How Good Are the Charlotte Hornets?

After an epic comeback against the Spurs and with a shot at home-court advantage in round one, how good is this team?

It’s been a wild ride in Buzz City this year.

The Charlotte Hornets came into the season with playoff hopes, and not only are they likely to achieve that goal, but also they have a chance to reach as high as the 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

At times, the Hornets have looked lost on offense, as was evidenced by them scoring a total of seven points in the first quarter against San Antonio Monday night. However, the Hornets went on to mount a huge comeback against the Spurs in which they erased a 23-point deficit to beat San Antonio in Charlotte.

That win has put Charlotte firmly in a four-team race for the final two home-court advantage playoff spots left up for grabs in the East. There is only a half game separating the Celtics, Heat, Hawks and Hornets for spots three though six in the East, with only about 11 or 12 games left for all four of those teams.

However, while the talent and potential of the three other teams has been well documented this season, the success of Charlotte this year really has not.

So, that begs the question: how good are the Hornets?

Balanced Approach With More Threes

The Hornets are one of only six teams in the entire league that ranks inside the top 10 in both Offensive Rating (ORtg) and Defensive Rating (DRtg).

For the most part, they have been there all season, and compared to the other teams on that list, the Hornets are easily the most undervalued of all of them.

Team ORtg DRtg
Golden State Warriors  114.8 (1st) 103.6 (5th)
San Antonio Spurs  110.9 (3rd) 97.9 (1st)
Cleveland Cavaliers 110.4 (4th) 104.3 (7th)
Los Angeles Clippers  108.1 (7th) 104.4 (9th)
Boston Celtics  106.9 (9th) 103.3 (4th)
Charlotte Hornets  106.7 (10th) 104.4 (8th)

One big change for the Hornets this season has been their three-point shooting. They have obviously made an effort to shoot more threes, as most of the league has. Charlotte ranks third in the league behind only the Rockets and Warriors in Three-Point Attempt Rate (3PAr) this season at .349, and they have been shooting them with success at 35.8 percent, which ranks seventh in the NBA.

Compare those numbers to last season’s Hornets, ranked 24th in 3PAr at .226 and dead last in three-point percentage at 31.8 percent, and you can tell where Charlotte’s priorities were this offseason.

Offensive and Defensive Four Factors

Much like last year, Charlotte’s ability to play without fouling and not turn the ball over have been crucial to their success. The Hornets are first in the league in Turnover Percentage (TOV%) at 11.8 percent, which is a measure of how many times a team turns the ball over per 100 possessions. The Hornets also rank fifth in the league in their opponent’s Free Throws Per Field Goal Attempt rate at .194.

The Hornets are also on pace to lead the league in Defensive Rebounding Percentage at 80 percent this season, and after finishing dead last in 2014-15 in Effective Field Goal Percentage, the Hornets have improved that mark from 45.6 last year to 49.9 in 2015-16.

The Hornets still have some weaknesses, namely their Offensive Rebounding Rate, which ranks 27th at 20.3 percent. Also, while they aren’t turning the ball over, their defense isn’t forcing too many turnovers either. Charlotte is 24th in their opponents TOV% at 12.5, but this all still adds up to one of the better and more balanced teams in the Eastern Conference right now.

While they may not get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Hornets are going to be a tough out for any team they play in the first round. However, if they can grab home-court in the first round, it might propel them to the second round. Their Defensive Rating goes from 104.4 overall to 99.4 when they play at Time Warner Arena.

The Kemba Walker Effect

The big acquisition this offseason for the Hornets was getting Nicolas Batum, and while Batum has played an important role on this team as a wing defender and floor spacer, no player has left his mark on the Hornets like Kemba Walker has this season.

Walker has always been held back by his efficiency, but this season, all that has changed for the fifth-year pro. Walker owns a  nERD rating of 8.0 this season, which is a metric measuring how many wins above .500 a league-average team would be with that player as a starter. Walker’s rating ranks him 19th among all players this season, and his improved shooting percentages have a lot to do with it.

Walker owns an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 49.8 this season, which is easily going to be a career-high and is well above his career average of 45.2 percent. His True Shooting Percentage of 55.6 is also on pace for a career-high.

However, the reasons for this spike in shooting numbers have been his ability to get to the line more, his marked improvement inside three feet, and his improvement at the three-point line.

Kemba Walker 2014-2015 2015-2016
Free-Throw Rate .288 .326
Three-Point Attempt Rate .285 .345
Three-Point Percentage   .304 .377
Field Goal Percentage Inside 3 Feet   49.2% 59.7%

Can The Hornets Be This Year’s Hawks?

With the way the Atlanta Hawks have been playing lately, and considering the Hornets don’t have a shot at being the 1 seed in the East, the answer to the question is likely no. However, the question of whether the Hornets can advance to the Eastern Conference Finals is another issue.

We rank the Hornets 10th in our current power rankings, and they own a nERD of 57.2. According to our projections, the Hornets are virtual locks to make the playoffs but only have a 1.8 percent chance of winning the NBA Finals.

A big issue for the Hornets this season has not been how good they have been but how good they have been against the East’s top teams.

Charlotte is only 5-10 against the current top five teams in the East this season, and considering they have been banged up at times this year and have lost Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the season, their odds of making the Conference Finals seem slim.

However, if they can grab the 3 or 4 seed, their ability to win a first-round playoff series is very apparent. With Walker and Batum leading the way, and with a deep bench and an above average defense, the Hornets are well on their way to being one of the tougher teams to beat in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season.