Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Will the Hornets Make the Playoffs?

This article was contributed by Robert Simms:

The Hornets currently sit in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. The three teams are currently just a single game back of the Brooklyn Nets, who at 23-31, currently hold possession of the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. With only 28 games left, the Hornets have an uphill battle ahead of them if they hope to claim that spot. Charlotte made the playoffs last year as the 7th seed, earning themselves a first round drubbing at the hands of LeBron James and the final iteration of the Big Three Era Miami Heat. Though the Hornets (at the time still the Bobcats) were swept in that series, the organization and the fan base entered this season with higher expectations.

The team had an established star in Al Jefferson, a blossoming franchise point guard in Kemba Walker, and talented young players on rookie contracts who seemed poised to make mini-leaps in Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The team even made a splash in free agency, signing versatile wing Lance Stephenson away from the Pacers for what seemed a fair market price. The season has not panned out as expected, to say the least. Jefferson has looked old, Walker has been banged up, and the Stephenson experiment has been something of a disaster. The youngsters have not produced as hoped, and rookie first round pick Noah Vonleh has barely seen the court, having taken on 26 shots all season.

In what is his 11th season in the league, it seems possible that Jefferson’s age may have finally caught up to him, even though he is still miraculously only 30 years old. His scoring and rebounding have both undergone significant declines; Big Al has gone from a legit 20 point-10 rebound guy last season to barely breaking 17-8 this year. The diminished stats coincide with a dip in both minutes and field goal percentages. As his playing time and effectiveness shrink, I fear we may be seeing one of the last star quality seasons of Big Al’s career. As Jefferson’s role has receded, one would hope that Walker, Charlotte’s other star, has risen to assume a larger role. 

This has not been the case. Walker has battled multiple nagging injuries this season that have kept him out of a dozen games, and though his scoring is up a bit this year, his assist and rebound numbers have both fallen off slightly after he set career highs in both last season. Walker is a nice player; an explosive slasher with a quick first step and a terrific step back jumper who so far seems to have lived up to the “clutch” reputation that followed his college heroics. But he can’t do it on his own. Walker can create shots for himself, but these shots are often inefficient mid-range jumpers, shots that he does not hit at a high enough rate to justify taking. He is a below average three point shooter, a fact that opponents clearly make note of when they slough off Walker to prevent his dribble drives. His limited stature (listed at a generous 6’1”) hurts him in the paint, where he struggles to finish at an above-average level.

It is unfair to lump the Hornets offensive struggles entirely on Walker though because he really has done a serviceable job with the mediocre cards he has been dealt. Much of the blame can be directed towards the team’s general manager, Rich Cho, who has created one of the weirder teams in the league through a variety of puzzling personnel moves. For one, he has illogically surrounded Jefferson with non-shooters. Despite his dip in productivity, Jefferson is still the centerpiece of Charlotte’s offense. He is a post-up beast who scores well in isolations and thus frequently garners double teams that draw defenders away from their perimeter assignments. Big Al can pass fairly well out of these double teams, but a common result of these passes this season have been missed outside jumpers. That’s because none of the team’s perimeter players can effectively and efficiently shoot threes.

Of Hornets players who have played over 10 minutes per game this season, only Jeff Taylor, a seldom used wing player, is shooting above league average from deep. Unsurprisingly, the team is last in the league in three point FG%. This inability to shoot from range allows defenders to slough away from their assignments and sag towards the middle of the floor, where they can disrupt post-ups by Jefferson and crowd against Walker’s probing drives. In doing so, teams have been able to absolutely smother the Hornets half-court scoring this season. The Hornets offense currently ranks 29th in points per 100 possessions and ranks dead last in Effective Field Goal percentage, a statistic that takes into account the increased point value of a three point shot. Charlotte’s offense has been so dismal this year that despite having the 8th ranked defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, the team’s net rating is still negative.

All is not lost for the team’s playoff hopes though. Of the Hornets’ remaining schedule, only 12 games are home. The remaining 16 are on the road, where the Hornets are 9-16 so far this season. This looks grisly, but is actually an easier slate than their competitors face. Each of the Pistons, Pacers, and Nets all have 10 or fewer home games remaining. If the Hornets can tread water at .500 or a bit above, they should be able to secure the 8 seed. The next two week stretch will be crucial. They are scheduled to face Boston, Orlando, LA (Lakers), Brooklyn, Toronto, and Detroit. If the Hornets can go 5-1 (or more realistically 4-2) against that sheet, with victories against Brooklyn and Detroit, they could set themselves up in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the season. Note also that of their remaining 28 games, only 11 are against teams with winning records. 11. They get the Celtics, Nets, and Kings twice, while drawing the Pistons three times. That is not too tough of a road.

The Hornets entered the year with expectations of surpassing their playoff progress from last season. Though the East is still the minor leagues compared to the grueling Western Conference, several playoff teams from the East have taken steps forward over the past year. Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto and Washington have all upgraded their rosters, not to mention the radical transformation that occurred in Cleveland. With the improvement of their playoff peers from a year ago, it comes as no surprise that the Hornets are still an incomplete team. I think the best case scenario for the Hornets would be to capture the 8 seed and to hopefully avoid a sweep at the hands of the Hawks, current holders of the league’s best record. With that in mind, the team might be better served going the way of Philadelphia and tanking for a better draft pick.

*All stats per nba.com and espn.com

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