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2015-16 NBA Preview: The Hornets Coulda Been A Contender

We’re inaugurating our NBA player projection system, CARMELO, with 2015-16 season previews for every team in the league. Check out the teams we’ve already previewed here. Learn more about CARMELO here.

Everything changed for the Hornets on Oct. 3. Before that day, Charlotte looked like a young, talented team on the rise, with lots of new players fighting for minutes. In a preseason game that night, though, forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist injured his shoulder, requiring surgery that will likely keep him out for most of the season. Charlotte’s depth at small forward, and one of its best defensive players, vanished. With Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte looked like they could add a dozen wins to their total (33) last season, the team’s first rechristened as the Charlotte Hornets after New Orleans became the Pelicans. The new Hornets’ sophomore year won’t exactly be a slump, but Charlotte likely will struggle to reach .500 and make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projects the Hornets to go 40-42:


Before Kidd-Gilchrist went down, Charlotte had taken steps to bolster its depth at just about every position but his small-forward spot. The Hornets signed guard Jeremy Lin and power forward/center Tyler Hansbrough, drafted Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky at No. 9 in the first round and traded for power forward Spencer Hawes and shooting guards Jeremy Lamb and Nicolas Batum. Well, Batum really was more of a small forward for the Blazers, but he was going to move over to the No. 2 spot before Kidd-Gilchrist went down. Batum’s shift back to small forward leaves lots of room for young Hornets to move around the lineup and step up. CARMELO’s projections, though, call into question whether the healthy Hornets have enough talent to make the playoffs.

Here’s what’s in store for the key Hornets in 2015-16 (and beyond):


Nicolas Batum played a niche role in Portland’s offense. Now that he’s in Charlotte, can he adjust to bigger demands? His shots, points per minute and 3-point percentage declined in each of the last three seasons. He shot or turned over the ball on just one of seven possessions when he was on court last year. The Hornets will expect more of Batum. His defense, at least, is solid across the board — a must for replacing a stopper like Kidd-Gilchrist.


The offense runs through Kemba Walker, but too often it stops with him: He takes and misses too many shots. His teammates last year didn’t give him many great alternatives; this year he should do better if the new Hornets give him better options. In the preseason, Walker has been clicking well with Lin, which at times means Walker shoots even more and passes less while Lin plays more like a point guard setting up his backcourt mate.


Is Al Jefferson more like Carlos Boozer or Zach Randolph? Jefferson turned 30 last season and was a significantly less productive player than he’d been the year before. Randolph has turned his career back around in his 30s. Boozer, though, kept declining after turning 30. They’re both among Jefferson’s top comparables according to CARMELO. The Hornets need him to be much more like Randolph if they’re going to make the playoffs.


After the giddy rush of Linsanity, Jeremy Lin settled into a recurring role as a very standard, effective guard: For the Rockets and Lakers, he shot effectively, got to the free-throw line, handed out assists and stole the ball, but did little else on defense and turned the ball over too often. He’s expected to back up Walker but probably will play alongside him at times, as well.


Marvin Williams has done well to reinvent himself as primarily a 3-point shooter. His accuracy shooting over defenders from outside, coupled with his effective rebounding, made him a valuable player last year. CARMELO doesn’t expect that to last. Few of Williams’s closest comparable players avoided big declines in their 30s, and Williams is 29.


Jeremy Lamb disappointed in Oklahoma City. Will moving to a team with less talent free Lamb to play a bigger offensive role, or will he struggle even more with less help from teammates? CARMELO expects modest improvement for the 23-year-old, but not enough for a starting — let alone starring — role.


After a mediocre rookie season, Cody Zeller improved markedly last year, shooting more effectively while turning the ball over less often. Can he keep it up? CARMELO says yes — sort of. He’s likely to remain at his sophomore-year level but not graduate to All-Star level. How he does will determine how much of an opportunity he has to improve — the roster is crowded with big men.

Read more:
All our NBA player projections
All our 2015-16 NBA Previews

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.