2018-19 Season Preview: Charlotte Hornets

NBA.com Global on Oct 14, 2018 11:42 AM
2018-19 Season Preview: Charlotte Hornets
Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, left, tries to stop Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker, right, on a drive to the basket during the first quarter of a preseason basketball game in Boston, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

The Charlotte Hornets know what it looks like when the chemistry is right. Maintaining that, however, has been a struggle. The absence of that consistency leads to a lack of continuity that, in this case, resulted in Mitch Kupchak coming aboard to run the Hornets’ basketball operation and James Borrego taking over as coach when Steve Clifford was fired after last season. Charlotte also made significant changes to the roster and attempted to improve team chemistry, too and Kupchak’s history of championship team-building with the Los Angeles Lakers will no doubt come in handy. The same goes for Borrego’s understanding of title runs his years in San Antonio. The best change agent, though, comes from within. And the Hornets will test that theory to the fullest this season.

ICYMI

Borrego’s presence along with Nicolas Batum’s status as one of the Hornets’ leaders led to future Hall of Famer Tony Parker signing on in free agency to serve as Kemba Walker’s backup. He’ll be a valuable piece to the backcourt puzzle, albeit in a limited role compared to his prime years in San Antonio … The offseason trade of Dwight Howard eventually netted the Hornets Bismack Biyombo, providing the rare opportunity for the rekindling of a relationship that worked well for both parties earlier. However, Biyombo is back in town with a much larger price tag and with higher expectations …The Hornets are hoping that high-flying rookie Miles Bridges (12th pick in the June Draft) is the future star that has eluded them repeatedly in the lottery. All of the physical tools are there. It’s a matter of finding the right position fit for him at the NBA level.

THREE POINTS

1. Trade talks still swirling around Kemba Walker. He has endured trade rumors in each of the past two offseasons and remained steadfast in his desire to remain with the only franchise he’s known in the league. The rumors were actually a compliment. As the lone All-Star on the team in recent years, he was the only player on the roster capable of bringing back anything of value in a potential deal. However, he will continue to see his name in trade rumors this season.

2. Malik Monk’s talents are undeniable. He’s a shooter with the potential to go off at any time from long range. It’s his availability that has not been what the Hornets had hoped or needed from the 11th pick in the 2017 draft. Monk played in just 63 games his rookie season, shooting 34 percent on 3-pointers and struggling to find any sort of offensive rhythm. A thumb injury dashed his NBA Summer League opportunity. The Hornets need him to make up for lost time this season.

3. Devonte’ Graham's could figure into things nicely. His journey back to his native North Carolina took a celebrated turn to Kansas for college hoops and had an unexpected twist on Draft night. That was when the Hawks selected him with the 34th pick, only to have him end up with a division rival via trade. His fit as the third point guard, behind Walker and Parker, could be an advantageous situation for all involved. Graham has experience at the highest level in college and is also bigger and more physical than Walker or Parker.

MAN ON THE SPOT

So much has been made of the value Cody Zeller brings when he’s not available. Now it’s time for him to show that the reality matches the hype. Howard is gone and the starting job should be his and his alone. He only played in 33 games last season, all in a reserve role. But after five years in the league, it’s time for Zeller to fulfill some of the promise that made him the fourth pick overall in the 2013 draft. He’s always been more mobile than the average center. His deficiency was that he wasn’t strong enough to battle around the basket consistently. He’ll be 26 when the season starts, in his physical prime. So, there shouldn’t be anything holding him back, especially with a new coaching staff around that won’t hold him hostage to his past -- good or bad -- in the league. It’s a season to show and prove for Zeller.

STARTING FIVE

Kemba Walker | 22.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.6 apg
The face of the franchise, Walker has played at an All-Star level consistently over the past three seasons.

Nicolas Batum | 11.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 5.5 apg
An injury-free summer and the addition of Parker should prove critical in a bounce-back season for the veteran swingman.

Cody Zeller | 7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
A healthy and productive season from Zeller might be the difference between the playoffs and the lottery for the Hornets.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | 9.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.0 apg
He needs to become more than just a defensive stopper to justify his minutes with this new regime.

Marvin Williams | 9.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.2 apg
His versatility and defensive awareness keep him in the mix after all these years in the league.

KEY RESERVES

Jeremy Lamb | 12.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.3 apg
The third-leading scorer behind Walker and Howard last season, Lamb continues to build his profile as high-level reserve.

Bismack Biyombo | 5.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.6 bpg
Biyombo provided solid production in limited minutes with the Magic while showing his durability in playing in all 82 games.

Frank Kaminsky | 11.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.6 apg
A floor-stretcher with his shooting prowess and size, Kaminsky must impact the game in more ways to reach his potential.

THE BOTTOM LINE

For a team with as many veteran pieces as the Hornets have on the roster, there are simply far too many questions marks surrounding this bunch. Sure, there’s an entirely new system to learn in Borrego’s first season. And the decision-makers eyeballing the roster now are not the same ones responsible for drafting or acquiring the bulk of the personnel. To avoid a complete overhaul, these Hornets have to find a way to come together quickly in a revamped Eastern Conference. If Walker gets the veteran assistance needed and at least a couple of the youngsters are ready for prime time, there’s a chance. Bottom line, the Hornets won’t be any worse than they were a year ago in Clifford’s final season. But it’s not clear if they’ll be much better in Borrego’s first campaign. Pencil them in at 35-47.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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