The Hornets bench, for the second straight year, is not working. Over the last three games before a merciful win over the Hawks, they’re a combined –135. Along with continued poor fourth quarter execution, the bench can be blamed for key losses to the Heat and Pacers. The Hornets, meanwhile, with large amounts of their cap flexibility tied up into seven large contracts, have very few roster options to make themselves better from outside. If they want to make what might be an ill-advised playoff run, they will need to improve their bench from within.
Last year, the solution to this that I advocated ad nauseum was playing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with those players rather than playing five-man bench units or the Nic Batum with four other bench player lineups. Those Batum-plus-bench lineups, specifically, hemorrhaged three-point shots on the defensive end because the guards and wings were so bad at closing out shooters. The Kidd-Gilchrist lineups, however, saw better success and should have seen more time than they did.
This year, lineups with five bench players are just as awful as ever, if not worse. When Kemba Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, Batum, Marvin Williams, and Dwight Howard are off the court at the same time, the Hornets are outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAWowy.com. This wouldn’t be too abnormal for a bad lineup, up until you realize that those lineups play 8.5 minutes per game. As a result, because of the time in which that lineup is playing, the Hornets functionally start every game at a three-point deficit. Considering how bad the Hornets are at close games (and how random those tend to be on a leaguewide scale), it would seem prudent to avoid those as much as possible.
In order to fix the issues with the bench, then, we have to identify the issue. With the personnel on the bench, it looks fairly obvious in part because it is. Isolation based players in Jeremy Lamb, Johnny O’Bryant, and Frank Kaminsky are playing alongside Michael Carter-Williams, who the defense rightly does not respect at doing anything on the offensive end. They get doubled, the offense turns into one of them trying to fight through multiple defenders, and by the end of it, they go through long scoring droughts and get crushed.
Since the bench’s issue is the offense bogging down, we can eliminate putting Kidd-Gilchrist as the lone starter in there, and Williams is a safe elimination too since he does similar things to Treveon Graham on that end, just at a different scale. The bench basically only exists to get Kemba rest, so we can exclude him as well, leaving Dwight and Batum as the two choices to play with the bench.
With Kemba and Batum on, the Hornets outscore opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions. With just Kemba and no Batum, however, the Hornets outscore opponents by 7.4 points per 100. Similarly, just Batum, with no Kemba yields a net rating of –5.1, but playing with neither of them yields a net rating of –16.2. This would indicate that if all other things are equal, playing neither of them is the worst option and that the Hornets should be avoiding it at all costs, and that the added opportunity cost of minutes with Batum next to Kemba isn’t really a cost at all.
Similarly, with Dwight and Kemba, the Hornets outscore opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions, but with just Kemba, Charlotte outscores opponents by 9.4 points per 100. Just Dwight, meanwhile, has a net rating of –7.6, which, while bad, looks sterling when compared to the –15.1 net rating with neither of them. As before, we see that playing neither of them is the worst possible scenario, and we also see that it doesn’t hurt to move them away from Kemba.
Which then ends with the question of why Steve Clifford is basically doing the exact opposite. Batum has played 85% of his minutes with Kemba, and 85% of his minutes with Dwight. Dwight has played a staggering 91% of his minutes with Kemba, and if you omit the 45 minutes played in the games that Kemba was out, it jumps up to a 94%, which is a truly large figure for high-volume pairs in the league.
This is hardly a guaranteed solution, but at this point in his coaching career, with his job possibly teetering in the balance, Steve Clifford needs to start making smarter decisions, and this is as good a place as any to start. Batum wants more looks in the offense and Dwight will take any look he can get, so it makes as much sense as anything to give them a place where they’re both free to do as they please. The Hornets should turn them loose in bench units, and leave Superman to herd the unruly cats that are our other bench players. It won’t be pretty, but cutting those bench-created deficits to one point instead of three could be just enough to turn the Hornets’ season around.