It was an extremely frustrating and disappointing season for a Hornets team that expected to take the next step and win a playoff series. That obviously did not happen and Charlotte now plunges into an off-season with very little room to grow. A (likely) late lottery pick and the full-mid-level exception worth approximately $8.4 million are the only stepping stones the team has to improve the roster this summer.
Allow us to dig into some of the exit interview quotes from this week and attempt to read between the lines:
“Goal was to make playoffs. We don’t have overpowering roster, but we have a roster good enough to be a playoff team.”
– Steve Clifford
Eh, maybe. The front office had a chance to figure out a way to re-sign Courtney Lee by paying him somewhere in the $13-mil range over five years (owned his bird rights). They elected not too, likely realized their mistake pretty quickly, and reacted by trading for a Miles Plumlee contract worth $12.4-mil over the next four seasons. Oh my.
Does anyone believe that the same General Manager to turn down paying Courtney Lee for salary-cap reasons also traded for Miles Freaking Plumlee contract? Yeah, me neither. This feels like the same ownership applying pressure that has made so many awful personnel decisions in the past. People seem to forget that, and it’s not talked about enough.
“Last year we were 4th in crunch time defense, this year we were 29th. That’s the difference.”
– Steve Clifford
The Hornets were 0-9 in games that were decided by 3 points or less, and 0-6 in overtime games. I’m still having trouble wrapping my brain around this.
Roy Hibbert was the value free-agency signing that Rich Cho had nailed in years past (McRoberts, CDR, Lin). The expectation wasn’t high for Hibbert, but considering Cho’s track record for finding good value in free-agency and Hibbert likely playing to save his career, it seemed like it could be a recipe for success. That ended up being far from the truth as Hibbert was injured just one week into the season and could not consistently stay in the rotation until he was a part of the deal that brought Miles Plumlee to Charlotte in early February.
“I thought that he could bring something we’ve never had here before – a rim protector.”
– Steve Clifford
In the first game of the season against Milwaukee, Hibbert was just that, and then some. He scored 15 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked 5 shots and had 3 assists. It was by far Hibbert’s best game as a Hornet. Who would’ve thought that just 42 games later we would be shipping him to Milwaukee for the right to pay Miles Plumlee over twice as much annually. Sigh.
We all knew that Coach Clifford would be asked about improving the roster and his answer was what you’d expect from him:
“That’s the great question and you can’t be knee-jerk. We have to get back to playing defense.”
Aside from playing better defense, there are plenty of problems surrounding this roster from a competitive standpoint, but Clifford certainly isn’t wrong. The Hornets finished the season 14th in defensive rating (106.1), the worst mark for the team over an 82 game schedule since Steve Clifford became the head coach in 2013. And as Clifford mentioned yesterday, Charlotte was 29th (124.5) defensively in “clutch” situations (last 5 minutes of a game in which the point differential is 5 or less).
The team literally couldn’t stop anyone late in games. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled to stay on the floor and for the most part was a disappointment on the defensive end. The absence of Courtney Lee this season certainly left a defensive hole on the wing. Nic Batum, Frank Kaminsky and Marco Belinelli were all liabilities defensively late in games. Charlotte simply didn’t have as many answers to come up with stops late in games like they have in the past during the Clifford era.
“Disappointing season. Definitely expected to be in the playoffs and compete to win a series.”
– Rich Cho
Those were unrealistic expectations. I wasn’t 36-wins low on this team, but I also didn’t expect this roster to win a playoff series. It was all Kemba offensively, all the time, and when Cody Zeller missed 13 games in the middle of the schedule, Charlotte was effectively finished. The Hornets were 2-16 in games without Zeller this season. Wow. He’s far from an All-Star, but this pick-and-roll heavy offensive scheme feeds itself when Zeller is on the floor — screening and rolling like a wild banshee.
Cho had an incredibly tough job last summer. Retaining Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee was never going to happen. It was time for Charlotte to officially move off of Big Al and finally hand the offense to Kemba. Plus, Lin was seeking a starting job and that clearly wasn’t coming ahead of Kemba. Courtney Lee was the re-signing that Cho had to figure out. Paying Lee $13-mil+ per season wasn’t ideal and was going to take Charlotte into the tax (assuming they re-signed Marvin Williams as well), but Cho could’ve put on his magic cap hat and figured out a way to stay under the tax apron. He did not. Re-signing Marvin Williams to a four-year deal looked crucial at the time with Brooklyn looming to snatch him away as well (he’ll make $15-million in ’19-’20 – ouch), but his shooting percentages dropped drastically this season and Marvin will turn 31 this summer.
Cho trading the 2016 22nd first-round pick for Marco Belinelli was the move that preceded everything in the paragraph above. It suggested that the Hornets were moving off of Lee and Jefferson, renouncing their rights, and clearing roughly $10-mil in space to chase Jeremy Lin, remember, that they didn’t have a chance with in the first place since they couldn’t offer a starting job. Even then, $10-mil still wouldn’t have been enough to talk turkey with Lin.
In retrospect, it seemed like a backwards process for the front office. The priorities were flawed.
“We’ll go best player available. We’ll likely keep the pick, but we’ll look at moving up or moving down.”
– Rich Cho on the upcoming June 22 draft
So, here we are with the 11th best odds in the NBA Draft Lottery on May 16. This feeling is quite familiar.
Cho claims that the Hornets will keep the pick, so if you take that at face value then go ahead and flush the MKG / Cody Zeller + lottery pick scenarios. We’ll see. Likely, the real answer is that everything is on the table – Cho is fighting for his job this summer – don’t rule anything out.
We have some great draft coverage coming during the next two months at Queen City Hoops, so make sure that you’re tuning in.