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Best Case, Worst Case: Charlotte Hornets

Is Dwight Howard enough to push the Hornets back into the playoff field?

Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard USA Today/Ringer illustration

NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.

This story was updated following the news of Nicolas Batum’s injury.

Team: Charlotte Hornets

Coach: Steve Clifford (fifth year)

Last Season: 36-46 (11th in Eastern Conference)

Notable Additions: Dwight Howard (trade), Malik Monk (draft), Michael Carter-Williams (free agency)

Notable Subtractions: Marco Belinelli (trade), the Plumlee with the bad contract (trade)

Vegas Over/Under: 42.5

Best-Case Scenario: Top-four seed, baby!

Charlotte has carved out a place as the 40-degree day of the NBA. The talent has been passable on average the past few years, but the results have been relatively steady because execution is damn near precise. Since Clifford’s arrival, Charlotte has had the top turnover ratio each season and has never fallen out of the top half in defense. Crisp chest passes and quick defensive rotations may not send anyone rushing to League Pass, but cold, hard competence can get you places, especially in the barren wasteland that is this season’s Eastern Conference. Just showing up may be 95 percent of the battle.

That was part of the problem last season: Cody Zeller, fresh off a contract extension, missed 20 games, which forced the Hornets to cycle through a morass of large men to fill the void. The aw-shucks undersized center may not seem all that important at first blush, but his screening (third in screen assists last season, per and pick-and-roll defense were integral to the switchy, deep-shooting unit from two seasons ago that won 48 games and was thisclose to knocking off the Heat in the first round.

Zeller is back, but in what capacity remains an open (existential?) question. For now, the Hornets have chosen to relegate him to the second unit in favor of Dwight Howard, who opens a season on a new team for the third time in a row and is claiming to be an adult human. The evidence from media day would seem to point otherwise:

Dwight Howard wearing blue contact lenses Getty Images

Howard is nearing 32 years old and at times moves like he’s wearing a backpack full of lead, but, in theory, he offers the rim protection Charlotte’s defense has lacked even in its best iterations under Clifford. It’s hard to rest much on a player who leaves a trail of cheers and party hats on his way out. But Clifford, Howard’s former assistant coach during those halcyon days in Orlando, has done more with less (remember when Kemba Walker couldn’t shoot 3s?).

The rest of the team just makes sense. And potent rookie scorers Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, the 11th and 40th overall selections in this year’s draft, add the sort of unpredictable offensive punch off the bench that can swing a game or two. Fear their respectability.

Worst-Case Scenario: Another lottery pick!

Coaching up a team without top-end talent has indeed produced results for Clifford, but it’s a much tougher job with players trying to keep hold on talent rather than tap into it. Three of the Hornets’ expected starting five (Howard, Batum, and Marvin Williams) unfortunately fall in the former group. Williams, in particular, seems like a red flag. The 12-year veteran’s switch to a full-time 4 was another major windfall on that 48-win team, but after shooting 40 percent from 3 two seasons ago, Williams’s long ball leveled off around his career average last season (a still-respectable 35 percent). With Howard (56 career 3-point attempts) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (34) filling out the frontcourt, that means the Hornets intend to open games with just one plus shooter on the floor: Walker, who is also tasked with being the primary creator.

It’s hard to figure out who else on the roster they can depend on to fix their spacing woes—or, for that matter, any other problem that should arise this season. A Zeller-Howard timeshare shores up last season’s major sore spot, and Monk is an intriguing prospect, but Frank Kaminsky is the only other steady hand left on a reserve unit ripe with unproven commodities. Having to pencil in Michael Carter-Williams is bad enough; having to pencil in Carter-Williams coming off PRP injections to both knees is a recipe for disaster.

The first test for the backups will come before the season even starts: Batum will miss the next eight to 12 weeks after tearing a ligament in his left elbow, per The Vertical. Though the 28-year-old may not be the Hornets’ best player, his versatility may be their biggest asset. Playing Batum, a high-level secondary playmaker, more with the reserves was one of the precious few options Charlotte had to paper over its lack of depth in the backcourt. Now the onus falls on a still-recovering Carter-Williams and a pair of rookies to do that and fill the void in the starting lineup.

At best, the Hornets’ lack of depth was going to ask a lot of the team’s principals. At worst, it opens the door for deja vu all over again.

TL;DR: A competent veteran roster could go far in a conference bereft of elite talent … as long as injuries don’t strike the core of a shallow roster.