Charlotte Hornets: A wrinkle in time

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images   Photo by Rocky Widner/Getty Images   Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Photo by Rocky Widner/Getty Images Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images /

The Step Back has been born from the aesthetics and traditions of the Hardwood Paroxysm Basketball Network. In the past, Hardwood Paroxysm has produced a massive stand-alone season preview. This year, that preview effort has been rolled up into the launch of The Step Back. 

The Step Back’s writers and illustrators have prepared a hefty deep-dive into each team, built from multiple smaller sections. This year’s theme is television comedies and each section is named after some of our favorite sitcoms. For links to all 30 teams, as well as details about the focus of each section, check out our guide on how to read this preview.

Art by Bryan Mastergeorge /


By Chris Barnewall (@Chris Barnewall)

Treading water usually has a negative connotation in sports. In today’s day and age of everything being faster, quicker, and getting what we want immediately, there’s been a translation over to how we view our favorite teams. Fans want to see progress from the year before, or they want to see a sign of what they can look forward to in the future. When they get more of the same, however, there’s a dislike of the results. Nothing changed, and therefore nothing was accomplished.

The problem with this mindset is that treading water is sometimes an accomplishment in of itself. Staying as good as you were the previous season is incredibly difficult in a league like the NBA, where teams are constantly fluctuating as chaos dominates. This is why we value the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat as franchises. While everybody around them changes, they remain constant in their values and play on the court.

This year, the Charlotte Hornets are going to tread water, and that is probably not going to be seen as a good thing. Many of the teams that surrounded the Hornets last year have improved, and that makes their road to the playoffs a little more difficult. Charlotte didn’t spend their offseason trying to get better, but instead attempting to temporarily maintain the status quo. They re-signed key players like Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, but in the process they were forced to let solid role guys such as Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin, and Courtney Lee leave for different teams. They were tough calls that had to be made, and Charlotte chose long-term flexibility over locking themselves into a short-term ceiling.

The Hornets are attempting to replace Lee, Jefferson, and Lin with Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert, and Ramon Sessions. None of them are as good as the players they replace, but stylistically they should be able to fit into the system fairly well. Add in that they’re playing for Steve Clifford, one of the best coaches in the NBA at bringing out the best in their players, and the concern that hangs over Charlotte slowly begins to evaporate.

However, just because the concern is lifted doesn’t make this a perfect team. Charlotte’s bench played a key role for them last year, and managed to bail them out of a lot of bad situations. When the starters struggled, they were able to turn to the second unit and expect consistently good play. There were lapses, of course, but as far as bench units go, they played well. Not every team has that, and their loss in that category is going to be sorely missed.

At the end of the day, though, that is still just a bench unit, and the real key to the Hornets season is going to rely on one of their best players remaining healthy. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is returning from a torn labrum this season, and there aren’t many better defenders across the NBA when he’s healthy. He’s like Kawhi Leonard in his ability to anchor an entire defense from the perimeter, and with the addition of Roy Hibbert he has an experienced rim protector behind him for the first time in his career.

Kidd-Gilchrist has spent the last three years working on his jump shot, and for seven games last year it looked like he might have actually figured it out. One year after not shooting any three-pointers, he started to take them in the few games he played before getting injured again, which is where Kidd-Gilchrist’s biggest problem resides — he’s only played more than 62 games once in his entire career, and he’s played less games every season he’s been in the NBA. Kidd-Gilchrist’s starting to gain a label as a player you can’t trust to stay healthy, and that’s not something the Hornets can afford to have on their roster.

If Kidd-Gilchrist is healthy, it changes everything for a Hornets team that has managed to keep most of their core together. Batum is back, and how important he was to Charlotte last year can not be understated. There’s a lot of players that get listed as “They just make the guys around them better,” but Batum actually makes the players around him better. The best example of this is Kemba Walker. Last season, Walker broke out and looked like an All-Star caliber point guard. He was incredible on an almost nightly basis, and a lot of that is attributed to a slight change in his shot motion and hard work. However, as great as Walker was, a lot of that credit has to go to Batum. When Walker was on the floor with Batum, he shot 41 percent from three-point range. When Batum wasn’t on the floor, he shot 28 percent, and his regular field goal percent fell to 39 percent.

Now, based on how Batum helped Walker, imagine that type of impact with Kidd-Gilchrist playing next to him?

The Hornets are going to be good again. How good? That’s a little hard to say and largely depends on what the rest of the East does around them. Charlotte getting Kidd-Gilchrist back and finding suitable replacements for the role players they lost should lessen the impact of losing solid role guys, but it’s hard to say the team got any better over the offseason. The Hornets are going to be the same team this year, and that’s OK because sometimes maintaining where you were previously were is just as hard as improving.


By Philip Rossman-Reich (@omagicdaily)

The Charlotte Hornets have been through everything in the last three years. And more.

There are still mental scars from the disastrous lockout-shortened 2012 season, when the then-Bobcats had the lowest winning percentage in league history. The team made the playoffs in 2014 behind strong defense, changed its name and then missed the playoffs in 2015, only to make it back once more last season.

Kemba Walker seemed to mature and gain some more control. Nicolas Batum arrived and took on much of the on-ball responsibility. Jeremy Lin provided energy off the bench and an extra scoring punch. Players fell in line and filled roles,all behind the brilliant leadership of head coach Steve Clifford.

This is how a playoff team is supposed to come together, and the Hornets finished with the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and took the Miami Heat to seven games, even holding a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6. After retaining Batum this summer, the Hornets should be in line for continued growth or at least to stay about where they are. So why no love for the Hornets?

The Hornets have entered that dreaded nether zone in the NBA perception battle. They have experienced minor success — that lone playoff berth — but have not taken the next step. There were no splashy moves or names to add to the marquee. Charlotte stayed the course. And no one believes that is enough.

No one except the Hornets.

True, Al Jefferson and Lin left in free agency. Both were important secondary cogs for the team. But the core is largely the same. The Hornets took their risks, bringing in Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions. However, Charlotte has Marvin Williams playing in a role that fits him and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should be back healthy to bolster an already strong Hornets defense.

When running down the teams in the playoff hunt for the Eastern Conference or even for the Southeast Division, the Hornets may not have greatly improved their team, but they surely deserve more benefit of the doubt. Certainly more so than a Bulls team piecing together ball-dominant former stars and that “super team” in New York.

The national media is not anywhere near the Hornets. Charlotte has only three national television games. That number is hard to believe considering Walker’s dynamism and his pull from his college days as a scoring machine — reminiscent of those one-on-one moves of the Allen Iverson era.

The Hornets are a playoff team. There is no reason to believe they will not be in that conversation again. They just want you to believe that.

Third Rock From the Sun

By Miles Wray (@mileswray)

I totally get it now, how a high draft pick, with all that talent and everything, can bust. Leaping around the court with those astonishing physical gifts, the eventual bust could get all the way to the NBA without hardly hearing a direct word about their nonexistent defensive rotations or their doomed shot selection. Hit the wrong combination of coaches in high school and, briefly, college — all of them perhaps bending over backwards, slimily, just to keep you in the program — and you might not ever own any skills that can help dig you out of a 20-win season.

Which means that the career of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is something, like, truly remarkable. From his adolescent years, Kidd-Gilchrist has had basketball’s most luxurious red carpets unfolded under his feet. First national high school powerhouse, then on to a few months at the University of Kentucky, and quickly into hearing his name called in the first few minutes of an NBA Draft. He was selected by the team coming off the very worst winning percentage in league history, a situation as ripe for dysfunction as any. We would all understand — sympathize, pretty much — if Kidd-Gilchrist pocketed his first guaranteed millions and then slunk off into some sunset.

Instead, there is something inside MKG that calls him, as if by religious duty, to the wearying work of defensive basketball. Look at his face as he plays: There is a collection of rings under his eyes, as if each conceded basket was cause for another hour of staring, painfully, into a hotel ceiling.

Never mind that, being tasked nightly with guarding the best opposing player, they will score, eventually, even as MKG’s hounding plunges their percentages dramatically. There is the feeling that Kidd-Gilchrist will not feel joy on a basketball court until he locks his man into an 0-fer with seven turnovers. And even then, it’ll probably just be a few minutes of quiet, contented reflection, and then his mind will jump to the next one.

Even the most disappointing lottery picks tend to leave behind a dunk-tastic highlight reel in their wake. MKG is no bust: His health will shape the 2017 playoffs, just as his absence helped form the 2016 playoffs. Also, MKG has no such reel. His dedication to defense is so total that his grotesque jump shot — malnourished by neglect? — is his visual signature.

It’s easy for us in the stands to point to Kidd-Gilchrist’s awkward shot and see, plainly, that he is something less than a superstar. More haunting, though, is the possibility that the Charlotte Hornets themselves do not value his constant defensive tenacity. Yes, this is Year 1 of MKG’s four-year rookie-scale extension — a modest one. But this is the same team who, about 15 months ago, effectively booted paint guardian Bismack Biyombo out the door, yanking back the tiny qualifying offer when July rolled around. Disciplined Steve Clifford was the coach then, too.

This is what MKG can do in 2016-17: Last year Charlotte was the and they got bounced in the first round. But they were locked into that incredible four-way tie; one more regular season victory and the third-seed was theirs outright. The Hornets did the whole thing basically without Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just seven mid-season games. For a full year now, he will be there, to fight against the best scorer. Fewer could be happier than Nicolas Batum and Kemba Walker, MKG’s workload gifting them the extra energy to create their own offense.

A possible result: The second-seed in the Eastern Conference, a bumpy but direct playoff road paved with 90-86 victories. This would mean, for two weeks in May, MKG and LeBron, fighting, fighting, fighting. There are rookie draft picks, this year, who are older than Kidd-Gilchrist. LeBron would eventually get his buckets. He would eventually get his highlights. It would not look pretty. That’s why people don’t like to play defense. Hardly anybody is better at it.

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Perfect Strangers

by Matt D’Anna (@hoop_nerd)

Ten Word Analysis: There is a lot to like here, considering defense too.

TeamSPACE charts are based on mapped clusters of shot activity. These areas are affectionately called Hunting Grounds, because they are the areas on the court where a player hunts for shots — and successfully scores most often. TeamSPACE takes the Hunting Grounds of all five players in a lineup and puts them on the court together — because, you know, they have to share that physical space, and there is only one ball.

In the past, it was one color per player; which meant that blending colors represented overlapping spaces for shot activity. But this time around, these are not your ordinary TeamSPACE shot maps. Each lineup is analyzed in the aggregate — one color! — and that unit is compared that unit to the rest of the league. So you will see a persistent red layer on every chart, highlighting the league’s Hunting Grounds from last season. The most prolific locations should come as no surprise: the paint, the corners, most of the top of the arc, and a couple of dabs at the foul line and top of the key.

So…how were these lineups chosen for each team? In the past, it’s been about projecting the starting lineup, estimating the most used lineup, or even designing the “most favoritest” lineup. This year? It’s the these charts represent the “most interestingly feasible” lineups….what? That’s a loaded phrase, so let’s unpack it a bit.

The goal is to identify the collection of five players on a team that could potentially play together, and if they did, the offensive results could be glorious. Ideally these lineups aren’t too far-fetched, but also slightly off-kilter and confusing to an opposing defense. While this type of analysis is not conducive for assessing defense, somewhat reasonable decisions are attempted to be made. So while it’s tempting to just put all the best shooters together…how realistic is it (outside of Houston, at least)? And, full disclosure: I favor some stretch in my lineups. It not only provides plenty of high-octane potential, but getting stretchy is also on par with current league-wide trends.

Each TeamSPACE chart has a couple of other sitcom-related features:

Family Matters: You’ll notice a series of Jaleel White’s across half court. Each lineup is scored on a scale of 0-7 Steve Urkels for how well it matches league-wide trends. Remember, there’s seven league Hunting Grounds (right corner three; at the rim; left corner three; foul line/top of the key; right wing; middle 3pt; left wing). A lineup gains points for matching each area; it loses points for messy excess shot activity.

Odd Couple: “Most interestingly feasible” is obviously debatable, so in order to account for some of those decisions, you’ll see Oscar and Felix on each chart. Often, there are players that are in the lineup…and maybe/probably they should not be. They get the Oscar label. And, there are those players that are out of the lineup…and maybe/probably should be included. They are the Felix for their team.

And briefly, a word about data. These strange visual displays are based on last season’s shot data, weighted by made buckets — so rookies and season-long injuries are sadly excluded. This analysis is nothing without the help of Darryl Blackport, and the research materials available atBasketball-Reference and Further, these charts feature some of the best logo re-designs I could curate from the ol’ Information Superhighway, including and Pinterest. I made none of the logos; I merely selected some of my favorites. Enjoy!

Everybody Loves Raymond

By Chris Barnewall (@ChrisBarnewall)

The Charlotte Hornets are a likable team full of likable players. They’ve shown that they can be carefree at times with bench celebrations, weird hairstyles, and Frank Kaminsky dancing. However, at the end of the day, the reason we love basketball is what takes place on the court, and nobody on the Hornets is more likable than Kemba Walker.

Every player has a zone they can go into. When they reach this zone it changes them, and they play at a level once thought impossible of their ability. Think of those Blake Griffin commercials where he’s in the clouds making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but instead of sandwiches it involves scoring points or taking over a game. For Walker, his zone is the destination of one of the best tickets across the league. It’s not consistent, but when Walker reaches it there are few players more fun to watch play the game of basketball. There aren’t many who can dribble the ball into the paint so quickly the defense can’t keep up, beat the rotation man, and then throw up a circus shot to grab the And-1 foul. His handle is nasty. Walker is untouchable when he has the ball in his hands, and his crossover is the unquestioned best in the league with multiple highlights every year of him breaking an ankle or two.

Think about that. Walker doesn’t just have a few highlights in his career of his crossover ruining some poor defender. No, he does it once or twice per season. That in itself is impressive.

Lucky for us fans, Walker’s game merely gets better once we reach crunch time. Ever since college Walker has been one of those players that thrives when the lights are brightest and the game is on the line. There are hundreds of debates on if the concept of clutch is real, and if it actually exists, but let’s put it as simple as possible: Walker is clutch. He’s earned the nickname “Kardiac Kemba” to backup that fact. Any Google search of “Kemba Walker game-winner” will bring up a handful of videos to browse through and see him pull Charlotte to yet another victory, but everybody knows clutch is more than game-winners. You have to step up before the buzzer sounds, and Walker has done that plenty of times with huge fourth quarter buckets, scoring bursts, and everything in between. When he gets it going he’s pure entertainment on a basketball court.

As the Hornets enter this season, they lost a lot of their goofy personalities such as Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin. There’s concerns that the new offense is going to take a step back due to a loss of some of their more offensive minded personnel. The Hornets were very fun last year, but with everything that’s happened this offseason, their entertainment might take a small hit. However, if Charlotte is in a close game in the fourth quarter then tweet out a #LeaguePassAlert and grab your defibrillator, because Kardiac Kemba is going to make an appearance.