The Charlotte Hornets currently sit last in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division at a pitiful 4-14. It’s been weeks since they’ve tasted a win and they are in the midst of a brutal nine-game losing streak. Is this rock bottom?
As Zach Lowe pointed out in his Hornets piece, they have had a brutal schedule early on. And while many other teams can also claim they’ve been bitten by the injury bug, few teams (OKC is the obvious exception) can say their losses have been more important. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist started the year off hot and showed flashes that he’s closer to being a good two-way player than most people thought. Gary Neal has been their best shooter — and the Hornets desperately need shooters — but is battling a shoulder injury.
We could argue all day whether the Hornets' problems originate on the defensive or offensive end — the chicken or egg debate. Are they performing poorly on offense because of bad defense and limited fast break opportunities? Are they performing poorly on defense because they can’t hit a shot and opponents are getting a lot of run-out chances? Do you play Bismack Biyombo for his defense or Marvin Williams for his offense?
That last question hits on a big issue — the Hornets don’t have a single two-way player on their roster. They hoped Lance Stephenson would be that guy — and he was for Indiana last year — but he has been miserable shooting the ball this year and isn’t helping the defense enough, which currently ranks 24th in the league, after finishing fifth overall a year ago.
Opponents are boasting a .514 effective field goal percentage against the Hornets, which is the sixth worst in the NBA. Among the other four factors, the Hornets are grabbing a bunch of defensive rebounds (third best) and limiting free throw attempts (second best), but are rarely turning over their opponents (fourth worst). That last category could change positively with the return of Kidd-Gilchrist, but most likely not significantly enough to drastically change their defensive efficiency.
On the other side of the court, the Hornets are just about the worst shooting team in the league. Their effective field goal percentage sits at .463, which is only above the 76ers and Pistons. What’s even worse, they aren’t grabbing any offensive boards, posting a measly 21.5 percent offensive rebounding percentage, again third worst in the league. Most Hornet possessions go as follows: missed jumper, defensive rebound. A good offensive team needs one of those categories to survive — being bad at both of them is the recipe for a bottom five offense and a lottery pick.
The Hornets have had a lot of roster turnover, starting two new players to begin the season. Combine that with the injury situation discussed above, and it’s hard to create any offensive continuity. There have been games where the starting lineup has performed and some games where the second unit kept the Hornets competitive. However, Clifford is still searching for the right combinations of players to hopefully start sustaining it over a full 48 minutes.
Speaking of player combinations, below is an interactive table that shows how each player is performing while sharing the court with another Hornet.
PPP = point per possession, data courtesy of nbawowy.com. For reference, league-average PPP is roughly 1.03. Here is another view, if you're interested.
As you can see, Lance Stephenson has really struggled with all of the Hornet players. However, the offensive isn’t significantly different in Charlotte than it was in Indiana. Both teams have central low post players in Al Jefferson and Roy Hibbert, and both have lacked a ton of perimeter shooting. What is so different for Lance?
Take a look at his shot selection last year in Indiana…
…and this year in Charlotte.
Stephenson is taking way more mid-range shots in Charlotte and isn’t hitting any of them. Per basketball-reference, Stephenson is shooting only .208 from the 3-10 foot range, .350 from 10-16 feet, and .320 from 16 feet out to the 3-point line. He is playing the opposite of Morey-ball — he’s passing up wide-open 3-pointers and electing to take less efficient (and more contested) mid-rangers.
Both Stephenson and Kemba Walker are trying to spark the offense on their own – 67.7 percent of Stephenson’s 2-point field goals have been unassisted, and Walker is even higher at 71.4 percent. Good offenses rely on quick passes to draw defenses out of position and create open shots. The two Hornet ball handlers are relying on their dribbling and quickness instead.
Things aren’t all bad. While Walker is shooting much worse than last year — he has a .499 true shooting percentage (TS%) versus .517 last year — he is still creating for others. In the table above, you can see that Walker has been about average offensively himself with most other Hornets, but most of those Hornets are better themselves with Walker on the floor. His assist percentage is slightly down from last season, but it’s still at 29.7 percent on the year.
Stephenson is actually in the same boat, despite what it may seem. His assist percentage is significantly up from last season (26.4 percent versus 22.1 percent), while keeping the turnovers about the same. He is grabbing rebounds as much as ever and getting to the line just as much. The only difference, although it’s a massive one, is his shooting. Last season he posted a TS% of .564. This season, it’s a dreadful .417.
Things can still turn around. Stephenson may be showing that he’s just not a great perimeter shooter, but he surely won’t stay this low. He’ll regress upwards towards his career average, which sits at .523 currently. However, how much regression will depend on his shot selection. If he continues to take contested mid-range jumpshots, it may not get to the point the Hornets need.
As Lowe said in his piece, the Hornets are fortunate enough to play in the Eastern Conference, where no team is out of the eighth seed. December comes with Charlotte home games against fellow bottom dwellers in the Celtics, Nets, Jazz, and Magic. They also get the Bucks twice and the 76ers on the road. Things should turn around. But will it be enough to make it to the playoffs?