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Q&A with At The Hive: On the Hornets’ struggles & the path forward

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With the Warriors facing the Hornets tonight, we asked At The Hive for insight on their young talents, offensive struggles, and their path forward.

Golden State Warriors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The other day while writing about the Utah Jazz, I described about David Locke’s idea of “slow and space” that he broke down data for this past summer.

The idea is that rather than speeding the game up like so many teams — including the Golden State Warriors — have done, a team that didn’t have a whole lot of dynamic playmakers or isolation players could slow the game down and increase their rate of 3-point attempts. To accentuate the contrast with “pace and space”, he labeled this approach “slow and space” and highlighted three key attributes: “...elite screening, superior passing and great spacing”.

For the Jazz, you can see that strategy working -- despite losing Gordon Hayward in the offseason and having to endure Ruby Gobert missing games due to injury, they’re still just 3.5 games out of eighth place and have a realistic shot at the playoffs. On the other hand — and the reason this topic was of interest me — upcoming Warriors opponents like the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies have struggled to find success.

The Hornets are “pace and no space”

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Hornets sit at the other end of the spectrum.

The Hornets are one of those “modern” teams that is playing faster than even the 2014-15 Warriors’ league-leading pace of 98.3 possessions per game did and at 98.5 possessions per game, Charlotte currently ranks just 10th in today’s NBA in pace. As a result of their poor shooting — and thus poor spacing — the Hornets rank dead last in shooting efficiency with an effective field goal percentage of 48.7%. And as noted before, it’s hard to win games if you can’t shoot, no matter what else you do well.

In short, the Hornets are a poorly constructed team that doesn’t have much of a chance to beat the Warriors tonight playing the way they’ve been playing this season.

I was going to try to say more about the Hornets, but ended up with more questions than answers. So instead of trying to invent my own answers, I just contacted the folks at At the Hive to get their insights in response to my questions and editor Nick Denning was kind enough to offer some insight and a bit clearer picture of the constraints moving forward.

Q&A with At The Hive

Nate P.: Starting with the positive, Jeremy Lamb -- who most of us probably know best for his role in the James Harden trade to Houston -- is having something of a career year, including a career-high 32-point night against the Raptors. What’s most surprising about this emergence this season?

Nick Denning: More than anything, it’s that Lamb has maintained his career season, at least for the most part. He was on fire in the beginning while he filled in as a starter, but has cooled a bit with the bench (at least from an efficiency standpoint). But honestly, we kind of expected it.

All the preseason build up pointed to a breakout year from him, and we’ve seen enough in past seasons to indicate he is capable of being a 15 points per game kind of player. He’s still got a few things to work on, but it’s nice to see a player the Hornets invested a lot of time in pay off.

NP: After the draft, Nick Sciria got me excited about the Hornets’ chances for improvement with a long thread of tweets describing how they could use Malik Monk most effectively. Given that he’s been sent to the D-League to work on his game some, how happy are you with Monk’s progress this season?

ND: Monk has had a hard time adjusting, primarily on the defensive end. He has trouble staying in front of his man sometimes, and he hasn’t shot well enough on the offensive end to justify the defense liabilities. But what set him back more than anything was an ankle injury suffered in May that kept him out of Summer League and pretty much all of the offseason. The Hornets hoped to start the process of converting him to point guard, but he didn’t get a chance to until preseason. By that point there wasn’t enough time.

The G-League assignment was more circumstance than anything; the Hornets had an extra day off so instead of practicing with the team they sent him to Greensboro to play 40 minutes and then head back to the Hornets the next day. Once the team finally calls time on the season, I expect him to start playing more in the rotation.

NP: Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer wrote about a week ago that the Hornets’ season is “in a crater”. The Hornets have won just four of 14 games in December and are heading into a four-game Western Conference road trip beginning with the Warriors.

As a long-time Warrior fan, I’ve been there -- this is not an enjoyable thing to endure, but I know the experience of starting to think about trades, development, and tanking when the postseason starts to feel unrealistic. What are your expectations for the remainder of this season?

ND: Well the Hornets aren’t ready to call it just yet, and I don’t blame them. They are capped tied with a veteran team that head coach Steve Clifford called the most talented group he’s had in his tenure (this was back in preseason). They want to make it work, but the pieces don’t seem to be fitting.

If things continue to crater as Bonnell calls it (there’s really no better word for it, if I’m being honest), the front office will likely look to move one or two of their big salaries, even if means getting little in return. But I hesitate about this with general manager Rich Cho in the last year of his contract. If Cho makes moves before the deadline, but then isn’t brought back, it could leave the new GM in an awkward spot if the final moves of the last GM don’t align. They may just opt to shut down players that are banged up and give the younger players more minutes, and whatever happens, happens.

NP: What stands out about this team statistically is that they’re trying to run an uptempo offense, which makes some sense with Kemba Walker at PG. However, they are 25th in 3-point rate and 23rd in 3-point percentage.

Charlotte is pace...without the shooting...and thus without space because guys like Dwight Howard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a struggling (and expensive) Nic Batum are starting.

Perhaps the emergence of Lamb and development of Monk will help in the future, but what do you see as the path forward for re-shaping this roster?

ND: That is a good question, and one I don’t have a clear answer for.

They were hoping to run a kind of 4-out, 1-in offense similar to Howard’s days in Orlando. They even made the comparisons -- Walker as an All-Star version of Jameer Nelson, Batum in the Hedo Turkoglu role -- and it’s no where close to that because as you pointed out, they aren’t shooting well from beyond the arc.

In terms of where they’ll go long term, that pretty much depends on who makes it past this season. If Clifford stays, then the offensive and defensive strategy will be easier to figure out, but if they opt to let him go as well, it will depend on who they bring in. One thing’s for sure, the future better involve more ball movement, because what I’m watching right now is a lot of ISO possessions ending in mid-range or low post shots, and it’s clearly not working.

NP: Tom Sorenson of the Charlotte Observer wrote about a week ago that the Hornets should consider completely blowing things up and trading Kemba Walker (it’s not quite the equivalent of the Warriors trading Monta Ellis and tanking back in 2012, but I’d imagine a similar, if not worse, response from the fanbase). How do you think Hornets fans would react to trading Walker as part of a rebuilding plan? What kind of trade would be acceptable to you?

ND: I’d be heart broken. He’s the best player in franchise history in my opinion. They’ve had some slightly better players in the past, but none stuck around as long as Walker and he’s been such an exciting player to watch and cover over the years, particularly the past few. So yeah, it would be a dark day.

Is trading him something they should consider? Absolutely. But first they should feel out where he’s at in terms of committing long-term. His contract is up after next season. He’s going to get a big pay raise, and if he’s open to returning they should try and rebuild around him. But if they sense he’s looking elsewhere, they should start listening to offers.

That said, I don’t believe in a full tank job and rebuild. I watched the vast majority of games during the last rebuild. A 7-59 season resulted in the second overall pick and missing out on Anthony Davis. The moment Cho realized they weren’t getting the number one pick will forever stay in my mind. I don’t want to go through that again, and I think there are other ways to get things going in the right direction that don’t require being at the bottom of the NBA for 4-5 seasons in a row.

Thanks to Nick for taking the time to answer these questions. Check out At The Hive for more on the Hornets and the Charlotte perspective on tonight’s game. For Golden State of Mind’s preview of the game, click here.