by Samuel Osborne
Welcome to the week of way-to-early reactions, over reactions, and reactions in general. It is week three of the NBA season and hopes are starting to dwindle, problems are starting to manifest themselves, and Stephen Curry is still good at basketball. I’d like to take a moment to react to the 6-1 Charlotte Hornets, and ask are they good?
Ever since Steve Clifford took over the head coaching job in 2013, Charlotte has consistently been a top defensive team in the league. This year is no different as the Hornets have the 2nd best defensive rating so far giving up 94.1 points per 100 possessions. They also lead the league in team defensive field goal percentage at -3.2%. This means that players shoot 3.2% worse when going up against the Hornets. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (MKG) who, despite a hideous jump shot, is one of the best wing defenders in the game. After missing all of last season with a torn labrum, he and his 7 foot wingspan have returned to wreak havoc on ball handlers and passing lanes. It’s no surprise that the Hornets’ best lineup this year has featured their three best defenders in Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Nicholas Batum. Those three combined with Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams have a healthy plus/minus of six and are also the best three point shooting lineup the Hornets have trotted out so far.
To complement their half-court defense, the Hornets defend in transition unlike any other team in the NBA. This year,they are 2nd in opponent points off turnovers giving up 12.2 per game. It helps that they also turn the ball only 11.7 times per game, which is the best in the league.ow that Al Jefferson is lumbering back on a different team, the Hornets’ transition defense is exceedingly better. Starting Zeller at center and Williams at power forward has given the Hornets increased mobility both in getting back and on the defensive end. Though Clifford likes to have his big men drop back on pick and rolls, it is not a stretch to ask Zeller and Williams to switch onto guards if the situation calls for it. Even though the Hornets have downsized their starting lineup, it has not affected their work on the boards, where they rank 2nd in defensive rebounds and 8th overall.
On offense, a lack of spacing has traditionally plagued the Hornets. Losing Courtney Lee, who shot 40% from deep last season, in the offseason did not help and getting MKG back would hurt despite his excellent defense. MKG is a career 21% shooter from beyond the arc and teams have taken to giving him the Tony Allen treatment. That’s why it was important that Walker shot a career high three point percentage last season, and Williams established himself as a threat from deep. This season, Walker is showing that last season wasn’t a fluke as he has come out smoking from deep shooting 48.7%, and while that is almost certainly going to come down it bodes well for the team.
Marvin Williams’ flexibility on the offensive end is crucial for a successful Hornets’ offense. So far this season, Williams has shot a respectable 34.3% from deep. What has been encouraging is the way Clifford uses MKG on offense. After making strides on his jump shot MKG reverted back to… I don’t even really know how to describe it, but it’s bad.
Instead of having him stand in a corner and brick threes Clifford is having him post up. In the blowout win against Indiana, you could see the Hornets going to him early when he was matched up against Monta Ellis. If he is able to consistently able to attack smaller players in the post that’s going to make it easier to leave him out there in crunch time, and maximizes his value as a player.
Post contract Batum has also started the season low. His field goal percentage has dropped under 40% and he is shooting 31% from deep. It’s early but if Batum can’t stay up to par with his performance last season that’s going to be worrying as we get deeper into the season. He is vital to the Hornets success on both ends of the court, and though Walker’s hot start has overshadowed it the Hornets need him to win.
Jefferson leaving in the off-season has also cleared the way for Zeller to assume a bigger role in the offense. Zeller has established himself these past seasons as one of the better roll men in the league averaging 1.22 points per possession (PPP) last season, and 1.18 this season. Combine his deadly rolling ability and Walker’s ability to hit pull up threes off the dribble now and you’ve got a devastating pick and roll combination.
All these stats paint a picture of a very fundamental team who will never lose a game by shooting itself in the foot, and in the NBA that will get you a healthy amount of regular season wins but it’s harder to win in the playoffs where teams clamp down and pure talent can overcome a lot. As the season chugs along look for the Hornets to be one of the better teams in the East, but don’t mistake them for a challenger to the Cavaliers just yet.