Charlotte’s strong start to the season was powered by the unexpected.
This was supposed to be an antiquated, three-point-fearing squad not cut out for the NBA. The Jeremys, Lamb and Lin, were depth additions, brought in with little fanfare or expectations. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury was supposed to crush the team’s defensive potential and send the franchise on a lottery-bound trajectory. The pre-draft trade that brought in pending free agent Nic Batum for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson was classified as nothing more than a desperate move to remain in the middle.
Instead, Charlotte’s been remarkably competitive. The Hornets have unleashed a three-point barrage on opponents, completely altering an offense that was once centered on Al Jefferson post-ups and Kemba Walker mid-range jumpers. Steve Clifford has further proven to be a defensive magician, maintaining a near-top-10 defense throughout the season despite missing MKG’s stifling presence and lacking anything resembling a classic rim protector. Lin and Lamb have also been tremendous as bench parts.
Above all though, Batum has been stellar. The distress over shipping former lottery pick Vonleh has been largely forgotten as a result of his play. Free from being the fifth wheel in Portland, Batum has shown that his blend of play-making, shooting and strong perimeter defense isn’t just effective as an adhesive in a loaded starting lineup – he’s plied his toolbox as something of a leading man in his first season with the Hornets.
Batum hasn’t just rebounded after an injury-filled, disappointing 2014-’15 season with the Blazers; he’s blown well past the standards he set for himself as one of the NBA’s premier role players. In 32 games in purple and teal, Batum is posting career highs in points (15.7) and assists (5.4) while snagging 6.5 rebounds and pulling his shooting numbers back up from the depths they reached last year:
Batum has been relied upon as more of an initiator on the offensive end as well. He has always been a deft passer – it was a necessity on a team featuring Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews. With his new team, he’s being called on to run the pick-and-roll as a sort of “1B” facilitator next to Walker, with solid results. Batum isn’t the sort of lightning quick ball-handler who can attack the rim at will like Walker. Instead he operates almost in slow motion, patiently waiting for the perfect moment to fire the ball to his rolling big man.
Having Batum to take on some of the distribution responsibilities this season has really helped to balance Charlotte’s attack. Walker is still handling the ball for virtually the same amount of time this season as he did in 2014-’15, per NBA.com’s player tracking date.
He should. He’s an electric player who can create his own shot at will.
The problem for the Hornets last year was that they lacked anyone who could reliably be a secondary offensive instigator. Mo Williams was second on the team in touches per game in his half season in North Carolina; it was one too many ball-dominant guards for Clifford to work with. Batum’s contributions have helped grease the Hornets into a far more free-flowing operation.
The Frenchman’s revitalization this season has done a couple things for Charlotte. Without his play, it’s tough to envision this injury-ravaged roster being as close to a playoff spot as it is right now. Charlotte recently went on a 7-game losing streak that cut into the promise of its hot start – Batum was sidelined for four of those games. He’s crucial to the team’s success. However, Batum playing at a career-best level has also added a wrinkle into the awkward situation the Hornets now face.
General manager Rich Cho knew he was taking a gamble – on a couple levels – trading for a pending UFA like Batum in the summer. Firstly, after a season that saw his numbers tumble, the Hornets were hoping for a resurgence and then some from Batum on a new team with a new role. That gamble paid off. The more crucial long-term bet, though, was hoping that Batum would be open to re-signing in Charlotte, not exactly a noted destination or free-agent hotbed.
The Hornets, by virtue of holding his Bird Rights, will have an advantage over any potential suitors – and there will be a lot of them – in their efforts to sign Batum this summer. However, because of the league’s evolving financial landscape, any contract Batum signs will blow away anything he’s made in the past. If there is another situation he really wants to be a part of elsewhere, maybe the extra year Charlotte can offer him won’t matter all that much considering how immense his payday promises to be regardless of where he lands.
This is all to say that Charlotte has a big decision looming: should Cho trade Batum before the deadline to recoup some of the value lost to acquire him, or hold on to him in the hope of a charge towards the playoffs and risk losing him for nothing in the offseason? That’s a loaded question, complicated by the team’s position in the standings and the inconvenient prognoses of two injured and important cogs.
Losing seven straight games over the last couple weeks dropped Charlotte down to 12th in the conference. A win over the Hawks this week brought the team to 18-20, 1.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Magic. That deficit is nothing in theory, but it’s not the 1.5 number that makes a playoff push daunting – it’s the need to bunny-hop over four competitive teams just to snatch the final playoff spot in the East.
That’s not to say it’s crazy to envision Charlotte making the playoffs. At full strength, this very well could be a team good enough for late-April ball. As Joshua Priemski of AtTheHive.com pointed out to me this week, though, we don’t have a good idea of what this team is yet because of the injuries. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t played yet, and isn’t pegged to return until after the deadline. Neither is Al Jefferson.
Maybe MKG’s lack of shooting and Jefferson’s old-school style of play would distort the Hornets’ new identity too much and inhibit a strong finish to the season. Or, perhaps they would inject enough talent into the roster to elevate Charlotte above the likes of Orlando, Boston, Washington and New York. Unfortunately for Cho and company, the team won’t have a chance to test itself as a complete unit before the trade deadline.
With just 15 games remaining before the buzzer on February 19, Charlotte finds itself in a time-crunch to decide whether or not it wants to bet on making the playoffs with a full complement of players, and if a low seed and first-round exit would be worth it.
Home playoff game revenues and a shot an upset are a lot more fun for fans to dream about than a futilely small chance at a lottery miracle, and that reality may be enough to persuade the Hornets front office to keep Batum around all season. However, if Cho does get cold feet on the Batum experiment and decides to pursue trade opportunities, there will certainly be options.
Given how much better he’s played this season than last, it’s not crazy to suggest the Hornets could goad a desperate fringe contender into giving up as much or more to acquire Batum than Charlotte gave up to get him in the first place, even though his contract will run out mere months after a potential deal.
Electing to give up on this season by dealing Batum before ever getting to see the Hornets’ full potential with him would be an enormously tough pill to swallow for Charlotte’s front office and fans. Conversely, maybe it’s the kind of bold and preemptive move that could set the Hornets on a trajectory towards no longer perpetually chasing an eighth seed.