 12. The bad news: that’s still about 15 to 20 games to navigate without one of the team’s most important playmakers, facilitators, scorers and defenders. If the likes of Monk, Bacon and Jeremy Lamb can’t hold down the fort, the Hornets could face offensive struggles that put them behind the eight-ball in the race for postseason positioning, even in a dilapidated Eastern Conference.

Best-case scenario: Walker builds off last season’s All-Star campaign, Batum comes back quickly and none the worse for wear, and Howard re-establishes himself as an elite two-way force playing for old coach Clifford. Howard, Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stay healthy, giving Charlotte the spine of a nasty defense that moves back up toward the top of the league in points allowed per possession.

Monk proves an instant microwave and Kaminsky finds the 3-point stroke that he’s struggled to show in the pros, giving the Hornets more punch off the pine. Increased stinginess, slightly more pop, a continued commitment to not beating yourself — four years running, no team has turned the ball on a lower share of its possessions than Charlotte — help get the Hornets back on the right side of .500 and, in a weak conference, earn them home-court advantage in Round 1.

If everything falls apart: Batum never gets right after his early-season absence, and Walker can’t bear the creative burden by himself. Howard, for the umpteenth straight year, doesn’t see quite enough of the ball for his liking, and winds up in a passive-aggressive fight with his teammates about who should get more touches at what times and in what places. Monk struggles a bit acclimating to attacking larger, quicker defenders, and none of Charlotte’s other complimentary pieces — Kaminsky, MKG, Williams, Lamb, you name it — consistently shoot the ball well enough to keep defenses honest. The Hornets just sort of methodically, respectfully, unobtrusively plod their way to 35 wins that nobody really feels all that compelled to watch, and try again to get lucky late in the lottery.

Best guess at a record: 39-43

Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta Hawks • Boston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte HornetsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz