Are the Hornets true contenders in the East?

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Updated: March 29, 2016
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Kemba Walker

 

One of the more entertaining developments this season has been the impressive play by the Charlotte Hornets. Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the team is 43-31 and tied with the Boston Celtics as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

They’re ranked ninth in total defense and 10th in offense, with a strong system that plays to the strength of their key players. However, when it comes to middle-of-the-pack teams in the East, the question is how many are “playoff good,” compared to those just playing well in the regular season? For Charlotte, an interesting underlining theme about their success flies under the radar that may answer this question.

The first thing that struck me with the Hornets is how much of a half-court team they are. Most teams without a bona-fide star usually opt for a fast-paced game because they don’t have the skill to compete in the half court. This isn’t the case with Charlotte. They have bigs who can shoot, and guards who enjoy playing out of the pick-and-roll.

Kemba Walker has taken his game to the next level as well, scoring more points (21 vs. 17.2) and shooting better from 3 (37.1 vs. 33.1 percent) than his career averages. According to SportUV, Walker is generating 0.89 points per possession off the pick-and-roll. He’s also fourth overall in pick-and-roll scoring with 613 points. For reference, that’s higher than Russell Westbrook.

Walker is confident in his driving ability, and playing alongside Nicolas Batum has allowed him to become more aggressive offensively. He’s shooting a better percentage at the rim (49.2 to 59.9 percent), and he’s already assisted on more 3-point attempts than all of last season (56 to 92).

Also, enough can’t be said about the effect Batum has had on the starting unit. The team’s offensive rating instantly goes from 104.3 to 108.3 when he’s on the floor, and the team’s assists jump up by nearly 2 percent. As the best two-way player on the team, Batum has the flexibility to guard players from the 1 to 3 positions (sometimes the 4, depending on the matchup).

Defensively, the Hornets are interchangeable up top and they get constant activity from Cody Zeller down in the paint. Because they surround Al Jefferson with four perimeter players, they’re able to survive defensively with him on the floor for good stretches — and he’s able to feast down low against inferior second-team bigs.

However, there are issues that cause for concern when it comes to their playoff compatibility. Despite being a top-10 offensive team, they’re 19th in assist percentage, first in turnover percentage and 14th in true shooting percentage. This screams a team that uses the strength of its depth well, but relies on volume more than pure talent.

On the flip side, they’re fifth in the East in point differential and third in 3-point percentage. So even though they aren’t an overall great shooting team, they get up a lot of 3-point shots, and hit them at a high percentage — something that’s big in today’s modern era.

The problem lies in what happens when teams force them off the 3-point line. The Boston Celtics, who have already beaten Charlotte in two of three matchups, held the Hornets to 30.1 percent shooting from 3 and amassed 27 turnovers. If you can force the Hornets off the 3-point line and get them scrambling, their last-ranked turnover ratio tends to turn its ugly head.

Their eighth-ranked defense has some holes as well. Despite the gaudy ranking, the Hornets are an average rebounding team — ranking 17th with a 49.7 percent rebounding rate. They also have no players in the top 50 of defensive real plus-minus (DRPM). Their defense is heavily based on system principles and frequently changes from matchup to matchup.

In the postseason, teams are able to focus-in on weak links on the defensive end. For this team, those players would be Walker and Marvin Williams — both have been defensive liabilities for most of their careers. A matchup with the Atlanta Hawks could be a nightmare because of their ability to run constant high pick-and-roll to create mismatches. The acquisition of Courtney Lee does make the dynamic a bit more interesting. His ability to guard the better of the two guards will aide Kemba, but also push Batum to be more of a permanent small forward — which makes the lineup even smaller, and adds to the issue of rebounding.

The Hornets are a promising team with an interesting roster, but for the most part still an unknown for just how good they are. Their up and down season has been full of confusing turns. From March 19 to March 26, they lost to the Denver Nuggets, had a miraculous comeback win against the San Antonio Spurs, then got man-handled by the Detroit Pistons.

As we’ve seen time and time again, when the lineups shortens, the strategy becomes more specific. And when the game slows down, the teams who succeed are the ones with the superior individual talent. Unfortunately for Charlotte, no matter what combination of the 3-6 seed they end up landing, they’ll either have to face a daunting Celtics defense, the Hawks or Miami Heat. Teams that are filled with talented players, top-tier coaching and incredible execution.

Though none of these matchups seem to really bode well for Charlotte, what they’ve accomplished so far can’t be ignored. Despite the criticism they’ve constantly been put through, the Hornets have assembled a strong roster that will only get better with the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The playoffs will provide a clear understanding of who they are, and what they need to improve on if they want to be considered a true contender in the East.

 

Alex Kungu

Alex Kungu

Boston-made NBA writer. Future Law student.

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