The Runner Sports

An Early Look At The Charlotte Hornets’ Best Five-Man Lineups

Matchups, lineups, and in-game adjustments are what the NBA is all about. Your starting five is not always your closing five. Things change from game to game and within a game. Last season’s Charlotte Hornets were not as potentially deep or versatile as this season’s group. The bench was a constant issue. Head coach Steve Clifford had limited options, especially with injuries to key guys like Cody Zeller. Last season, the starting five of Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, and Zeller only played in 47 games together. When they did play, they played well, finishing with a plus/minus of 5.1. However, that was not their best line up.

Their two best lines consisted of Walker, Marco Belinelli, Batum, Frank Kaminsky, and Zeller as well as Walker, Belinelli, Batum, Williams, and Kaminsky. With both lineups, only Zeller could not shoot threes.

Both lineups finished +22. You’re probably wondering how. The first lineup shot an astonishing 57 percent from the field, 48 percent from the three-point line, and 85 percent from the line.

So how did they win just 36 games last season? The Hornets played the first lineup in only 29 games due to injuries, and the Hornets were a disaster in close games. That’s a topic for another day. The second lineup wasn’t as good at shooting, but rarely turned it over and rarely fouled, showing that there are different ways for a lineup to be effective.

You have your best shooting lineup, your best defensive lineup, and your best combination of the two, which is usually your starting five but not always. Let’s look at which lineups will be the most effective for Charlotte this season.

Best Three-Point Shooting Lineup

Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, Malik Monk, Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky

A similar lineup to a very effective one last year, the exception is rookie Malik Monk replacing Belinelli. Monk is a similar player to Belinelli, so Clifford can run a lot of the same action for him. The bonus is even though Monk is a rookie he can potentially do more. Monk is a better athlete, capable of putting the ball on the floor to attack closeouts. He also is a better ball handler, capable of running high or secondary pick and rolls.

Don’t expect Monk to be the first option though. With five shooters on the floor, Walker will have plenty of room to attack downhill, plus he will be harder to trap with so much spacing around him. That will leave him open for pull-up threes, and attacks to the rim. Expect Williams and Kaminsky as the primary screeners for Kemba when they don’t isolate him.

Williams can pick and pop, or slip the screen and cut, a secret skill of his. Kaminsky can also pop, or draw a switch and then post up a smaller player. They can also use Kaminsky as a passer. Kaminsky improved immensely as a passer last season finishing with a good 14.6 percent assist rate. He can catch the ball on the move and kick it out to Monk, Batum, or Williams.

At first, Monk will mostly be used to spot off these pick and rolls. The secondary action will belong to Batum. If Kemba’s initial action is stopped, Batum will come in and run a secondary pick and roll. Batum’s favorite screener buddy Zeller is not in this lineup, so expect Kaminsky and Williams again.

Batum made an effort to get to the line more last year, averaging a career high 3.7 free throw attempts per game. If the lane is clogged, expect him to go to the pull-up jumper he loves. If he draws a switch, he likes to post smaller players. In the post, his passing is a weapon. He is great at finding cutters, most likely Marvin in this lineup, and spot up shooters.

The total three-point shooting percentage of this group, minus Monk, is 34.7, which isn’t great. The good news is they take a lot of them, and the sheer volume makes defenses respect it. Combined, the four of them average 22.3 three-point attempts per game. Williams shot 35 percent for his career and last season, so it’s safe to say he will shoot around there again. Walker may have a tough time repeating 39 percent from three.

Hopefully, Batum will bounce back after a down year at 33 percent and Kaminsky should benefit from better looks and should his increase his percentage from 32 percent. In college, Monk shot 39 percent from deep. If this group can go from 34 precent to at least 36 percent it will make a huge difference. Expect this lineup if Charlotte is down big.

The obstacles that this group faces are rebounding and rim protection. Batum is the best rebounder and Williams is the best shot blocker and that’s not good. For this lineup to work they will have to gang rebound, and Kaminsky, in particular, will have to improve on the glass. He is 7’0 and only averages 4.5 rebounds per game. Yikes!

There is no quick fix for the lack of rim protection, and it will come down to great perimeter defense. Protect the lane, stay tight on shooters, switch pick and rolls that don’t involve Kaminsky, and limit second shots. Kaminsky’s development and Monk’s growth as a rookie will decide how effective this lineup is.

Best Overall Offensive Lineup

Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb

I gave rookie Malik Monk a lot of props by putting him in the best shooting lineup, but I can’t put him in the best offensive lineup yet. Obviously, depending on his growth, that can change. I have inserted Jeremy Lamb in his place. Lamb has his flaws, no question, but he is one of the few players who can get his own shot when the play breaks down. That is useful in the NBA, as it can bail you out of some bad possessions.

Lamb improved in a lot of areas last season. He had a career high in PER at 17, true shooting percentage of 55, rebound percentage at 12.7, and a career low turnover percentage of 6. Combine that with a career-high 46 percent from the field and 2.1 free throw attempts per game, and Lamb looks to be slightly on the rise.

The down side is he shot an awful 28 percent from three last season. That should improve this season with better looks from added playmakers. Plus, his career average is 32 percent. While it’s not good for a spot-up specialist, his ability to break down his defender is bested only by Walker. Lamb took a step forward last season, I expect him to take another in 2017-18.

The other newcomer to this lineup is Zeller. Hornets fan knows how valuable Zeller is after last season. The Hornets were a pathetic 3-17 without him. Screening, high IQ, and efficiency make Zeller valuable. Zeller shot 57 percent from the field and posted a true shooting percentage of 60. Zeller has good hands and can finish around the basket. If he didn’t have a random down year at the free throw line at 67 percent (down from a career average of 75 percent), he would have been even more efficient.

Zeller excels at running the floor, getting putbacks and rolling hard to the rim. This combination makes him a strong screening threat. Zeller was third in the league at on-ball screens per game at 30.6. Those screens didn’t go to waste, as he was also third in the league in screen assists per game at 5.9 (which means his screen led directly to the player being screened scoring). Zeller is a master screener who is capable of rolling and popping. His real skill is flipping his hips at the last second to confuse the defender on which way the screen is coming from. Zeller simply gets better looks for his teammates.

Batum and Zeller are beautiful to watch in pick and rolls. Their timing is perfect, and Batum often looks for him. With Walker, it’s different, as he looks to score off Zeller’s screens. Both are effective and they offer spice to the Hornets’ offense.

The last part of this group is Kaminsky. He offers another floor spacer and is the best post-up option in this group. In this lineup he will be more of a floor spacer, however, I would like the Hornets to post up Kaminsky more. This lineup features great shooters, screeners, one on one players, post-up players, and ball handlers. It is the most complete offensive lineup the Charlotte Hornets has.

Best Defensive Lineup

Michael CarterWilliams, Nicholas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard.

This lineup will feature two newcomers to the Charlotte Hornets. The first is Dwight Howard. Howard is 31 and on his fifth team, but he still has a lot to offer. This is a three-time defensive player of the year. Howard is not the athlete he once was, but is still an excellent rim protector. While he is not as good at switching out on smaller guards, he is the best rim protector Charlotte has. Clifford knows this and his defensive scheme will tailor to Howard’s strengths. He had a career low 1.2 blocks per game last season, but that would have led the Hornets.

Howard has the ability to erase mistakes by the Hornets’ perimeter players. The other area where Howard will fit right in is defensive rebounding. Charlotte was already second in the league in defensive rebounding, this season with Howard they will be first. Adding Howard with Zeller means the Hornets will have 48 minutes of good defense at the center position.

This lineup also includes newcomer Michael Carter-Williams. The former rookie of the year is now on his fourth team, looking for a bounce back season. It’s a one-year deal, and I still question his offense, but there is a lot to like defensively. In limited action last season with Chicago, Carter-Williams had the 5th best defensive RPM in the league. At 6’6 with long arms, he can swallow up smaller guards, and can battle through screens. His size also gives him versatility, as he can guard 2s and even some 3s. That is the theme of this unit, they are all versatile defenders.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who I wrote about last month, is the best defender on the team. He finished 6th in defensive RPM among small forwards. He’s added ten pounds of muscle this offseason, so he may be able to handle guarding power forwards more. MKG can handle the other teams’ best scorer and doesn’t need help doing it. He is also an elite rebounder for his position, another reason Charlotte was and will be a dominant defensive rebounding team.

Finally, there is Williams and Batum. They are the weakest defenders of the group, but when engaged they can be solid. Batum is the best in the group in getting steals in over 1.0 per game. He has solid length and quick hands. This allows him to get steals while fouling at a really low rate. Marvin offers more versatility, as he can guard both 3s and 4s. Williams is also a decent shot blocker, blocking shots at a decent rate for a power forward.

The key to this unit is versatility. Williams, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Carter-Williams can all switch their matchups and defend in space. This should allow Howard to stay close to the basket and do what he does best, block shots. With Howard, Carter-Williams, and Kidd-Gilchrist all on the floor, this unit will struggle with shooting and spacing on offense. However, if the Hornets need to get a couple of stops in a row, Clifford could utilize this group. He can also easily insert Zeller for Howard if the matchup calls for it.

Conclusion/Best Overall Lineup

The Hornets’ likely starting five opening night is Walker, Batum, MKG, Williams, and Howard. This could change throughout the season if Kaminsky pushes William and Zeller overtakes Howard. Matchups may change starting lineup at times of course. It is hard to say who the best overall lineup combining offense and defense will be. You don’t know which players will improve and how rookies Monk and Dwayne Bacon will do.

By season’s end, my prediction is it will be Walker, Batum, MKG, Kaminsky, and Zeller. This offers the best overall combination of spacing, offense, and defense. Kemba, Batum, and Kaminsky can all hit threes, while Zeller can roll hard to the rim or hit some midrange jumpers, and MKG can post, cut, or hit some midrange jumpers as well if his shooting form finally develops

For the lineup to work, a few things need to happen. First, MKG needs to improve his offense. A reliable midrange jumper and a decent post game are not enough. Second, Kaminsky must improve his ability to defend in space. On defense, it’s better to play Kaminsky at the 5, so Zeller can defend quicker 4s, something he is better at. Either way, Kaminsky will have to improve on that end. Kaminsky and MKG’s growth will be the key to this being Charlotte’s most successful lineup. We will find out October 18 at Detroit.