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On a budget, Hornets prudently address their flaws

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At 36-46, the 2016-17 Hornets’ had the second-worst record ever by a team that outscored its opponents.

Point difference, rather than record, tends to better predict future success. So, simple regression to the mean should lift Charlotte – which finished the season +16 – firmly into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

But the Hornets didn’t stop there, addressing their two biggest issues in a quietly focused offseason.

Charlotte fell apart when Cody Zeller missed games (3-17 record) or Kemba Walker went to the bench (-7.0 net rating) last season.

Enter Dwight Howard and Michael Carter-Williams.

The Hornets moved $44,106,060 of salary (Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli) for Howard and his $47,319,725 remaining salary – and moved up 10 spots in the second round. Howard isn’t necessarily the answer at center in Charlotte, but he might be, and Plumlee definitely wasn’t. Plumlee is also due $12.5 million each of the next three seasons while Howard’s deal expires after only two. Belinelli was a helpful reserve on an expiring contract, but drafting Malik Monk at No. 11 completely softens the blow of a deal that was already pretty cushy.

After going from the No. 41 to the No. 31 pick in the Hawks trade, the Hornets moved back down to No. 40, getting Dwayne Bacon and pocketing $1.8 million for the swap. It’s still about money in Charlotte.

That’s why the Hornets had to settle for Carter-Williams, who’ll earn just $2.7 million on a one-year contract. Jeremy Lin shined as Charlotte’s backup point guard on a similar contract a couple years ago, but I wouldn’t count on similar success for Carter-Williams. The former Rookie of the Year fell out of favor with the Bucks and Bulls fairly quickly. It wouldn’t be hard for him to outperform the low bar Ramon Sessions set behind Walker last season, but the Hornets paid for a flier – not a sure-fire fix.

Most of their mid-level exception is left unused, and it will likely remain that way with Charlotte butting up against the luxury tax. The Hornets have never paid the luxury tax, and I doubt Michael Jordan changes the policy now.

Monk was a steal at No. 11, and maybe the 6-foot-3 combo guard eventually factors at point guard. But it’s no guarantee he ever makes that transition full-time, and it’d be shocking if he did it as a rookie. A more reasonable case: Monk makes Jeremy Lamb expendable, though that also requires Lamb  – owed $14,488,372 the next two years – to play well enough to maintain value.

Steve Clifford could have his hands full setting this rotation, especially at center. Howard can play only center, which is also Zeller’s best position by far. Between the two, they probably deserve more than 48 minutes per game – which means one or both will get less playing time than warranted and/or Zeller will play some power forward.

There’s also a matter of who starts. Howard is far more established, but Zeller – seven years younger – will soon be better if he isn’t already. Would Howard chafe at coming off the bench? He spent his season in Atlanta doing the dirty work then seemingly griping about his role after the fact. If Zeller is superior, how would sticking him behind Howard affect team chemistry?

Clifford might be the Howard whisperer, but this situation could get tricky.

Still, having too many centers sure beats last year’s problem of not having enough. If Carter-Williams becomes a competent point guard – certainly possible, but unlikely – this could be a team with no glaring weaknesses. That’s a big deal after two holes sunk Charlotte last year.

The Hornets still rely on Walker, a fringe All-Star, for all their star power. But Monk was a steal at No. 11, and he could eventually shape this franchise’s future.

The Hornets were never as far off as they looked.

They might be even closer now.

Offseason grade: B-

Russell Westbrook hits game-winning 3-pointer to beat Kings (VIDEO)

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Welp, looks like Russell Westbrook is re-energized after All-Star Weekend.

As the first night of games after the break got underway on Thursday night, it was Westbrook who gave us a jolt as he helped the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Sacramento Kings on the road.

With just a second to go, Sacramento’s Justin Jackson had tied the game up at 107-107. This came after Vince Carter pulled up confidently from nearly 30 feet out, missing badly. Sacramento missed another follow, and then Jackson put home the final try.

Via Twitter:

That left the Thunder to advance the ball with just one second left.

Oklahoma City ran a simple play with Westbrook running near-to-far across the arc from the inbounder, eventually settling at the top of the 3-point line.

He let it fly, and that allowed OKC to come away with a win, 110-107.

Bulls find way to lose despite being up by 5 with 35 seconds left

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CHICAGO (AP) Ben Simmons scored 32 points, making two free throws with 5.6 seconds left to complete Philadelphia’s rally from five points down in the final minute, and the 76ers beat the Chicago Bulls 116-115 on Thursday night.

Joel Embiid had 30 points and 13 rebounds, and Simmons added 11 assists and seven rebounds as Philadelphia won its sixth straight and snapped a four-game road losing streak.

Bobby Portis had a career-high 38 points and Zach LaVine added 23 for the Bulls, who were 18 for 34 on 3-pointers.

Chicago had a 115-114 lead and the ball with 8 seconds to go before Embiid deflected an inbounds pass to create a turnover. Simmons came up with the ball near half court and was fouled by Denzel Valentine. He made both free throws.

Portis had a chance for a game winner, but his short attempt – with Embiid defending – just missed.

The 76ers raced to a 25-7 lead midway through the first quarter before Portis got hot and Chicago started making 3s.

Philadelphia’s lead was down to 33-29 at the end of the quarter and the Bulls busted out for 40 points in the second to take a 69-67 halftime lead. Chicago was 9 of 12 on 3-pointers in the quarter, including 4 for 5 by Portis.

The 76ers were up by five early in the fourth before Portis scored six straight points – on a 3-pointer and a three-point play – to put the Bulls on top 101-100. A few minutes later, Portis dunked over Embiid to stretch the lead to 111-106 with just over four minutes to play.

LaVine hit a 3-pointer to make it 115-110 with 1:02 left.

TIP INS

76ers: C Embiid has nine straight double-doubles . Simmons has six triple-doubles this season, which ties him with Wilt Chamberlain (three times) and Billy Cunningham for most in a season in team history.

Bulls: To look at some younger players during the final 25 games, C Robin Lopez and G/F Justin Holiday were removed from the starting lineup. Both were inactive on Thursday as Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba (21 points) started; Also, Cameron Payne – who played in his first game on Thursday – will replace Jerian Grant as the backup point guard.

“It really is hard,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s hard for Robin, it’s hard for Justin and it’s hard for Jerian, who’s probably making as big a sacrifice as anybody.”

UP NEXT

76ers: Host Orlando on Saturday.

Bulls: Visit Minnesota Saturday night.

Kelly Oubre gets caught untying Rodney Hood’s shoes (VIDEO)

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The NBA seems to have a secret obsession with tying and untying shoes mid-game. J.R. Smith once got a warning for doing as much, finally earning himself a $50,000 fine after doing it multiple times. Likewise, other players like Rajon Rondo and Danny Green have pulled down the shorts of opponents while the clock was rolling.

Perhaps that emboldened Washington Wizards forward Kelly Oubre on Thursday night as his team took on the Cleveland Cavaliers in Ohio.

During the game, game operations crew at The Q ran a video on the big board that appeared to show Oubre untying the shoes of Cavaliers guard Rodney Hood.

Via Twitter:

These guys have so much to think about during a game I’m honestly impressed that they have the time to remember to do petty stuff like this.

I suppose it worked?

Oubre had 17 points off the bench, adding five rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Hood had just eight points in 27 minutes on the floor.

The Wizards beat the Cavaliers on the road, 110-103.

Report: Warriors will spend trip to D.C. with kids, not Trump

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Donald Trump decided to disinvite the Golden State Warriors to the White House despite team winning the 2017 NBA Championship. Many members of the Warriors have been critical of Trump during his short tenure in Washington D.C., which the former mail order steak salesman has not taken lightly.

With no invitation to the White House on hand, and considerable doubts that the team would go even if the opportunity resurfaced, the Warriors have decided to take a private tour around the nation’s capital instead.

According to a report from ESPN, the team will take a trip with just players, coaches, and some kids to a discreet location as part of a tour.

Via ESPN:

Head coach Steve Kerr left it up to the players to determine how they wanted to spend their time, and the players selected a venue in which local kids would join them. It will be closed off to the media, sources said.

The players wanted the outing to be a personal, intimate experience.

“It’s their championship. They got disinvited to the White House, so it’s up to them what they wanted to do. So they made their plans,” Kerr told ESPN. “I want the players to have a good day and to do something positive and to enjoy what they’re doing.”

Golden State will be in D.C. to play the Washington Wizards on February 28. They will reportedly take their trip — sure to be fun for the kids — the day before.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder if an NBA team will ever visit the White House while Trump lives there. People from LeBron James to Gregg Popovich have spoken out about their disagreements with him, and the Warriors were pretty vocal about not attending a ceremony with Trump.