Entering the season, the Hornets were expected to be right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Preseason predictions had them as low as seventh, and as high as third. The general expectation was the improved talent across the roster, the signing of Lance Stephenson, and building off of last year would lead the Hornets to a successful season with a possible playoff run. Leading them on this run would be big man Al Jefferson, point guard Kemba Walker, and the newly signed Stephenson. General belief is that Jefferson and Stephenson are the team's two best players and they would be the key to this success.
Instead, the Hornets started out of the gates slow and had a hard time putting things together. The offense hadn't improved at all and last year's sixth ranked defense had fallen all the way to 24th. After the slow start, there were rumors of tensions in the locker room and the Hornets were apparently open to trading Stephenson. While a report of Stephenson being the cause of the locker room dysfunction did come out, it wasn't hard for Hornets fans to put two and two together and notice that the reports of locker room tension and Stephenson trade rumors were coming out around the same time. After shopping around for a little while, the Hornets never did find a suitable trade partner for Lance Stephenson.
Of course, things seemingly got worse for the Hornets. Stephenson went down with a groin injury. This was supposed to be their second best player, a solid perimeter defender, and a guy that could create with his dribble. How in the world was the Hornets offense going to get any better with Gerald Henderson taking his place? Well, the offense never did get better, but something else happened instead. Strangely enough, the defense is what got better.
The Hornets' defense has moved from 24th in D-rating to 3rd in D-rating in the 13 games Lance Stephenson has been out.— Scott Davis (@WScottDavis) January 9, 2015
This begs the question, why are the Hornets better on defense without Lance Stephenson than they are with him? There is a few explanations for this with the major reason being familiarity. When Stephenson went down with injury, his replacement was long time Charlotte Shooting Guard, Gerald Henderson. A member of last year's sixth ranked defense, Henderson and other starters were familiar with each other. Right around the same time, Steve Clifford decided to put Cody Zeller into the starting lineup over Marvin Williams, another player already familiar with the rest of the starting lineup. A defense like Charlotte's that relies so heavily on timing and proper rotations needs chemistry or it can't thrive. The new starting lineup, full of players from last year's team, had that chemistry allowing them to succeed.
While chemistry is important, everybody knows talent is a necessity to have a good defense. Around the same time Stephenson got injured, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist was returning from an injury that had been keeping him sidelined. Without Kidd-Gilchrist the Hornets defense just isn't the same, he's easily their best defender and probably their most important. While it's easy to say that the defense improving without Stephenson was because of Stephenson, it's more likely it has to do with Kidd-Gilchrist's return. After all, when Kidd-Gilchrist isn't playing the Hornets have a record of 3-11 this season. Charlotte has also been able to bring their abysmal defense all the way up from 24th in the NBA, to 14th.
Is the Hornets improved defense without Lance Stephenson a case of Ewing Theory? No, it's largely due to early season chemistry issues and the absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Now, is their win and loss record a case of Ewing Theory?
It's really hard to say, context is key but the Hornets are 8-5 without Stephenson. The kicker here is the way they reached that 8-5 record. After Kidd-Gilchrist's return the Hornets went on a four game losing streak, and Stephenson went down with his injury. Right after that the Hornets won four straight, lost five straight, and then won five straight. They've been very streaky but context is key here. Their earlier win streak without Stephenson was against only sub .500 teams, while their losing streak also featured sub .500 teams. What's been more impressive is the Hornets current win streak, featuring victories over the Pelicans and Raptors. But that's a different Ewing theory all together.
Charlotte has been battling injuries to key players all season, but no injury was scarier than the one to Al Jefferson. An All NBA center last year, Jefferson was a huge part of the Hornets making last year's playoffs. This season there has been a natural regression, and the Hornets offense has suffered because of it. Whether defenses are more focused, or Jefferson just can't reach last year's level, he hasn't been the same player. It also doesn't help that the Hornets can't shoot worth a damn.
We all knew Charlotte's offense was a weak point last year, but it was a whole lot better than this season. The Hornets offensive rating for the season is a pitiful 99.3, good enough for 25th in the NBA. Their True Shooting percentage is 50.6%, and they are shooting an effective Field Goal percentage of 46.6% ranking them at 29th. The only team shooting worse than Charlotte right now are the Philadelphia 76ers. Last year Charlotte had an offensive rating of 101.2, a TS% of 52.2%, and an eFG% of 48.1%. Clearly the Hornets weren't blowing teams away last year either, but it was better than this year and that's the key, they've regressed.
While the Hornets defense appears to be trending back towards normal, the offense has not. Familiarity isn't helping them here and a lot of it has to do with the change of their offensive system. Last year's offense involved off ball screens and pin downs, and this season is more of a dual ball handler system where the dribbling is supposed to create. However, despite the change in system the Hornets continue to feed the ball to Al Jefferson in the post which is in turn taking away lanes for their dribblers. On an offense like this that can't shoot, they need those dribble lanes for spacing and Al Jefferson hasn't been able to provide that.
Which might explain why the Hornets offense has improved in Al Jefferson's absence. During the seven game stretch Big Al's been absent, the Hornets offensive rating has shot up to 101.4, TS% is now 52.2%, and the eFG% is 47.1%. Those numbers are very similar to last year's Charlotte team that made the playoffs. So if anything else this stretch has given the Hornets a bar they need to reach if they're going to compete.
So why are the Hornets playing better without Al Jefferson? Is it really something as simple as spacing? Well no, it's because Kemba Walker is insane.
During this seven game stretch, Kemba is shooting 45% from the field, and averaging 24.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game. The assists and rebounds are hovering in the same area, what's key here is Walker's FG% and points per game. During Jefferson's absence, Walker has been taking three more shots a game and is making more shots. The guy has been absolutely on fire and has been a huge part of why the Hornets are currently on a five game win streak. While Walker is likely to have a regression, when Big Al returns if Walker can keep playing at a high level there's no reason to think the Hornets can't work though whatever problems their offense is having.
While Walker's play has been the biggest factor in the Hornets win streak, it's hard to ignore that the ball is moving a lot more while Jefferson is not playing. A big problem the Hornets have had is they get lazy when trying to throw entry passes to Jefferson, the defense is trying to deny Jefferson easy looks in the post and will always focus on that first and foremost. The ball has not moved nearly enough this season and hopefully when Big Al returns the Hornets will keep the ball moving the way it has been these last few games.
Is the Hornets win streak a case of Ewing theory? Well, the Hornets best player is currently injured but the team is playing better without him. Other players are stepping up and playing above their heads in order to make up for the absence, and the offense looks a little smoother without him. If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and smells like a duck then it's a case of Ewing theory.
The Hornets might be playing better without Big Al, but it's only been seven games. There was a general consenus the Hornets were better without Lance Stephenson before they went out and lost five straight. Sometimes a shakeup of the roster is all that's necessary to spark a fire and get some wins going. Of course, it helps when most of those wins came against sub .500 teams. Not to take away from victories over the Raptors and Pelicans, but most of Charlotte's victories during this stretch have been unimpressive.
Al Jefferson is by no means the sole reason for the Hornets problems. There's way too much context and complexities in the NBA to place everything on one man's shoulders. The offense has been bad all season outside of this stretch that's been highly fueled by Kemba Walker. The defense got better after Lance Stephenson was injured because Michael Kidd-Gilchrist came back. With Walker hitting his stride and the defense finding it's place, all the offense has to do is reach last year's level to help the team compete. While there's evidence to believe that Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson are hurting the team there is just as much evidence pointing towards outliers and coincidences. When those two return, maybe the Hornets will have finally figured things out.
Or maybe the pieces just don't fit this season and their return will only showcase that even more. At this point the only way to find out is see how the Hornets play until they have recovered, and how they play when both have re-entered the lineup.