Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was poised for big things this year in his pivotal fourth season in the NBA. Like others from his draft class, MKG was working to incur a big leap forward—a la Bulls guard Jimmy Butler a season ago, who won Most Improved Player and made his first All-Star team.
MKG was nothing more than a passable mid-range shooter a season ago. The small forward didn’t attempt a single three-point shot (previously a paltry 3-of-18 from distance in his career), crippling the team's spacing on the floor at times. But changes to his shooting stroke hinted that he could be set for drastic improvements ahead.
“It’s increased his confidence level,” Clifford said. “His whole leadership, assertiveness on the court and his understanding of the game has come out more for his teammates as he’s gotten more confident.”
Unfortunately, Kidd-Gilchrist won’t have a chance at posting a breakout season this year in the same vein as Butler’s. Following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, the defensive-minded wing is likely to miss the entire 2015-16 campaign. There’s a chance he’ll return in late April, but if the Hornets aren’t in the hunt for a playoff spot at that time, there frankly won’t be much of a reason for MKG to rush back.
So can Buzz City still be a playoff team without the heart and soul of its defense?
When Kidd-Gilchrist was on the court for the Hornets last season, the effective field goal percentage of opponents was 47.4% and they scored 98.8 points per 100 possessions. Those numbers jumped to 49.6% and 107.4 points per 100 possessions when MKG was sitting on the bench. Additionally, Charlotte was 27-28 when Kidd-Gilchrist played, and a lowly 6-21 when he sat out. In those 27 contests without the former No. 2 overall pick, the Hornets were outscored by an average of 9.1 points per game.
To sum up, the outlook is grim for Charlotte without the defensive dynamo. There’s simply no way to sugarcoat it.
As Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted via Twitter, pressure will now ramp up on new additions Nic Batum and Jeremy Lamb—two of the team’s primary offseason acquisitions. If you’re a Hornets fan, the words “pressure on Lamb” is not what you wanted to see heading into the new campaign.
Nevertheless, that’s the state of things in Charlotte.
Coming off any other season, Batum would actually be seen as a suitable replacement for the injured 22-year-old. During the 2014-15 season, however, the Frenchman made just 40% of his field-goal attempts and 32.4% of his three-point shots—both the worst marks of his career.
Previously, Batum had established himself as one of the best three-and-D perimeter role players in the game. He converted 37.5% of his triples in three seasons before the drop-off a season ago, and he pestered opponents on the perimeter by using his lanky frame. He could return to that form in Charlotte, but the breakdown of his shots last season doesn't promote confidence.
Batum was about league average above the break a season ago, but he really struggled from the corners. The 30.6% of threes he made from the left corner was down considerably from 54.1% in 2013-14. The corner three is widely regarded as the most efficient shot in the game, but Batum was anemic from those spots throughout his rough year.
If there is a silver lining here, it’s that MKG’s injury opens up the small forward spot for Batum. Rather than playing him at shooting guard—where the 26-year-old veteran has played an estimated 0% of his minutes over the past two seasons, according to Basketball Reference—he can play at his more natural spot on the floor. Even with positionless basketball becoming a bigger trend in today’s NBA, that could prove to be an advantage from a comfort zone standpoint.
If Clifford opts to slide Batum down to the vacant small forward spot, he’ll need a new shooting guard in the starting lineup. Chances are that responsibility will fall to Lamb.
The UConn product had a very productive college career under head coach Jim Calhoun. During his sophomore campaign before entering the NBA draft, Lamb led the Huskies by averaging 17.7 points per game. He made a whopping 60.1% of his two-point field goals and was second on the team in rebounding behind Andre Drummond.
As a freshman during the 2010-11 season, Lamb was the wingman to current Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. Lamb was second on the team in scoring at 11.1 points per game (behind Walker’s 23.5 points per contest) and converted 36.8% of his threes. The Huskies went on to win the National Championship against No. 8 Butler. Lamb shot 4-of-8 (3-of-6 from downtown) in that game and finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a steal.
Perhaps the duo of Walker and Lamb, now reunited in Charlotte, can regain some of the magic they put forth in the college atmosphere. If not, at least the Hornets have a viable veteran who is used to playing big minutes.
Jeremy Lin—one of free agency’s biggest bargains after inking a two-year, $4 million deal with Charlotte—has already proven himself as a productive starter with the Knicks and Rockets. His averages with the Lakers a season ago weren't glimmering, but he actually notched more points, rebounds, assists and steals per 36 minutes in Lakerland when compared to his 2013-14 season in Houston.
The man formerly known as “Linsanity” is poised to fill the sixth man role with the Hornets. There’s a chance Clifford will use Lin in lineups alongside Walker so Charlotte has two ball handlers on the court at the same time (much like Phoenix in recent years). He scored 17 points and dished out seven assists in 25 minutes off the bench in Charlotte’s first preseason game. Yes, it’s preseason, and there isn’t much long-term insight to glean from that showing, but that performance at a minimum is a good omen.
With Kidd-Gilchrist in street clothes (perhaps for the entire season), though, Batum, Lamb and Lin must play to their full potential. Frankly, even if all three step up to the challenge, roster improvements to the Pacers, Heat and even Knicks could already prove a death knell to Charlotte’s playoff hopes. The Hornets simply needed MKG.
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