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Previewing the 2018-19 Charlotte Hornets

Starting Five Factors Preview

Jason Huber
October 16, 2018 - 10:31 am

Coming off back-to-back 36-46 seasons with no playoff appearances, the Charlotte Hornets enter the 2018-19 season looking very different than last season.

A new head coach for the first time since 2013 in James Borrego, a new general manager in Mitch Kupchak, no more Dwight Howard and plenty of new additions should help the Hornets find their way out of the "middle of the pack."

It's the final year of Kemba Walker's contract and after making the playoffs just twice in his seven-year career, Charlotte's 2018-19 season could ultimately determine whether they decide to lock him in for the future or move on and rebuild from the ground up. 

If things begin to go south early, Charlotte will likely receive a plethora of trade proposals for Walker. 

There are many veterans on this Hornets team including Kemba's newly signed back up, former Spur and four-time NBA champion Tony Parker, but they also have a few key young pieces. Most notably, rookies Miles Bridges, Devonte Graham and second-year shooting guard Malik Monk are expected to bring a new wave of youth to Charlotte. 

With the season just days away and the preseason coming to a wrap, I take a look at five key factors to the Hornets success this season in my "Starting Five Key Factors."

1. Super-star ability and future of Kemba Walker

There is no question in Charlotte that Kemba is the face of the franchise and success begins and ends with how he performs. Walker has been the Hornets lone all-star the last two seasons and is coming off a season averaging 22.1 points in 80 games. Despite putting up all-star caliber numbers, Walker is only a career 41 percent shooter from the field and many fans/experts say he cannot be a true number one option on a championship team. With 48 being the most wins Walker has in a season, the Hornets and Kemba can only keep improving if he receives help around him. Without ever having a true all-star caliber player scoring alongside Walker, there is only so much Kemba can do to help the Hornets win games. Seeing his stats digress just slightly in 2017, Charlotte is hoping that Tony Parker will be a reliable back up to Walker as a trusted second-unit point guard. It's something the Hornets haven't had since Jeremy Lin during their 2015 playoff season. At age 28, Kemba is right in the middle of his prime. Being the final year of his contract, Walker will have every right to leave Charlotte if he isn't traded. Despite saying multiple times this offseason that Charlotte is where he wants to continue his career, the performance of this year's team could really test Kemba's loyalty. If things go terribly wrong and Charlotte manages less than 30-wins, don't be surprised if the Hornets begin listening to trade offers for Kemba and blow everything up. 

2. Handling the loss of Dwight Howard with a plethora of big men

The Dwight Howard experiment lasted exactly one year. It wasn't awful and Howard improved Charlotte's defensive efficiency, but apparent locker room distractions led to Howard being traded this offseason for Timofey Mozgov. Mozgov was eventually traded for former Hornet Bismack Biyombo. Arguably, Howard was the best center Charlotte has had since Al Jefferson. Getting rid of Howard as a distraction will help, but it has yet to be seen how they replace him. Charlotte traded for Knicks big man Willy Hernangomez last year and Borrego expects him to have a breakout year. Biyombo will likely be a backup and is more of a shot-blocker than a scorer. Cody Zeller is entering year number six and was the backup center to Howard last year, but has disappointed some throughout his career. While Zeller should begin the season as the starter, with averages of just 7.6 points per game and 5.6 rebounds in his career, Zeller has been far from what the Hornets expected when they drafted him in the lottery in 2013.  Zeller played in just 33 games last season due to injuries. Approaching age 27, it's not likely that he improves tremendously, but his role will now be fighting for minutes alongside the group of big men on Charlotte's roster. Behind Zeller and Biyombo is Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky is entering his fourth year and also has fallen short of expectations. He's been average with just 10 points per game in three years. He has had breakout moments, but defensively he has been a liability and will once again fight for playing time. 

3. Youngblood additions 

It's no secret that Charlotte has had many draft busts since returning as the Bobcats in 2004. Many fans can make the argument that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky would categorize as busts. The 2017 lottery pick Malik Monk has a lot of talent and will be looked upon to provide more of an impact after averaging just under seven points per game during his rookie campaign and shooting under 40 percent from 3-point range. Defensively, Monk was a liability and mixing that in with a poor shooting percentage will have coaches keeping him on the bench. But Monk is one of the Hornets biggest X-Factors this season. He will start off as a key reserve, but if he breaks out, don't be surprised if he works his way up to the starting two-guard. This year, the Hornets traded their lottery selection Shai-Gilegous Alexander for rookie Miles Bridges, who was picked shortly after. In addition, Charlotte received two second-round picks. Bridges can play the three or four and has been compared to the likes of former all-stars Andre Igoudola and Josh Smith. Coming out of the draft, Bridges didn't have "superstar" potential but he has looked like one of the top rookies throughout summer camp and preseason. Including one of the best dunks you'll ever see (see below). Charlotte also drafted former Kansas star guard Devonte' Graham in the second round. Graham was an All-American in 2018, he lead the Hornets in scoring during the preseason finale and has the potential to be a steal. Graham will start the season as the third point guard and has room to develop, but if Tony Parker or Kemba were to go down with injuries, Graham would take on a big workload. Monk, Bridges and Graham are the keys to a bright future in Charlotte. 

4. Finding a second scoring option behind Kemba 

Since being drafted by Charlotte in 2011, Walker has been the heart and soul of the Hornets. Leading the team in scoring in all but two years, Walker officially became the franchise all-time leader in points scored on March 28. However, there hasn't been a true #2 option behind Kemba since Al Jefferson in 2013. Even then, the Hornets needed more scoring. Nic Batum was expected to be that guy when Charlotte signed him to a massive contract a few years back, but his play has regressed. Batum has three years left of his contract and it doesn't look like any other team is willing to trade for him. Therefore, he will have all eyes on him to have a bounce-back season and live up to all the money he is earning. Dwight Howard was number two in scoring last year and Jeremy Lamb was three with just 12 points per game. The key isn't just someone who can score, but someone who can score while making players better around him. With Dwight no longer in town, Lamb is expected to make a big jump as one of the primary scorers for the Hornets/ Down the road, Malik Monk could be one of the primary scoring options, but if he doesn't show enough to get playing time, there is no way for him to make that big of an impact. A sleeper would be the rookie Miles Bridges. If Bridges finds his niche and proves to be a valuable enough player to be a starter, Charlotte could begin relying on him as one of the go-to scorers. Aside from that, the Hornets plain and simply don't have a lot of options behind Kemba. Once again, Kemba will have to carry this team on his back and I wouldn't be surprised if trades were made to find a second go-to scorer. 

5. Figuring out the perfect rotation

Throughout the preseason, James Borrego has admitted that Kemba Walker is the only starting player who is solidified in their role. Aside from that, the starting five and reserves has been up for grabs. It seems at this point that alongside Kemba will be Lamb at the two, Batum at three, Marvin Williams at four and Zeller at the five. Key reserves off the bench will be Tony Parker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez, Frank Kaminsky, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges. Kidd-Gilchrist coming off the bench is the biggest change for Borrego considering that Kidd-Gilchrist has been a starter throughout his career. There is a lot of potential wiggle room here. Depending on performances, Williams doesn't have the four-spot locked down in any matter. If Borrego wanted to go big, he could start Zeller at the four and Hernangomez at the five. To go small, Biyombo could play at the five and Batum at the four. With no true number two scorer, the starting lineup could change regularly with Kemba as the only exception. In addition, Borrego is bringing in a completely new playing system with a faster pace of play and will have to figure which players he wants to keep on this roster. Charlotte's roster may look drastically different, by the end of this season. 

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