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6 HORNETS

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The Hornets won 48 games in 2015--16, tied for the third most in the East. Last season they won only 36, finishing 11th in the conference. The culprit? Charlotte's defense was 4.3 points per 100 possessions worse last season than the year before. A team that had never finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency during coach Steve Clifford's first three seasons dropped to 14th.

The Hornets don't have a roster loaded with offensive talent, which is why defending well is crucial. Clifford would seem to have the pieces to put together a lockdown squad, with Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams providing length and athleticism on the perimeter. But perimeter D is what killed the Hornets; they gave up an NBA-record 950 three-pointers.

Batum in particular will need to recommit himself; his defensive rating has worsened each of the past two years, from a very good 103 in 2015--16 to a pedestrian 108 last season. One source of help is Dwight Howard, who is joining his fifth team in six years. With Howard's rim-protecting behind them, Charlotte's wings should be able to tighten up around the three-point arc.

PROJECTED LINEUP

2016--17 STATS

COACH STEVE CLIFFORD

(5th season with Hornets)

2016--17 RECORD 36--46

(4th in Southeast)

29 [THE CROSSOVER TOP 100 RANKING]

PG KEMBA WALKER

23.2 PPG; 5.5 APG; 44.4 FG%; 39.9 3FG%

48 [THE CROSSOVER TOP 100 RANKING]

SG NICOLAS BATUM

15.1 PPG; 6.2 RPG; 5.9 APG; 40.3 FG%

SF MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST

9.2 PPG; 7.0 RPG; 1.0 SPG; 47.7 FG%

88 [THE CROSSOVER TOP 100 RANKING]

PF MARVIN WILLIAMS

11.2 PPG; 6.6 RPG; 42.2 FG%; 35.0 3FG%

73 [THE CROSSOVER TOP 100 RANKING]

C DWIGHT HOWARD [NEW ACQUISITION]

13.5 PPG; 12.7 RPG; 1.2 BPG; 63.3 FG%

BENCH

SG JEREMY LAMB

9.7 PPG; 4.3 RPG; 46.0 FG%; 28.1 3FG%

SG MALIK MONK [ROOKIE, COLLEGE STATS]

19.8 PPG; 2.3 APG; 45.0 FG%; 39.7 3FG%

PF FRANK KAMINSKY

11.7 PPG; 4.5 RPG; 39.9 FG%; 32.8 3FG%

• THE CROSSOVER TOP 100 RANKING

*NEW ACQUISITION

(R) ROOKIE, COLLEGE STATS

ENEMY LINES

A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP CHARLOTTE

DWIGHT HOWARD is maligned, but I'm often overtaken by his physicality. I think to myself, How can this guy not be one of the best centers in basketball? He's a walking double double. Why isn't he a better version of Hassan Whiteside? Howard, to me, is a very big conundrum ... I've always been a KEMBA WALKER fan. He has a chip on his shoulder but is not a high-maintenance player at all. He's got this joie de vivre when he's out there, and he gets better every year. He's not one of those guys looking for his next endorsement deal. Kemba is just a plain ol' baller, man.... NICOLAS BATUM is a versatile offensive talent and a great passer. On the defensive end he just leaves a little bit to be desired.... MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST is such a good defender. I thought that because he's a diligent worker his offense would eventually take root. It just hasn't. It's tough. The combination of Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum on the wing isn't good enough to be an upper-level team in the conference.... Never could figure out MARVIN WILLIAMS's game, to be honest .... CODY ZELLER could play a little bit alongside Howard; he can face up and shoot. They've got a similar player in FRANK KAMINSKY, who finished the season pretty strong. It's tough to figure out how to make all those guys fit.... There's very little chance MALIK MONK is going to play point guard in the NBA. He always reminds me of Lou Williams. He's just a natural, fluid, athletic, undersized scoring two guard. He'll be instant offense.

TELLING 4.3 STATISTIC

BOTTOM LINE

If Howard can stay focused after yet another change of scenery, the Hornets will find themselves back in the postseason.