All stats are as of 1/28/2015 (prior to Wednesday's game against the San Antonio Spurs).
Tell me if this sounds familiar: Steve Clifford's team struggles to start the year as it tries to figure out a way to incorporate a new free agent acquisition (who also happens to have a preseason injury) into a roster full of young, talented yet developing players. After some adjustment time, the team starts to click but then Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffers an injury and the team starts dropping games left and right. The season seems lost but then thanks to numerous factors such as favorable schedules, Kidd-Gilchrist's return, teammates clicking, and unexpected contributions from the bench, the team turns it around before the All-Star break and saves it's chance at a playoff berth in a horrible Eastern conference.
That literally can be used to describe either the last season of the Charlotte Bobcats or the first season of the new era Charlotte Hornets. Last year's team eventually clicked but this year it won't be so easy. Kemba Walker is out for at least six weeks and the following Hornets are injured:
|Marvin Williams||Concussion||Day to day|
|Bismack Biyombo||Knee Bruise||Revaluated soon|
|Jannero Pargo||Back||Out for at least the next week|
Making matters worse is the fact that Charlotte is currently using the maximum allowed 15 roster spots. So the team just can't add say another point guard without waiving a current player.
So the front office has a legitimate quandary on their hands. According to Richard Cho, "one of the worst things you can do is lose picks and flexibility and then get caught in a corner." Therefore, the team will likely try to stay afloat until Kemba Walker's return and doesn't seem desperate to make any changes.
In the meantime, how will the Hornets compensate for the loss of Walker, while reincorporating Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson? That is the six million dollar question that Steve Clifford will have to answer going forward.
It all starts with Brian Roberts, who played well last year when starting in place of the injured Jrue Holiday. In 42 starts he averaged 12 points, 4 assists, and 2 rebounds in just 29 minutes per game. However, he struggles defensively against the league's top floor generals, especially the quick or athletic ones like Ty Lawson or Russell Westbrook. This is reflected in his -7.7 plus-minus per game in those starts.
As of 1/28/2015, Roberts was 3-0 as a starter for Charlotte with almost identical numbers to his stint with New Orleans. Although he hasn't faced great opposing point guard opposition yet, those numbers are encouraging and go to show that the play of Roberts is the most important factor for the Hornets' keeping it together.
Who's got your back?
Filling in behind Roberts will be the tandem of Gary Neal and Lance Stephenson. It feels like Neal plays better when he's asked to do less with the offense and Stephenson is glad to handle the ball and make plays. Unfortunately, relative to the combination of Walker and Roberts, these two are much more turnover prone. The only thing Steve Clifford hates more than turnovers is lack of energy, and both make his face turn bright red. This will be interesting to monitor as Jannero Pargo tries to get healthy (at least a week away per an early week Clifford interview).
Can Big Al be just that again this season?
In addition to replacing Walker and ball handling duties, Al Jefferson has been working himself back into game shape. Unfortunately, if the New York Knick's game is any indicator, he has a long way to go. Not only is his play suffering, but his teammates must be having fits trying to adjust to such dramatic shifts in play style. With Jefferson injured, the Hornets ran a boring, inefficient offense centered around off-ball movement, pin-down screens for the wings, and pick-and-rolls for Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson.
Although the offense wasn't great (just 25th when Al Jefferson was out nine games due to injury), the increased opportunities for Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Bismack Biyombo seemingly affected the defense. The Hornets lineup of Walker plus the four players mentioned above allowed the fourth fewest points per 100 possessions out of lineups that have played at least 100 minutes this season.
However, with Al Jefferson returning, the team is once again dealing with the same issue it faced earlier this season: the team's defenders (starters) can't shoot and therefore provide Jefferson little spacing when the team runs a traditional play to dump the ball into the left block. If the defenders are substituted for players who are better shooters, Jefferson's defensive weaknesses are exploited too much to account for the improvement on offense.
It feels like a lose-lose situation. Check out the Hornets lineup-data to see for yourself just how poorly some of the Al Jefferson 5-man lineups have played this season.
There's still hope
If the Hornets are somehow able to mange a record of around 0.500 during Kemba Walker's absence, then Steve Clifford deserves even more consideration for Coach of the Year than he received last year. Bobcats fans took for granted the team's exceptional fortune and chemistry after the All-Star break last season. It doesn't appear that the Hornets will find the same luck, but luckily the Eastern Conference is once again wide open, which paves the way for a team with around 38 wins to make seventh or eighth spot.
For those that fear the worst, don't forget Andy Dufresne's epic quote from Shawshank Redemption: "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies."