Is Charlotte's Early-Season Success Sustainable?
Charlotte is a smaller professional sports market that can often be under appreciated, but it’s hard to look past what’s happening in the city right now.
The Carolina Panthers recently won the NFC South crown are possibly the NFL’s best story as they sit undefeated at 12-0. There’s also the Charlotte Hornets, who are arguably the biggest surprise of the NBA’s first quarter and currently sit at second place in the Eastern Conference with a 13-8 record.
They’ve won eight of their last 10 games with the two losses being fairly acceptable, at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
In addition to the win column, the advanced statistics are favoring the Hornets as well. Our nERD metric, a measure of overall team efficiency and a prediction of a team's ultimate winning percentage, places the Hornets fifth overall at 65.3. They trail only Miami (66.1) Oklahoma City (68.6), San Antonio (82.5) and Golden State (94.0), respectively.
How Are They Doing It?
The most impressive characteristic of this Hornets team is also very similar to the Panthers. Despite having lesser heralded guys at key positions (Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb), the stars (Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum) are great chemistry guys who excel at propping up those around them.
Most everyone thought the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would be a devastating blow for this team, but it has been far from it. They also recently lost their best post presence in Al Jefferson to a calf injury and subsequent suspension but have only played better since he went down.
Playing without Jefferson has benefited them in two ways specifically. First, they are better defensively with him on the bench. Per NBA.com, Jefferson’s opponents are shooting 50 percent from the field and 60 percent within 6 feet of the basket.
The other is pace of play, which is aligned with the Hornets’ most obvious transformation -- the three-pointer. In 21 games so far this season, the Hornets have attempted at least 23 three-pointers in 18 games. In the entire 82 games they played last season, the Hornets attempted 23 or more three-pointers just 17 times and lost 14 of those games.
The change has been staggering. Much was made of coach Steve Clifford’s willingness to let his players launch more frequently, but tweaking the personnel and his rotations has really made the adjustment work. It’s also shown them they can use their depth and win in a multitude of different ways.
Not only do they have 10 guys who see at least 15 minutes per game, but they are also getting at least 8 points per game from 7 different players.
It starts mostly with Batum, who needed just 28 minutes to record a triple-double in Wednesday’s victory over Miami. He’s a brilliant passer and shooter, and those abilities allow Walker to focus less on distribution and more on his greatest strength: filling up the scoring column.
Batum’s influence has also boosted the play of Zeller, who moves well without the ball and in transition. Being on the receiving end of Batum’s passes is leading to a lot of uncontested dunks and layups, helping build critical confidence in a young player.
Rotation-wise, Clifford is resisting impulse and sticking to a plan that benefits the entire roster. After some of the stellar performances from Lamb and Jeremy Lin, cases could easily be made about why either of those two could be vaulted in the starting lineup, but Clifford has realized that Lin’s game excels with the second unit, where he can be the ball-dominant guard instead of Walker.
The same is true for Lamb, who clearly benefits from having more opportunities to play in score-first mode. Resisting the temptation to chase hot stretches is key, as this team needs time for everyone to settle into their clearly defined roles.
Is This Stretch Sustainable?
Looking further ahead, there will be some tough decisions, as their five starters are free agents following this season. Perhaps they will try and retain them all. Perhaps they’ll go through a lot more turnover.
What transpires over the next few months will factor heavily in those decisions. But focusing on the short term, is this rise sustainable? Perhaps it is this season.
They are winning at home and have the depth to combat injuries and the rigors of the NBA schedule. Plus, Kidd-Gilchrist could return later in the year, and that could make the Hornets a really tough out in a playoff series.
Perhaps they could even challenge the Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. That’s definitely a lofty goal but now seems attainable and certainly not as laughable as it did just weeks ago.