Either the Charlotte Hornets are the most dangerous but looked over team in the Eastern Conference or the Dwight Howard franchise killing tour will claim another victim. There is no real middle ground. The Hornets certainly don’t lack for talent. They have Kemba Walker, who notched his first All-Star berth last year at the age of 26. They have a two-way stretch power forward in Marvin Williams who can guard you in the post, on the perimeter and hit a couple 3s for you per game. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the lockdown defender and Cody Zeller is the low-key ultra-productive big man who does everything you need to help you win games.
So how the hell did this team go 36-46 last season?
No luck at all
The truth is with a little better health and a little bit of luck, they would have been much better than that. Based on their offensive and defensive efficiency they played like a team that would finish 42-40 on the year. Meaning they were the unluckiest team in the NBA last season.
Health was also a factor as the team went into an absolute tailspin once Cody Zeller went down with injury and the team was forced to rely on a Frank Kaminsky/Roy Hibbert/Spencer Hawes triangle of suck to round out its center rotation.
You’d think that simply by adding a competent center like Howard to replace that triangle, the Hornets would be sitting pretty. Perhaps you’re right. But things are already getting off to a shaky start in Charlotte.
The injury bug struck again as Nicolas Batum is out at least six to eight weeks with a torn ligament in his elbow. Batum can run hot and cold, but he is coming off a strong year with the Hornets and had the second highest assist percentage after Walker. He also was a key cog as a shooter and playmaker on offense.
Then you have the Dwight factor.
Already, it’s pretty clear that the team is going to start Howard and have Zeller, one of their most productive players, come off the bench. Zeller is a good defender, an adequate rebounder but also led the team with a 60.3 true shooting percentage. His new teammate Howard also had a true shooting percentage north of 60, but whereas Howard is almost exclusively a rim runner, Zeller can pick and pop as well as run the floor.
Other additions include sharp-shooting rookie Malik Monk. Much like Luke Kennard and the Pistons, any production Monk provides in year one as an occasional 3-point threat will be icing on top of the sundae.
Other than the Batum injury it would seem that the Hornets are sitting pretty and ready to vault right into the playoffs. An All-Star point guard, a good guard rotation of Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Monk and Batum (once healthy). Two efficient centers who can rebound and defend. A two-way power forward and a stretch option in Kaminsky off the bench who is no longer going to be forced to pretend to be a center.
Possible Red Flags
Well, there are two red flags for the Hornets, three if you count Batum.
Point guard depth is extremely scary. The Hornets didn’t have a murderer’s row last year with Brian Roberts and Ramon Sessions, but they lost both of them and replaced them with Michael Carter-Williams. On any nights when the Hornets are struggling from 3 the offense might go into lockdown with MCW on the floor. And if Kemba Walker were to ever get hurt … good grief.
The other factor is the Dwight Howard factor. He was mostly a good soldier (on the court) during his one year in Atlanta after signing a major free agency deal. But the team traded him at the first opportunity for essentially a bag of balls (this bag in the angular form of Miles Plumlee). That has to be considered a red flag. Second, they are anointing Howard the starter even though he’s probably not as good as Zeller. Either they are misevaluating their talent or are afraid Howard would unleash the prima dona act if he was told to come off the bench. Neither option seems very good.
I don’t like to succumb to popular narratives just because they’re out there. But Dwight as a weird dude who destroys locker room chemistry and with teammates who sort of despise him has been lingering in the air like a big old Howard fart in the wind since the tail end of his Magic days. That’s going on six years with bad karma following Howard around. Maybe he just needed to find the right situation to quietly play his game out of the spotlight. Or maybe he’s going to take the Hornets down with him.
While there seems to be huge boom or bust potential going on in Charlotte, eventually you have to place your bet. I’m going to push my chips into the Hornets busting. Walker might not be able to repeat the near superstar magic he displayed last season, and with the loss of Batum for an extended period of time that might bog down an offense with few other playmakers, others with injury histories and a lack of depth.
If everything goes right for the Hornets they could get into that 46-48 win stratosphere and be a lock for the playoffs. But if things go wrong they could really go wrong. They could win 36 games again this season except this time only have themselves, and not bad luck, to blame.