The Charlotte Hornets have the second seed in the Eastern Conference right now, and are probably the hottest team in the NBA right now aside from the Golden State Warriors. They're tied for the second longest winning streak with the Los Angeles Clippers at three games, and they continue to look better and better with each passing game.
While many Hornets are playing some of the best basketball of their careers, second-year swingman P.J. Hairston is decidedly not. Defensively, Hairston's been great. He plays hard, rotates well, and more often than not makes sound defensive plays. He's yet to earn the respect of referees around the league, however, and is frequently whistled for blocking and shooting fouls. It's no surprise, then, that he's averaging 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes this season.
Where Hairston's really struggled, though, is on offense. Widely regarded as a streaky gunner, Hairston's been neither streaky nor a gunner this season. He's shooting 32.5 percent from the field this season and has only shot better than 50 percent four times in 18 games, and his usage rate is a very low 13.2 percent. He's also averaging just 15.4 touches in his 16.7 minutes per game.
In other words, the Hornets aren't exactly freezing Hairston out, but he's not getting the ball much. And even when he does get the ball, he's more likely to pass it than shoot it. And when he does shoot it, it doesn't go in very often. Basically, things aren't going well for Hairston on offense.
Hairston's started all 18 games he's appeared in this season, despite the hot play of the Hornets' bench. Jeremy Lamb or Jeremy Lin each have an excellent case to start over Hairston, but have yet to be given the opportunity. For good reason, too. The Hornets are winning games by significant margins, meaning that Hairston's poor play is not a problem that needs addressing right now.
What does At The Hive's staff think of Hairston's token starts?
Yes, P.J. should start on the wing at least for a little while longer.
The only replacements I can be thought of would be Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb, but neither seem like ideal starters. Both have been killing it off the bench and have been a part of what has surprisingly turned into one of the best bench units in the league. That is a huge advantage in the regular season, and is a major reason why they are so high in the Eastern Conference standings. Moving one of them into the starting lineup makes the starters better, but probably sacrifices a lot of the bench scoring that they might need long-term. Plus, who knows whether or not Lamb or Lin will put up these types of numbers if they aren't going up against backups every night.
I say why not, because I don't think it matters all that much. I am much more concerned about who finishes the game than who starts it. I like how the lineups are currently set, with Kemba Walker and Nic Batum headlining the starters, Jeremy Squared headlining the backup unit and whoever has the hot hand playing in crunch time down the stretch. I actually kind of like having Hairston start, as he can be one of many bodies (along with Batum, Lin, Marvin Williams and others) to throw at whoever is playing at shooting guard or small forward.
If we can find a better starting option, then sure, bench Hariston. But the Hornets are off to their best start in 15 years, so why change what is working?
There have been no shortage of surprises during the first part of this Charlotte Hornets season. But one sneaky surprise is that PJ Hairston is contributing more with his defense than he is with his offense. Drafted as the shooter this team was missing at the time, he's missing shots but providing value on defense.
To his credit, Hairston also seems to have approached this season in a much more professional manner. There is no way Clifford would be starting him if we was still pulling the bologna he was last year. Clifford won't stand for bologna. So perhaps it was the lack of extension or the opportunity to start but he seems much more locked in.
His shooting is a bit of an issue. It is not good. Amazingly, it doesn't need to be on this team. With Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Al Jefferson (pre injury) in the starting lineup (not to mention Marvin Williams) Hairston really doesn't need to score.
He is called upon to fill in the MKG role of starting on the opposing team's best offensive threat. Hairston has the body and size to bother guys and he does. Replacing him with Jeremy Lamb or Lin would probably provide more scoring, but it could also mess with the flow of that unit and the one coming off the bench. Right now you don't want to mess with what's working. Having the Jeremy's come of the bench is a weapon. At some point it's going to be tempting to add more offensive fire power to start at the two, but Hairston could also find his shot and be that two way guy. It's still so early, and things are going so well, keep on keeping on until you have to change.
This is a really tough question, isn’t it? I’ve long been low on Hairston even before he was drafted. I thought he was a low-ceiling NBA player, and in the year and a half he’s played for the Hornets, I haven't been a fan of his game. In fact, I’d probably still argue he’s likely the worst rotation player on the Hornets. At the same time, there’s a need for a floor-stretcher in the starting unit, and he at least gives off the impression of being a reliable defensive player, even if most statistical measurements say otherwise.
If Hairston wasn’t effectively done for the game by halftime, I might have a different answer, but I think for the most part, it’s okay that he’s in the starting lineup, because it might be the best thing for the team overall — Jeremy Lamb is clearly best suited for the second unit, and I’m not sure there’s a way to use Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and Al Jefferson, as the 3-4-5 men with both Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum.
The best-case scenario is that Rich Cho is able to work some magic to trade for either a quality range shooter or a quality perimeter defender without giving up an important piece, and that player could replace most of Hairston’s minutes. But, as of right now, I’m alright with Hairston remaining in the starting lineup, knowing that it won’t have too much of an impact in the second half.
Hairston had a pathetic season his rookie year. He combined abysmal shooting (32.3 percent from the field, 30.1 percent from three) on offense with ADHD-like effort on defense, which had him constantly falling asleep on cuts and not knowing how to deal with screens.
To make matters worse, his play just looked terrible due to his bad misses and constant chucking. P.J. is a player who somehow manages to be a supposedly good shooter, yet seemingly air-balls every other miss from three (currently making 24 percent of his threes during this season, by the way).
His chucking, meanwhile, had him as the second most trigger-happy player in the league last season. Hairston took six field goal attempts per game while averaging 11.8 front court touches, per SportVU data. That means he jacked up a shot every two times (1.97 to be exact) he touched the ball in the front court. Only Charlie Villanueva proved to be more willing to shoot on any given touch as he recorded a "chucking rate" of 1.93. (This exercise excludes strictly rim-running bigs since they’re much more likely to only touch the ball in situations where finishing the possession is the right course of action, the perfect example being Brandan Wright.)
This season that rate is down to 2.61 and, most importantly, he's showcased himself as a capable defender who uses his size and strength to his advantage. I don't know how coach Clifford got Hairston to commit to this role but it has produced results.
And that's just enough for this to work. He's a part of a starting line-up which ranks seventh in net rating and third in offensive rating in the whole league (among units that have clocked at least 100 minutes). So, obviously, even his lack of an efficient offensive game doesn't hurt the starters.
Meanwhile, the bench unit has played good basketball themselves and thus there shouldn't really be a problem here. What matters is who plays more minutes and who finishes games. Starting, on the whole, is overrated. As long as Hairston is around 14 to 16 minutes, while Lamb and Lin play in the 20s, we're fine.
You can also look at at it this way - we have found a way to utilize a player who didn’t show NBA-worthy production last season as he has actually contributed something to a very good line-up. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being out, Hairston just has to get some burn (unless you're a huge Troy Daniels fan). It might as well be with the starters as it has worked out just great.