The Charlotte Hornets were hoping to make a statement this season louder than any before in their franchise’s history. They were set up for success in what was looking like another down year for the Eastern Conference (the East has been better than expected, but not by much). Kemba Walker was looking to break out and lead his team to a playoff appearance and perhaps his second consecutive All-Star selection. They drafted Malik Monk in the lottery and Dwayne Bacon in the second round with hopes that they could be first-year contributors. They traded for Dwight Howard in the offseason to bring rebounding and rim protection to an already-solid defensive team. Frank Kaminsky looked primed to take #TheLeap. So far, the Hornets have failed to maximize on that potential.
Their 10-16 record is third-to-last in the East. Before taking down the Oklahoma City Thunder in their most recent game, the Hornets were on a three-game losing streak and had lost seven of their last eight. The injuries are beginning to pile up and the team has yet to capitalize on what could have been one of their best seasons yet.
The most obvious “excuse” for the Hornets is the injury bug that has plagued the team since the moment the season began. Nicolas Batum missed the first 12 games of the season with an elbow injury for which he considered but ultimately decided against surgery. Batum then missed a Nov. 24 matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers due to elbow soreness and is currently expected to miss more games due to the same elbow not being 100 percent. Batum is one of the Hornets’ most effective playmakers and his health issues have caused his numbers to slip drastically. The Hornets are 6-8 this season without Batum, and his all-around play style is crucial to the Hornets’ success.
But the injuries don’t end with Batum. Kemba Walker has missed two games with shoulder soreness. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has missed six games this season. Frank Kaminsky has missed four games, including the two before the Thunder game. Cody Zeller suffered a torn meniscus and is expected to miss an extended period of time. Jeremy Lamb is having his best season as a pro and a lot of that is because he’s finally been healthy for a decent stretch of time. Recently, a bruised shin kept him out of the Hornets’ Dec. 9 loss to the Lakers. Treveon Graham, who plays 17.8 minutes per game and averages 4.8 points per game, has missed 10 games this season. Backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams spent the majority of the offseason recovering from knee surgery (on both knees, I might add).
All of these injuries are significant and have surely hindered the Hornets’ progress, but a lot of these injuries, whether minor or major, particularly to Zeller and Lamb, have happened recently. Batum has never been at full strength and that shows in his stats and on-court play, but he wasn’t supposed to be the driving force in leading the Hornets to a playoff spot.
Plenty of defense, not nearly enough offense
Head coach Steve Clifford has always been a defensive-minded coach in Charlotte. Clifford’s teams have had a top-15 defensive rating in all five seasons he’s been the head coach (currently 13th this season), but only twice has his team’s offensive rating finished above 15th (currently 23rd).
The addition of Howard has helped on the defensive end and he’s having his most productive and energetic season since he was last an All-Star in 2014. However, he’s still not much of an offensive threat. He’s not demanding touches like he has in the past, but he’s extremely limited to the paint with a sub-.500 free throw percentage.
What Howard does bring is extra length in the paint. The Hornets lead the league in defensive rebounding and are second in overall rebounding percentage (thanks in part to Howard’s 12.2 rebounds per game, fourth-highest in the league). They rank second in both fewest points off turnovers and second-chance points, while also giving up the sixth-fewest points in transition. The Hornets play excellent overall team defense and they always have under Clifford. However, they need similar production on the other end to see positive results.
Outside of Kemba Walker and (apparently) Jeremy Lamb, the Hornets struggle to find scoring. Kaminsky’s shooting numbers are up, but his overall scoring is down, and his shooting percentage of 34.2 from three is hardly anything to rave about. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is still limited to drives and pull-up mid-range jumpers. Cody Zeller was hardly an offensive threat before his injury (more so an energy player who can make the extra play). Marvin Williams’ shooting numbers are up, but he’s taking fewer shots in fewer minutes than he has during his last two seasons. This Hornets offense runs almost entirely through one player: Kemba Walker.
Dependance on Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker is a workhorse. He is the engine that powers this Hornets team. Their 10-16 record would be much, much worse if he wasn’t doing everything in his power to win his team the game. There are tons of stats that prove Walker’s greatness this season, but perhaps the most compelling stat to back up this claim can be found by simply looking at the Hornets’ on/off numbers with and without Walker. When Walker is OFF the court, the Hornets’ offensive rating is an abysmal 90.6. When he’s ON the court, their offensive rating shoots up to 109.7, which would be the fifth-highest in the league. The team’s defense does get worse with Walker on the floor compared to when he’s off, but his impact on offense is so crucial that the Hornets are practically helpless without him.
What’s interesting is that Walker’s stats are down from last season, pretty much across the board – only his minutes and assists are up. However, the Hornets are 7-6 when Walker scores more than 20 points and a lowly 3-8 when he scores 20 or less. When Walker is on the court, the Hornets shoot six percent better from the field and 5.3 percent better from three. Here’s a fun stat: Walker is the only player this season to record at least 45 points, five rebounds and five assists with only one turnover in a single game (which he did in a loss to the Chicago Bulls).
Arguing that Walker is the Hornets’ best player is an incredibly easy sell, and the team’s inability to win even with his success is troubling for the future of the season. Steve Clifford is currently away from the team dealing with health issues for the foreseeable future and the question as to whether or not the team should trade Walker now will undoubtedly cross the minds of both fans and the front office (if it hasn’t already). If they don’t show signs of fulfilling their expectations soon, it might be time to reconsider how they move forward. The Hornets have several young and talented players, but they have hardly been consistent. Speaking of…
Where are the youngins?
The Hornets drafted Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon this past offseason with hopes that they could both be solid contributors. Thus far, that has been anything but the truth. Bacon averages only 3.8 points in 17.4 minutes while their lottery pick, Monk, is averaging 6.5 points per game in one fewer minute than Bacon. Monk was a streaky shooter in college and that has followed him to the pros. The guard has scored in double figures just five times this season. Kidd-Gilchrist and Kaminsky are both under 25 but haven’t been the consistent and threatening offensive contributors they need to be. A breakout season from Jeremey Lamb is definitely a plus, but he can’t be the second best scorer on a playoff team.
The Charlotte Hornets very clearly go as far as Kemba Walker takes them. He may be an offensive flamethrower, but he’s nowhere near being an elite defender and the pieces around him just aren’t clicking so far. There are still plenty of games left, as we aren’t even a third of the way through the regular season, but any signs pointing to the Hornets recovering appear to be few and far between.
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