Disclaimer, the following analysis does not include Charlotte's fifth game of the year, a win against the Miami Heat or their sixth game of the year, a win against the Hawks. Fortunately those were great games for them and a lot of the issues listed below were almost non-existent.
Through the first four games of the season, the Charlotte Hornets averaged a little over 90 points per game. That can't be what coach Steve Clifford or general manager Richard Cho expected after an offseason full of acquisitions geared to improve a Charlotte Hornets' offense that was mediocre at best a year prior. Bringing in Gary Neal last year and Brian Roberts, Marvin Williams, Lance Stephenson, and P.J. Hairston this summer were clear moves to improve the team's shooting and scoring around centerpiece Al Jefferson.
Going into this year, it was unclear what sort of identity this new era Charlotte Hornets squad would bring to the floor. However, in the second half of last year it was clear what sort of team coach Clifford had put together. Protecting the ball, grinding out possessions on both ends, stopping fast breaks, and defensive rebounding were the non-negotiables. The stats back this up as the Hornets finished among the league's best in turnover percentage, defensive rating, opponent fast break points, and defensive rebounding percentage. Unfortunately, when it came to more traditional offensive statistics, the Hornets weren't so great.
|Post All-Star Break||First 4 Games 2014-15|
|Perct. of shots from 3||0.252||18||0.22||22|
|3-point FG perct.||0.348||24||0.31||22|
Despite making improvements across the board offensively after the acquisition of Gary Neal last season, the Hornets were still just 16th in offensive rating after the all star break and remained pretty reluctant to shoot from 3-point range. The one offensive positive from last season was the Assist Percentage, the number of field goals made that were assisted, which at 61.7 percent ranked seventh best in the league.
If you look at the stats through the first four games, things have gotten worse. Although this is a very small sample size, it helps back up what is on tape... the Hornets are executing basically the same offense as last season. The starters must look to Al Jefferson early and often and if that is taken away, like it was against the Milwaukee Bucks, then the rest of the unit struggles to score efficiently. Despite improved shooters, the team is taking less 3-point shots as a percentage of their overall field goal attempts, which may be due to the fact that they're so cold from distance that everyone's reluctant to fire one (except Gary Neal, he only sees good shots).
If the offense looks the same, why is it worse?
Disorganization and lack of chemistry. Although the team is attempting to execute the same plays as last year, they're failing to do so with the precision and consistency as last year's team. It is likely unfair to knock the team so early into the schedule for this issue, but in the first four games, the first unit looked rudderless. The starters (Walker, Stephenson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Williams, and Jefferson) played 44 minutes together in the first three games and posted a plus-minus of -25. That's a far cry from last year's team, which was great at getting out to early leads and had one of the league's best heavy minute 5-man units.
Shots aren't going in. A team isn't going to win many games shooting 31 percent from 3-point range like the Hornets did in their first four games. Half of this one might attribute to "preseason legs", especially for guys who experienced some sort of injury during the summer or preseason such as Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson, Al Jefferson, and Kemba Walker. However, the other half has to be attributed to the fact that the Hornets offense just isn't generating good looks. Part of that is some guys just aren't making the extra pass, like in the picture below, and part of that is the Hornets don't have a secondary plan of attack if teams take away post entry passes.
Thanks to NBA.com's player tracking data, a lot of new information is available to help analyze what sort of shots a team is getting. What sort of looks has the league's best offense, the Dallas Mavericks, generated through the first four games? That is a question that can be answered easily by looking at the following four statistics: percentage of shots taken within 10 feet of the rim, percentage of shots taken late in the shot clock, percentage of shots taken with a defender more than six feet away, and number of corner 3-point attempts per game.
|First four games||Dallas||Charlotte|
|Shots less than 10 ft||0.419||0.394|
|Late Shot clock||0.087||0.115|
|6ft - Wide Open||0.186||0.134|
|Corner 3s per game||7||3.5|
|Corner 3-pt FG%||0.357||0.143|
Compared to the Mavericks, a team coached by one of the league's best offensive minds in Rick Carlisle, the Hornets look pretty bad. Charlotte is taking fewer shots up close, relying on far more shots late in the possession, isn't generating as many open looks, and is only attempting half the number of corner 3-pointers.
New York backcourt struggling to share the Big Apple. In what is purely my own opinion, it appears Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker have struggled early on to develop the sort of game many thought would vault the Hornets onto another level. Last year, the game's always started with Kemba Walker orchestrating the offense. The first play might have been a simple baseline screen to get Jefferson open on the left block or a pick and roll with Kidd-Gilchrist. However, against the New Orleans Pelicans, the first play had Stephenson holding the ball as Walker ran through a number of screens along the baseline. It might have just been one play, but it was a good indicator that coach Clifford sees Walker and Stephenson as interchangeable scoring and facilitating pieces.
That dual guard role isn't new for either player. Walker played off Josh McRoberts last year and Stephenson in Indiana switched off between fourth option with the starters to first option with the bench unit. However, finding that balance for both players at the same time during regular season action has proved difficult. Both players struggled mightily from the field in their first four games and were prone to bad shots. Walker had numerous drives to the rim that ended in blocks or wild layup attempts, reminiscent of plays from his rookie season. While Stephenson was prone to rogue offense resulting in contested stepback jumpers.
Despite their poor play, both have had good moments. Walker had his game-winning heroics on opening night and Stephenson has had some unique facilitation.
|First four games||Walker||Williams||Stephenson||Zeller||Roberts|
|Field goal attemts from passes||55||31||32||23||35|
|Perct of passes leading to a shot||20%||14%||16%||13%||25%|
|FG% on those shots||30.90%||44.00%||50.00%||43.50%||54.30%|
|Passes leading to a 3PA||11||6||17||4||5|
|Perct of passes leading to a 3PA||3.96%||2.73%||8.33%||2.29%||3.60%|
|FG% on those 3P shots||27%||33%||41%||25%||40%|
Stephenson has thrown more passes leading to 3-point attempts than anyone else on the roster and guys are hitting those shots. This is an advanced stat that helps verify the eye-test because Lance Stephenson, although wild at times, has made the sort of passes that break down a defense. He's driven into the paint and kicked to open shooters, as well as made cross-court passes no one else is either willing to make or able to see. His turnover numbers (at almost four per 36 minutes) have been very bad, but only seven of his first 14 have come from what Basketball-Reference calls bad passes. Still, he must cut his turnovers down or he will continue to see the bench during fourth quarters, like he did against the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans.
Reasons for optimism
As mentioned in the disclaimer, the Hornets put together very well rounded games against the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks, including stretches of balanced offensive play. Outside of those games, a few other things stick out as bright spots for this Hornets' offense through the first four games.
The play of the role players. Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gary Neal, Marvin Williams, and Brian Roberts have all played within themselves and produced early for the Hornets. Zeller, although a little streaky in his first two games, has started to play well. He's hit his midrange jump shots, converted his free throws, and played quality defense against one of the league's best power forwards in Anthony Davis. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist started the season on a tear and averaged 11 points and 7.7 rebounds in just 23.8 minutes per game while shooting 68 percent from the floor.
The team still has Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. These two players will continue to get better, as a one-two punch and with their new teammates. On any given night either player can drop 30 points and that goes a long way for an offense that no matter what will sometimes struggle.
This happened last year. Although under different circumstances, the Hornets started last year playing very poor offensively. At first it was starting the defensive minded Bismack Biyombo (#BringBackTheBiz) while Jefferson was injured and then it was incorporating the post-oriented Jefferson back into the offense on the fly. This year, the team is having similar issues replacing the facilitation and organization of Josh McRoberts while also having to test out lineups that never saw the floor during presason.
At the end of the day, the Hornets have a long season ahead of them. Considering what we've seen so far, it seems likely they will revert back to the mean offensively, which like the second half of last year could be good enough to keep the Hornets in contention for a top four seed in the Eastern conference.
All stats from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.