NBA

Can Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Help the Hornets Find an Identity?

I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as a draft bust. Simply put, “draft bust” is the improper way of saying expectations were too high on an NBA rookie and he did not meet them. Those expectations are set on a rookie for one of two reasons: 1) he showed a lot of long-term promise and potential in college/overseas or 2) his draft spot immediately sets those expectations on him.

The latter is true for Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Even when his on-court high school and college numbers were not astounding, his name was always amongst the top prospects on his class’ rankings. Perhaps Jonathan Wasserman described MKG best before the 2012 NBA Draft, when he said Kidd-Gilchrist was a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.

“Though he doesn’t have the typical upside of a top 2-5 pick, he poses zero risk when you consider his intangibles and physical tools,” Wasserman wrote. Even when he had no truly outstanding qualities in college, the Hornets still selected him with the number two overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. As such, fans and the media immediately built very high expectations for Kidd-Gilchrist, simply because he was the second player picked out of a very talented pool. That’s flawed logic. Going second in the NBA Draft does not mean the team drafting you believes you will be the second best player in the class; it means they believe, out of all the available players at the moment, you are the best long-term fit for their team.

The Charlotte Hornets are one of the least storied franchises in the league

They were born in 1988, relocated to New Orleans in 2002, but a new Charlotte franchise was created in 2004 under the “Bobcats” team name. For this article’s purpose, I will strictly refer to the Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats history, ignoring the Hornets’ tenure in New Orleans.

Charlotte has zero NBA Finals appearances, zero conference titles and zero division titles. Imagine how hard it should be for your team to have only 10 playoff appearances in its nearly 30-year history.

As a franchise who has found relatively low success compared to most other teams in the NBA, it is no surprise the Hornets lack a definite identity and have yet to establish a culture. When this is prolonged, teams will unconsciously adopt a losing culture, which may be the case for the Hornets right now.

Teams and coaches have started to emphasize having a positive identity and culture more than ever over the last couple of seasons; that is what made the Spurs such a powerful dynasty for two decades.

Look at the Warriors, Rockets, and Celtics. They all have an established identity and culture – plus the right personnel to work in that environment – and that translates into the win column. It is actually ironic that Michael Jordan, the majority owner of the Hornets and one of the most successful players in NBA history, has yet to do anything to aid the team’s lack of identity and established culture.

‘Grit and Grind’

As a fellow younger expansion team, the Grizzlies also lacked a true identity during their first decade or so of existence. But look at what they have accomplished since they adopted their ‘Grit and Grind’ approach: they started winning.

Obviously, their results did not translate to Finals appearances or any comparable success; but during that stretch, they were a competitive, tough team to beat with the right personnel that thrived in their ‘Grit and Grind’ system. Memphis was not only successful on the court, but off of it as well.

Playing in a small market, the team embraced an identity. The city of Memphis felt identified and started embracing it as well. That is winning on and off the court.

The Hornets would be fools not to follow the Grizzlies’ approach by finding an identity from within, clarifying their direction, altering its personnel according to their identified strengths and hoping for the best. This is not an overnight change, but it is still not late for the front office to start taking action on the matter.

Before the start of the 2017-18 season, I thought the Hornets had effectively started this transition. After acquiring Dwight Howard in a surprising trade with the Atlanta Hawks, I felt pretty excited to see what a duo of Kidd-Gilchrist and Howard would bring on defense.

For several reasons, the results were not what the coaching staff and front office expected, and they decided to move on from Howard. But even when they probably did not have this in mind, I thought bringing the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year in was a great first step towards adopting a defensive-minded identity that also focused on playing fast offense.

The restart button

Ever since the Charlotte franchise was re-named as the Hornets – around the time former head coach Steve Clifford became their bench leader – the team has generally been better on defense than on offense, but has not been able to capitalize on that to build an identity from their defense. Hard defense is not the first thing that pops into most people’s minds when they think about the Hornets.

The team has now hit the restart button once again, as they moved on from Howard, decided to fire Clifford, and replaced him with former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach James Borrego. Their new coach certainly knows a thing or two about defense after spending three years along coaching guru Gregg Popovich, and there is enough potential in Charlotte to run a league average offense.

Borrego already has some of the basic assets in the roster to begin developing this defensive-oriented, fast-paced approach I believe would work like a charm in Buzz City, but he needs the front office to buy into this culture shift and start forming an identity based on hard defense and fast offense. At the end of the day, it is general managers and team presidents who make trades, signings and similar transactions happen.

A new identity

Kidd-Gilchrist is a perfect fit in this new hypothetical Hornets approach. He can certainly be the wing enforcer the team needs on defense and is at his best on offensively when he is running fast breaks and attacking the rim. MKG should not try to be a franchise star that scores 20 points, dishes 10 assists, or averages two steals per game because he is not that type of player; after six years in the NBA, it does not look like he can do anything at a stellar level except for playing defense. But he is capable of playing at a near-All-Star level without excelling in any one area because he will perfectly fit in as the Hornets adapt a new identity.

Think about what Tony Allen did for the Grizzlies from 2010 to 2017 – and, to a lesser extent, for the Celtics prior to that. His most important job was always being at the jersey of the opposing team’s best wing player. As Andrew Waters pointed out in a piece for At The Hive, MKG’s defense is the main reason why he has remained a starter in Charlotte ever since he was drafted. He can comfortably switch across four positions and be a nightmare for his defensive assignment.

Another notable similarity is their lack of outside shooting abilities. To Allen’s credit, he used to occasionally knock down an open three or two every other game. But similar to Kidd-Gilchrist today, Allen was often intentionally left wide open by his defender like a forgotten man on an island. Hornets fans get mad when their No. 2 overall pick cannot make that shot – he usually does not even take it no matter how open he is – because how in heaven is it possible that a small forward who was a No. 2 overall pick cannot make a wide open three-pointer in 2018! How does your perception of MKG change when you lower your expectations on him from a typical No. 2 overall pick to those you have in a good role player like Allen?

Do not get me wrong, Kidd-Gilchrist is much better than Allen and I am not suggesting he should settle into mediocrity. But he should not be forced to play a role he is not suited for, nor should be criticized for not being capable of playing said role. He is still a very serviceable NBA player with improving strengths on both sides of the ball.

He likes to relentlessly drive to the rim, with a Westbrook-esque fury, and punishes any interior defender who is not in good position to stop him. This past season, MKG shot 69% at the rim, a very solid mark for a forward. During his first few years in the league, he was not good at all on mid-range shots – or on any other shots outside of three feet, for that matter – but he has shot 46.9% from the average mid-range area (between 10 and 16 feet) over his last four seasons

His playmaking is still in progress – it may even have already reached its peak – but he can do some damage by spontaneously creating some plays out of the post. His 7-foot wingspan is just another reason for him to be feared on defense.

Teammates

As for his teammates, Marvin Williams is as laterally mobile as a standstill rock, “Inconsistency” is Frank Kaminsky’s middle name, and the Charlotte local retirement home is Tony Parker’s next stop after finishing his season with the Hornets. But both the coaching staff and the front office can start making strides towards a new identity and a positive culture shift right now. Perhaps they decide to completely go away from being good on defense and cultivate their identity by starting to shoot as many threes as the Rockets.

Whatever the case may be, the Hornets need to start now. The way things are looking like around the league, they may not even come close to being title contenders in at least five seasons. But it is better to use that time effectively to try and fill the franchise’s biggest void than wasting it and barely creating any exciting times inside Spectrum Center.

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Image credit: Kemba Walker

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