In our preseason predictions, none of the four NBA writers tasked with taking a stab at the top eight in the East included the Charlotte Hornets. In my writing about the Eastern Conference, I had the Hornets at 12th, and that spot was what I locked into before they lost Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the year (or so we assume).
After the injury, I wrote the following about the team:
This team was already short on wing depth after trading away Gerald Henderson and Lance Stephenson, and now we’re faced with a starting lineup that likely includes Jeremy Lamb. We saw how that worked out in Oklahoma City, and they had a player far more talented than anyone Charlotte can run out. Instead of having Troy Daniels come in and hit huge 3s when a clutch shot is needed, he’s now going to have to be a significant role player. That may be good for his development, but it’s not going to be great for the bottom line.
But here we are, on December 16th, the team sits at 14-9, tied with the Pacers and the Heat for fourth in the East. Troy Daniels has only played 9 games. Jeremy Lamb has averaged 12 points per game and has a PER of 17.9. And I clearly know nothing about basketball.
But the question has to be brought up of whether this can possibly be sustained. No player on the team with significant attempts is shooting over 40% from three besides Frank Kaminsky. No player is averaging more than 7.1 rebounds per game. No player is averaging more than 18 points per game. Yet the wins keep coming.
Those moderate individual stats show that the Hornets are playing more of a complete team game, but it isn’t as if they’ve been dominant in any single category. Their 44.2 rebounds per game rank 13th in the league. They’re 15th in field goal percentage. 17th in free throw attempts. 14th in assists. In fact, the only significant stat they’re at the top of the league in is turnovers. They’re protecting the ball, and while that’s important, that only can go so far.
Yet somehow this team has found a way to be fourth in net rating. They only trail the Warriors, the Spurs, and the Thunder in that category. It seems that the real X-factor here is Nic Batum. Last year in Portland, Batum averaged only 9 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. This year, he’s managed to keep the assists consistent while bumping the rebounds up near 7 per game and the points to a whopping 17 per game. He’s become a legitimate scoring threat, and barring something weird happening, he should have a career high in scoring.
Still, Steve Clifford’s coaching has to be credited as well. They’re playing at a smart pace which has allowed them to stay solid defensively while upping their offensive efficiency to a level that hasn’t been seen in Charlotte in a long, long time. I’m not sure that it’s really sustainable, but the Charlotte Hornets as a playoff team no longer seems like a stretch, but rather an inevitability.