The Charlotte Hornets added five new players this offseason to strengthen a lineup that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference last season. Rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston join Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts as the deepest offseason player haul in recent Charlotte history. Charlotte will miss the production of Josh McRoberts and Chris Douglas-Roberts, but the 2014-15 Hornets will enter the season as one of the deepest teams in the East and a real candidate to host a playoff series.
In order to meet expectations, the Hornets must figure out a way to blend the new talent to account for the lost production from last season. Neither McRoberts nor Douglas-Roberts averaged double-figure scoring or more than five rebounds a game, but both filled critical roles on the roster. Team owner Michael Jordan called McRoberts a “connect-the-dots” player, and Douglas-Roberts emerged from the wake of Jeffrey Taylor’s Achilles injury as a wing player to be trusted in late game scenarios.
Head Coach Steve Clifford was fairly consistent last season with his player rotations. The Bobcats only deviated from the normal starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts and Al Jefferson in cases of injury. Fans of the Bobcats could accurately predict when players would sub in and out of the game after watching only a few contests. The established rotations created routine and gave players confidence in their roles. It was one reason Clifford was so successful during his first season in Charlotte.
But not every Bobcats lineup was successful. In fact, Charlotte often played lineups that were hard-pressed to score an easy bucket, or get a stop on defense. Too many times last season the reserve units would let leads slip away during their routine minutes in the second and fourth quarters. Below you will see a chart detailing the team stats of five commonly used lineups last season. The stats included are advanced stats, and are collected from games played following the All-Star break when Charlotte went 20-9. Here is a quick break-down of the stats: offensive and defensive ratings tell the number of points scored or allowed per 100 possessions; effective field goal percentage accounts for both 2s and 3s; and rebound percentage tracks the percentage of rebounds the team collects of all available rebounds. The others are self-explanatory.
Frequently Used Bobcats Lineups Post All-Star Break
Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, McRoberts, Jefferson
Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, Jefferson
Walker, Henderson, Douglas-Roberts, McRoberts, Jefferson
Ridnour, Neal, Douglas-Roberts, Zeller, Jefferson
Walker, Neal, Douglas-Roberts, Zeller, Jefferson
|Games / Minutes||19 / 290||20 / 116||8 / 59||13 / 47||14 / 40|
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||52.9%||42.5%||49.0%||49.3%||43.1%|
A couple of observations:
- It’s hard to stress how important McRoberts was to the team last season. When he was on the court with the other starters, the offensive functioned very efficiently. His production will be missed.
- Although the defense improved when Cody Zeller played for McRoberts, the offense took a major step back. Zeller is not the same passer as McRoberts, and he does not put the ball on the floor nearly as well. Charlotte will need Zeller to make major strides before he can be inserted into the starting lineup.
- There was some, but not a major, difference in the lineups featuring the starters and Kidd-Gilchrist compared to the starters and Douglas-Roberts. In these lineups, both players were defense-first, though CDR had the range to be more helpful on offense.
- Gary Neal is not a good defender. When Neal entered the game, almost always for Henderson, the team defense took a hit. With the addition of Lance Stephenson, and Henderson’s likely move to the sixth-man role, Neal’s future with Charlotte is in question if he doesn’t improve defensively.
Before jumping straight into roster predictions, there are several assumptions I used to guide my thinking and assemble my predictions. Some of these assumptions seem very logical (to me at least) while others may be more controversial.
- Lance Stephenson was brought to Charlotte to start, so either Henderson or Kidd-Gilchrist will move to the bench. I believe it will be Henderson, whose skills seem more transferable to the second unit.
- Even though Henderson will not start, I bet he will finish games a-la CDR finishing for Kidd-Gilchrist last season. As such, I don’t see Henderson losing much playing time from last season.
- Vonleh and Hairston are not going to see a lot of minutes. Neither rookie blew away expectations during the Las Vegas Summer League, and both have veterans in front of them on the depth chart. I suspect both will play, but neither will be in contention for a starting spot this season.
- Marvin Williams will see the vast majority of his time at power forward given the logjam on the wing already.
- No Jeffrey Taylor. His place on the Hornets is in flux given the stable of wings on the roster, plus he is coming back from an Achilles injury – one of the toughest injuries to recover from for a basketball player. A Gary Neal trade would open up minutes for Taylor.
Starting Lineup: Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Al Jefferson
Analysis: Williams is the wild card here. I see his ability to space the floor for Big Al and his ability to pass as factors that give him the starting nod. This group should be very solid defensively and more creative offensively than last year’s starters. A Kemba-Lance-MKG backcourt will be fun to watch.
Closing Lineup: Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Al Jefferson
Analysis: Just like last season, MKG’s offensive game will keep him on the bench during crunch time. This lineup might be a hair less effective defensively than the starting unit, but packs a greater offensive punch.
The Second Unit: Brian Roberts, Gary Neal, Gerald Henderson, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo
Analysis: One major advantage the 2014-15 Hornets have over last season is the second unit. This group features an improvement at point guard and two seasoned veterans on the wing. The question mark for this unit is the Zeller-Biyombo frontcourt. The two look like a productive pair on paper, but will have major problems scoring against most NBA front lines. One thing to note is that Clifford likes to stagger his rotations, meaning that this particular unit won’t be used frequently. Starters, probably Jefferson and Stephenson, will see time with the reserves to maintain offensive productivity.
The Young Guys: Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, PJ Hairston, Noah Vonleh, Al Jefferson
Analysis: The rookies will get action every game this season, and a lineup with Kemba and Big Al would be an easy place to get acclimated to the NBA game. Kemba should be able to get PJ open looks, while Jefferson and Vonleh could provide a nice high-low game in the post.
The Lance Lineup: Brian Roberts, Gary Neal, Lance Stephenson, Noah Vonleh, Cody Zeller
Analysis: Lance has the offensive game to carry a reserve unit in the NBA, and giving Lance an opportunity to run with the reserves might provide him an outlet to try some of his more creative/questionable moves. This lineup is the weakest of the group listed, but does have an interesting upside.
- Charlotte is very deep at both wing positions, and there aren’t enough minutes to go around to keep everyone satisfied. If I had to guess, I would say that Gary Neal and PJ Hairston will be the victims of the crowded backcourt.
- It’s unlikely we’ll see many dual point guard lineups like we did last year when Kemba and Ramon Sessions played together. Kemba and Brian Roberts are too similar.
- Charlotte has three unique options to complement Al Jefferson. Williams gives the most floor space and is the best passer. Zeller offers great athleticism and an ability to get to the hoop, and Vonleh has incredible defensive upside and a nice spot-up game already.
- The Charlotte Hornets still have weaknesses. One that stands out is the lack of guaranteed scoring when Jefferson isn’t on the floor. The Hornets will have to rely on long-range shooting and wing players being creative. This is where the Hornets benefit with Lance and Gerald. Another weakness is player ego. With minutes at a premium, Coach Clifford will have to work very hard to get players invested in their new roles. Will Gary Neal be satisfied playing fewer minutes? Will the young players, used to playing mega-minutes in college or the D-League, remain focused despite limited playing time?
- Charlotte has a chance to be very good this year. The Hornets already have a defensive identity, and now have more tools to increase their scoring. Team building will be paramount for this team to reach its potential.