Gameday: Hornets @ Raptors, March 4

Sweep the series. You have a problem with that? No mercy.

The Toronto Raptors have the chance to gain some separation atop the Eastern Conference on Sunday. The Boston Celtics lost on Saturday, and that puts them three back of Toronto in the loss column. A win Sunday, and the Raptors will be a full two games ahead, providing a bit of a cushion ahead of some schedule compression the next three weeks and some difficult opponents on the horizon. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 as it is, playing some quality two-way ball.

Standing in their way are the Charlotte Hornets, who are in an awkward purgatory of not being bad enough to tank and probably not being good enough to elbow back into the playoff picture this late. They’re more dangerous than their record indicates, ranking as slightly above-average on both ends of the floor. They’re talented, well-coached, and value possessions highly, turning the ball over less than any other team and ranking first in defensive rebounding. They’re also the rare outfit that gets to the line plenty while sparsely sending their opponent there, taking nearly eight more free throws per-game than the other side (that damn pro-MJ NBA conspiracy).

The Raptors have had Charlotte’s number this year, already beating them three times by a total of 51 points. They’ve come a long way since that old stretch of ineffectiveness against them, winning nine of the last 12 meetings overall. Some of that Hornets anxiety still remains, though, and several Hornets seem a good bet to play up against Toronto on a given night. These are usually really fun matchups.

The game tips off at 6 on TSN and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Josh Priemski of At The Hive, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The battle for the bottom of the standings appears to be simply too competitive for the Hornets to get involved. At the same time, their playoff hopes are probably dashed by now, back five games with an extra team to jump, even if you believe they’re better than 28-35 (which I do). If both of those ends are unlikely, what’s the focus for this team from here? Spoiler? Unlikely last-ditch playoff push?

Josh Priemski: The Hornets are better than they look in the standings, I agree. A horrid start to the season sans Nicolas Batum held them back initially, but it then took Nic a while to figure out how he fits with a team built around Dwight Howard. Then, there was head coach Steve Clifford missing a couple of dozen games with migraines. Things have since settled–the team’s healthy and has developed a bit of chemistry–and it looks–and I must stress, *looks*–like they’re finally putting things together.

Prior to Wednesday’s loss to the Boston Celtics, the Hornets were on a five-game winning streak and looked like a legitimate playoff team. Unfortunately, it’s so late in the season and the bottom of the Eastern Conference is competitive enough that it might be too late for the Hornets to sneak in. During the All-Star break, Clifford remarked that the next 10 games would dictate how the Hornets approach the rest of the season, i.e. whether to continue playing vets and trying to win or switch it up with the youngsters and get the team’s stars some rest.

Needless to say, the Hornets aren’t sure of what to expect, either. They seem to be winging it and will adjust accordingly.

Blake Murphy: Looking longer-term, it seems changes are coming. Rich Cho has been informed he won’t be retained after the year, the team explored trading Kemba Walker, and the entire ship seems directionless. What would your ideal offseason look like?

Josh Priemski: I think the Hornets need to rid themselves of one or more of their big contracts–Batum, Howard, Marvin Williams, etc.–by any means necessary. They’re aware of this, too. The rumors surrounding Kemba were the result of (former) general manager Rich Cho shopping around the league, seeing what it would take to move one of those albatrosses. Apparently it would take Kemba. Hopefully it doesn’t require Kemba in the offseason.

The trouble’s that the Hornets have next to no cap room to work with this summer and not much more the following year, either. Jordan was comfortable enough spending to win this season and unfortunately for him it hasn’t worked out and now the team’s hands are tied with regard to the types of changes they can make.

The team’s young enough with some solid pieces that a total rebuild is wholly unnecessary, though, so if it’s a matter of waiting for contracts to expire the Hornets should be okay a few years down the line.

Blake Murphy: Steve Clifford is a very good coach who warrants another opportunity, if he wants it next year. IF the Hornets were to make a change behind the bench, what would your interest level be in Jerry Stackhouse, a UNC product who’s done a really nice job with Raptors 905 the last two years?

Josh Priemski: First and foremost, I think Clifford is retained. He’s an outstanding coach, an unbelievably hard worker, and one of the greatest people you’ll meet in the league. He’s developed a bit of a symbiosis with Kemba much in the same way Gregg Popovich did with Tim Duncan so I can’t imagine Jordan and co. risk sabotaging their All-Star’s happiness when it’s clear the problem with this team is not coaching. Those aforementioned migraines, by the way, were the result of Clifford staying awake for days at a time, working. Dude’s legit and he cares.

If the Hornets were to go another way, however, I think the first person they’d look at is assistant head coach Stephen Silas. Silas coached the Hornets in Clifford’s absence and was a target for some head coaching gigs last summer. As fans, we were sincerely concerned we were going to lose him because much like Clifford, he’s smart, works hard, and is creepily cordial.

I suppose Jerry Stackhouse would be an option. The Hornets do like connections to the Carolinas, but frankly I believe Stackhouse would be one of many potential candidates should the Hornets part with Clifford. Honestly, I’m much more interested in who replaces Rich Cho.

Blake Murphy: It’s unclear as of this writing if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be able to play due to a hamstring injury. If he does, what can people expect if they’ve maybe tuned out of his development? There’s obviously no 3-point shot yet, but every time I watch him, my long-held faith in him figuring it out around injuries feels moderately rewarded.

Josh Priemski: The biggest change to MKG’s game this year is his jumper. Inside of the arc, he’s extremely efficient with it. It’s not just spotting up, either. He’s comfortable dribbling left or right, fading away, popping floaters…it’s remarkable how much his jumper has improved. I suspect he’s a good 3-point shooter from the corners now too but he or Cliff has decided it’s best he work inside the arc for now.

Outside of the jumper, he’s still a long, relentless defender with a knack for grabbing boards and facilitating fast breaks. He’s blossomed into the consummate glue guy and he’s still young enough to add even more to his game, like that 3-point shot you mentioned. For what it’s worth, he still leads the team in plus-minus in roughly a third of their games. Dude makes a huge impact outside of the stat sheet.

Blake Murphy: Willy Hernangomez has barely played since coming over. What…was the point, then?

Josh Priemski: None of us know. I guess Cho or Jordan or whomever made that trade saw something in Willy that made them comfortable enough to give up a pick for him. Johnny O’Bryant had no future here (and, probably, in the league in general) so losing him was of negligible importance. The trouble is that the Hornets’ frontcourt is fairly deep, and Willy’s skill set and athletic ability are such that you can’t justify playing him anywhere other than center. Well, Dwight and Cody command all 48 minutes there, with Frank Kaminsky chipping in when the Hornets need more shooting.

I like Willy. I think he’s talented. My best guess is that the Hornets expect to move one of Howard or Zeller this summer to open up the frontcourt. Alternatively, maybe he’s just a trade chip. General managers still like his upside so I could see his inclusion in a trade being the thing that gets a deal done. But yeah, no clue why they got him. He’s fun to watch, I guess?

Raptors updates
The Raptors didn’t practice on Saturday and the early-ish tip Sunday meant no shootaround. That would normally leave us in the dark, but the Raptors got ahead of things early and listed OG Anunoby as out on the injury report, saving us from the “doubtful” tag up until game-time. They probably won’t announce their starting small forward until closer to 6, though, and it’s a very interesting dilemma.

Norman Powell started Friday and also started the two halves Anunoby missed earlier. The Raptors would surely like to get him going again. But he’s continued to struggle in a tiny offensive role and has only been okay on the defensive end, and somewhat inconsistent at that. The request being made of him here is difficult – come in after weeks of sitting, play a different role than you’re used to, know you’ll probably lose the spot back in a few games – and while it’s simply far too difficult to find regular minutes for 11 players and get Powell going that way, it’s not difficult to understand why he’s struggled to get a rhythm.

The results have been extreme enough that Dwane Casey might look elsewhere here. Powell is the only player on the team with a negative net rating in more than five minutes of action, the starters with Powell have a negative-7.5 net rating in 192 minutes (that’s improved since early in the year but was minus-46.7 on Friday), and there are other options available. C.J. Miles is an obvious one, and the Raptors would probably like to see him more with the starters, anyway. Delon Wright is an interesting idea against some non-Charlotte teams. Either of those options would also give Powell a chance to get rolling with the bench unit. And there’s Malcolm Miller, who ate into some of Powell’s minutes on Friday, looked good doing it, and was a plus-6 in seven minutes. The Miller drum is one I’ve been banging since July, and with ankle surgery well behind him, he’s looked ready for an audition – he’s hitting 38.1 percent of a large volume of threes with Raptors 905 and has been the best perimeter defender on the G League’s No. 2 defense. Still, a vote of no-confidence in Powell could be hard to come back from for the team.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Hornets updates
Cody Zeller has been dealing with a sore left knee and is questionable here. His absence Friday opened up the first real window of playing time for willy Hernangomez, who scored six points and had seven rebounds in 16 minutes backing up the center position. The Hornets also played about seven minutes with Frank Kaminsky at the the five, a look that’s given Toronto trouble in the past – Kaminsky is averaging 12.6 points in 25.8 minutes over 10 career games against the Raptors, hitting 36.2 percent of his threes for a 57.7 true-shooting percentage, well above his career averages of 9.9 (in 23.4 minutes), 34-percent from outside, and 51.3-percent true-shooting. There’s also the Dwight Howard issue inside, and despite improved defense from the Raptors’ centers overall, Howard has had his way, shooting 64.5 percent in the three meetings and scoring 54 points with 32 rebounds and seven assists in just 85 minutes.

Elsewhere, the Hornets should be pretty familiar by now. Kemba Walker is incredibly dangerous, especially if he’s allowed to heat up. He, too, seems to rise for games against Toronto. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nic Batum make for a nice defensive wing pairing, Marvin Williams injects some spacing and switchability, and Treveon Graham has impressed enough as a role player to completely usurp rookie Malik Monk in the rotation. This is just a much better team than their record suggests.

PG: Kemba Walker, Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone
SG: Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Treveon Graham, Dwayne Bacon
PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky
C: Dwight Howard, (Cody Zeller), Willy Hernangomez
OUT: None
TBD: Cody Zeller
Greensboro: Marcus Paige, Mangok Mathiang

The line
The Raptors are 8.5-point favorites with a 218.5 over-under.