The Charlotte Bobcats made the playoffs in 2014; it was the first time the franchise had been to the postseason since 2010. It was also coach Steve Clifford’s first season with the club, and he made no qualms about how he sought to build a team. Clifford comes from the Van Gundy and Thibodeau School of Hoops, which means he believes in a strong, conservative defensive schemes that wall off the paint, and attempt to restrict corner threes for their opponents.
In 2013-14, this worked very well in Charlotte. The Bobcats gave up only 103.8 points per 100 possessions — giving them the No. 5 defense in the league. On offense, however, it wasn’t as pretty: Charlotte shot only 1,471 three-pointers — only three teams launched fewer triples. The team scored only 103.6 points per 100 possessions; they ranked as the No. 24 offense, which, not great, Bob(cats).
Prior to the 2014-15 season, the franchise rebranded themselves as the Hornets — an awesome move opposed by essentially no one. That along with the previous season’s playoff run and the signing of free agent wing Lance Stephenson gave the team momentum…or something like that. A return trip to the playoffs became an expectation. Charlotte once again posted a top-10 defense (103.5 points per 100–No. 9 in the NBA), but the offense took a step back — and so did the team. The Hornets scored only 100.1 points per 100 possessions, which made them the No. 28 offense in the NBA, and a pain to watch.
As their contemporaries put greater emphasis on three-point marksmanship, the Hornets continued to regress in that department; Charlotte shot just 31.8 percent from deep — worst in the league. Yucky. These are the things that happen when you start Kemba Walker (he’s never shot better than 33 percent from deep in one full season), Lance Stephenson (yeah, we already know), and as much as I love and miss him Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who didn’t attempt a single three-pointer last season, along the perimeter.
There wasn’t a single team with more corrupt spacing on offense last season than Charlotte, as All-NBA center Al Jefferson, who dealt with injuries, had to face constant double-teams. He was basically trying to operate inside an airplane bathroom — again, not ideal.
Over the offseason in 2015, the Hornets front office put massive emphasis on finding ways to correct these issues: finally, they would try to put together a more competent offense. You and I may disagree with some of the things they did (passing over Justise Winslow draft night still hurts my soul, especially as he’s gotten off to a fantastic start down in Miami), but getting rid of Stephenson was a good look, and adding some big guys — Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky — who can shoot and pass has helped. The acquisition of Nic Batum, set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season — which is a little dicey — has also greatly helped.
Through the first dozen games, the Hornets have cobbled together the No. 7 offense in the NBA — 106.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s early, but that’s a massive leap. The push for more shooting and passing has seen instant returns: Charlotte currently ranks sixth in three-point attempts (318), fifth in three-pointers made (114), and eighth in three-point percentage (do the math, 35.8 percent).
The Hornets currently have six player averaging 10 or more points per game, and one of those guys is the aforementioned Batum. The Frenchman, brought in via trade from Portland over the summer, has been fantastic during his brief time in NC. He’s posting 17 points, four assists a night, and shooting at a very efficient clip. Batum is hitting 43.8 percent from deep (60.4 true shooting percentage, too, which is damn good). He’s also gone bananas recently: over their last six games, Batum has scored 21.7 points per game, and shot 53 percent on threes.
This balanced attack has also allowed Clifford to provide Big Al with more rest; Jefferson is playing just 27 minutes a night — his lowest total since the 2005-06 season. His usage is down and so are his free throw attempts, which is disconcerting. But he’s still scoring 0.88 points per post-up, which ranks sixth in the league among players who have recorded 50 or more post-ups so far this season — right where he should be among his back-to-the basket brethren: Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe and Jahlil Okafor.
Kemba Walker — the point guard in year one of his four-year, $48 million extension — is having a career year while the team has heeded Mini Buddha’s advice, and embraced pace and space. Prior to 2015-16, Walker had only one season which he shot better than 40 percent from the field — which is bad. Duh. However, with more space to operate and better shooters and secondary slashers to kick to, Walker is playing his best ball since he lit up MSG during the 2011 Big East Tournament: 16.5 points per game, 42.2 percent from the field, 37 percent from deep, 109 offensive rating, and a PER of 20.5 — second best on the team. His usage rate has dipped ever so slightly, but he’s also averaging a career-best in free throw attempts per game — a really positive thing.
A pleasant surprise for Charlotte has been the contribution of forward Marvin Williams — who has spent time at both the 3 and 4, and has started all 12 games, too. The former Tar Heel is shooting 38 percent from deep, and while on the floor, Charlotte has scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. When Williams departs the floor and hits the bench, the Hornets drop to only 99.1 points per 100 possessions, again per NBA.com. Basically, when Williams is off the court, Charlotte scores at a rate that would rank second to last in the NBA — in front of only Philadelphia, which is more avant garde performance art than it is a fully functional basketball organization.
It would be a massive error to not include the fantastic play of two of the team’s bench players — both of whom are in the first season with the club: Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb; that’s right, THE DOUBLE J’S. Lin’s jumper has been a little shaky so far, but he’s still doing what made Linsanity possible: pick-and-roll action, dribble-drives and getting to the rim. According to NBA.com, Lin has been the ball-handler in 50 pick-and-roll possessions so far this season; during those plays, the Hornets have scored 1.00 point per possession. This ranks No. 4 in league among players that have played 10 or more games and been the ball handler in at least 50 pick-and-rolls — better than Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Eric Bledsoe.
Lamb has been a total and complete revelation, and he’s quickly becoming a darling of the advanced metric community (hello, we come in nerdy peace). In only 23 minutes per game, the fourth-year wing is averaging 12.5 points a night; he’s also currently tops on the team in efficiency and offensive rating (21.6 and 118, respectively). His shooting clip will certainly regress — I don’t think he’s going to shoot 55 percent from the field all season long, call it a hunch, you guys. But he’s been damn good, and is playing up to his recent contract extension.
Charlotte has played seven different five-man lineups at least 30 minutes so far this season. Of that group, their two best combinations feature both Lin and Lamb. This sample — through just 12 games — is admittedly not large, but it should inspire confidence in the team’s bench units.
I buried Charlotte a few weeks back when MKG went down for the season — a colossal bummer for a thousand different reasons. That injury still really stings, and ultimately it greatly lowers their ceiling. Kidd-Gilchrist is a badass, who works crazy hard, rebounds and defends better than just about anyone else on planet Earth. Don’t for one second let this sound like I’m advocating that Charlotte is better off sans MKG — because that’s wildly untrue, and the data more than bears that out. However, in his absence, it’s allowed Clifford to deploy another shooter on the floor, which isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world, too.
(Should note: It’d be really fun to see MKG utilized as a small-ball 4 with this current grouping of shooters and passers.)
Look, this team has a ways to go; we’re less than 15 percent of the way through the schedule, and I’m also not exactly the biggest fan of building a team to contend for the 7th/8th seed (the treadmill of mediocrity) — and that’s putting it mildly. But the East is mostly flat (Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta excluded), and if the Hornets can keep up this offensive effort, then perhaps they can make some noise. They’ll have to improve on the defensive end, though: Charlotte currently ranks 17th in defensive efficiency — something never seen before during Clifford’s tenure with the Hornets. If not, well, at least this team has become a lot more enjoyable to watch compete.