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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-

Check out Nikola Jokick’s perfect shooting triple-double (VIDEO)

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Phoenix star rookie Deandre Ayton, welcome to the NBA. Please try to guard Denver’s Nikola Jokic in your second game.

That didn’t go well. Jokic finished with a triple-double of 35 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. However, it’s how he got there that was impressive: 11-of-11 from the field shooting, 10-of-11 from the free throw line, zero turnovers, four steals, and he threw in a blocked shot for good measure.

Jokic was +29 on the night and the Nuggets won 119-91. Denver is 2-0 to start the season.

Report: Knicks’ Kevin Knox out 2-4 weeks with sprained ankle

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This is a blow — not just for the Knicks on the court, or the development of the team’s new young star, but for Knicks fans. With Kristaps Porzingis out for the foreseeable future, promising rookie Kevin Knox was the reason for hope, the reason to tune in and watch every night.

Now he’s going to be out for a couple of weeks, and maybe a month.

Knox went down after Boston’s Terry Rozier tried to cut Knox off in transition and fouled him. Knox was in a lot of pain and had to be helped off the court.

That sprained ankle will take 2-4 weeks to heal, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Ugh. The good news is this is not more serious and Knox will fully recover. But it’s a setback both for him and the watchability of the Knicks for a few weeks.

Kyrie Irving on if he hadn’t chosen Boston, “New York held a special place for me”

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Now Kyrie Irving is just teasing Knicks fans.

While he was reportedly New York’s top free agent target, Irving announced he will re-sign with Boston when he becomes a free agent next summer. He’s not looking around, not shopping his talents, not talking to the Knicks. That’s why he was greeted with some boos when introduced at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.

However, if Irving were going to shop his talents, New York might have won the sweepstakes, Irving said to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Every team was under consideration but obviously New York held a special place for me,” said Irving, who grew up about 15 miles away from MSG in West Orange, NJ. “Just being from Jersey and obviously envisioning myself as a free agent and ultimately taking a meeting and playing for (Knicks coach David Fizdale) and a great young core that they have here.

“Thinking about playing with (Kristaps Porzingis). That was a big thing before I made my decision just to plan on re-signing back with Boston. But yeah, of course, New York was a strong consideration.”

The Celtics are in a position to contend for a title this season and few more going forward (at least), which is what Irving said is the key reason he wants to stay. It doesn’t hurt that Boston can offer him five years, $190 million guaranteed, while the most the Knicks can offer is four years, $139 million. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table.

By the way, the Celtics beat the Knicks 103-101 in MSG.

Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram all ejected for punches-thrown fight in Rockets win

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LOS ANGELES — By the end, LeBron James‘ home opener as a Laker wasn’t about him.

It was about a rare, actual punches thrown NBA fight that saw Houston’s Chris Paul, and Los Angeles’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram ejected. All are likely to face suspensions.

It was also about another Lakers’ loss, 124-115. The Lakers have started the season 0-2 and been out-executed at the end of both games (they scored just 18 fourth-quarter points Saturday).

“I talked to the guys, fights happen in sports, but we’ve got to keep our composure,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “We somewhat did, but they made a lot of shots down the stretch. (James) Harden made a couple ones, one possession with a rebound on one, we missed a switch on a high pick-and-roll…

“We didn’t execute well enough to win that game down the stretch.”

The Rockets did, bouncing back with some fight after a punchless loss to New Orleans in their opener.

“We had to win a game… ultimately the most important thing is to win the game,” said James Harden, who took over after the fight to secure the win and finished with 36 points on 19 shots. “All the commotion going on, that’s what I tried to go do.”

With it being LeBron’s home debut, the L.A. crowd was fired up from the start. The game was entertaining, back-and-forth and getting physical at points, but nothing out of the ordinary.

That was until in the fourth quarter when Houston’s James Ennis clotheslined Josh Hart who was driving the lane. Ennis got a flagrant one.

“The clothesline, three minutes prior to (the big fight), I saw that. Zero idea how that’s a flagrant one,” Walton said. “(Ennis) clotheslined a guy, he picked him up off his feet and slammed him on his back, and that’s a flagrant one. To me, if I’m a player or a teammate, and that’s a flagrant one, then we can play a little more physical.”

It did get physical after that and a few minutes later is when things spilled over into the fight.

Los Angeles’ Brandon Ingram was particularly frustrated with Harden drawing foul calls (welcome to a big club, Brandon) and after Harden drew another with 4:13 left in the game Ingram let his frustration go and shoved Harden. That was met with a quick and deserved technical, which was followed by some jawing, which is when Lance Stephenson stepped in to pull Ingram out and protect him from himself (yes, Stephenson was the level headed one… it was weird to type that).

Usually in an NBA “fight” that’s when things calm down.

Saturday night, that’s when things went crazy.

Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — two guys who don’t like each going back most of a decade — were jawing after the play when CP3 took his finger and pushed Rondo in the face. Rondo responded by throwing a punch.

Paul insists Rondo spit on him, which provoked his reaction. Rondo and the Lakers vehemently deny this. (On the video you don’t see Rondo intentionally spitting, but did spittle fly out of his mouth while yelling? Who knows.)

That’s what (Paul) is saying. And as a man, the only thing you can do is react,” Harden said. “Stand up for yourself.”

Once that punch was thrown it was mayhem on the court.

In the middle of that is when Ingram came sprinting back into the scene and threw another punch. He was quickly pulled out of the pile, but the damage was done. He was going to be ejected and could face the longest suspension of anyone because he was the third man into the fight (and instigated everything shoving Harden).

Once everything settled down, the ejections came — Ingram, Rondo, and Paul were all gone. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s lead disciplinarian, was in the building and saw everything first hand. Expect the suspensions to come down Sunday, before the Rockets play the Clippers on Sunday night.

For the Rockets, it’s a win to build on, although they may have to do that without Paul for a game or two.

For the Lakers there were positives — Lonzo Ball had a strong night and was 4-of-8 from three, and the offense looks good when they get out in transition (in the halfcourt, there’s work to do) — but they need more consistent shooting and improved defense to the close games they will find themselves in a lot in the West.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” LeBron said postgame. “I knew we were going to have some early struggles. Nobody said this was going to be easy….

“We got a long way to go to get to the Rockets, to get to a lot of teams in the Western Confererence, they’ve just been together for so long.”