The Charlotte Hornets were a fun, up-and-coming team two years ago when they won 48 games and saw the emergence of Kemba Walker as a bona fide star.
Now the Hornets are mostly an afterthought in the NBA landscape. They won 36 games last season and are 9-14 to start this year, which is only better than the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference.
What makes this such a bummer is Walker has only gotten better since his breakout 2015-16 campaign. He had a career year last season and is performing at a similarly high level this year. He’s averaging 23/6/4 and boasts a career-high 57.9 true shooting percentage.
His help isn’t consistently there, despite a payroll sitting around $117 million this year and next. Jeremy Lamb is the team’s second-leading scorer, which isn’t all that inspiring even given his improvements in Charlotte. Dwight Howard’s performance has been stellar, but it’s well-documented that he isn’t the force he once was. Nicolas Batum has been bad since returning from a wrist injury. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller have value, but they aren’t difference-makers. Prized rookie Malik Monk is struggling.
The biggest problem is what happens when Walker hits the bench. The Hornets are actually performing at a high level with Walker on the court, outscoring opponents by seven points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. But Charlotte hits the tank when he goes to the bench. The Hornets have been smoked by a whopping 16.9 points per 100 possessions in Walker’s 370 minutes on the pine this season. Their offensive rating in those minutes is a puny 92.5, which is nearly four points per 100 possessions worse than the 30th-ranked Chicago Bulls’ offense.
That’s what happens without a legitimate second option who can be the offensive hub when Walker sits. As solid as Lamb has been this season, his efficiency takes a nosedive when he isn’t playing next to Walker. Batum’s injury and subsequent struggles have limited him, while running an offense through Howard is nothing but a slog.
Then there’s the horrible backup point guard situation. Michael Carter-Williams was hurt to start the season, leaving the inexperienced Monk and Treveon Graham as the primary guards off the bench. Carter-Williams has since returned, but he has been a complete train wreck. He’s shooting 25 percent on the season and the Hornets are getting outscored by 10.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
His numbers from the last five games are the stuff of nightmares (Raptors and Heat losses were without Walker):
Carter-Williams’ incompetence was on display in the Hornets’ mostly listless 101-87 loss to a Golden State Warriors team missing Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Charlotte started the game in a malaise and fell behind by 26 points in the second quarter (the Hornets had 22 points in the first 21 minutes, and ESPN analyst Hubie Brown was calling for Howard post-ups… yuck) before Walker finally woke them up. Things actually got interesting in the fourth quarter when the Hornets trimmed their deficit to seven points, before this happened:
The Warriors promptly broke the game open to earn a comfortable victory.
Adding injury to insult, Kaminsky and Zeller both left Wednesday night’s loss with injuries. The Hornets have already dealt with several key injuries this season, and they can’t afford to lose these important rotation players for too long.
On top of all this, head coach Steve Clifford is dealing with his own health problems. The team announced Wednesday morning that he has stepped away from the team indefinitely to take care of his health, with Stephen Silas taking over.
If you’re looking for optimism, Kemba will always provide some. Batum should improve as he finds his groove coming off his injury. Even Carter-Williams should get better; he can’t be any worse. If the Hornets can find any stability when Walker isn’t playing, they could get into the playoff picture.
Right now, though, the buzz is low in Buzz City.
More NBA Coverage
- The upside of losing Stephen Curry for a while
- Dwyane Wade-ing into Sixth Man of the Year race
- Stephen Curry’s 2000 3s proves he’s a modern-day Babe Ruth