The Charlotte Hornets are 11-8, a solid record, but a remarkable one for Charlotte, given that through 19 games last season, the Hornets were 4-15, and had just lost their 10th straight. It's somewhat startling to think that losing streak was just over a year ago, and it's even more startling when you consider Charlotte was also playing without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist then as well. A year ago, his absence played a significant part in the team's demise, but that hasn't been the case so far this season. Players are stepping up, and while much of it is coming on the offensive end, it's making a difference, since last season all the team could rely on was it's defense, and without MKG, the defense had little chance at being elite.
Consider last Wednesday's bad loss to the Golden State Warriors. The Hornets were the last in a long list of teams that have matched up against the Warriors and have every weakness exposed. Steph Curry scored 28 of his 40 points in the 3rd quarter and 14 of those came in the last two minutes of the quarter. Kemba Walker had his worst game of the season, and looked helpless on defense, and by the third quarter, was literally questioning where his help was (this clip is hilarious by the way). It was the type of loss that in years past would have exposed Charlotte for over achieving. Remember in the 2012-13 season, when the 7-5 Bobcats went on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder and lost 114-69? That would start a 19 game losing streak.
But the loss to Golden State would prove to be a minor setback, as the Hornets followed that loss with perhaps their biggest win of the season, beating the Chicago Bulls on the road on Saturday. At the time, it moved Charlotte to 6th in the Eastern Conference, and amazingly, just a 1 1/2 games behind first place. Their record and place in the conference is indicative of a stronger East -- before Saturday's game the Hornets were in ninth place. Paul Fannery commented on the improved Eastern Conference in his Sunday Shootaround for SB Nation, and had high praise for the Hornets, citing their turnaround along with the Indiana Pacers':
In many ways, Charlotte’s makeover has been even more astonishing. The Hornets were the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season, making less than 32 percent of their shots and ranking in the lower third in attempts. This year, they’re taking almost eight more shots from behind the arc each game and making them almost 36 percent of the time for an offense that ranks in the top five. By record, the Hornets are on the edges of the Eastern Conference playoff race. By other objective measures like point differential, they’re a top 10 team.
It can't be stressed enough how significant this turnaround on offense has been. A new wave of players has contributed -- Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb (and they'll be more on him in a bit), Jeremy Lin, and Spencer Hawes more recently -- but the contributions of some of last season's players, namely Marvin Williams and Walker, have paid off as well.
Over at Hoops Habit, Andrew Snyder wrote on Walker's improved shooting, which to this point, has been the best of his career. One reason for this? He's taking more catch-and-shoot shot attempts:
Walker leads the team in scoring and is doing it efficiently for the first time in his NBA career. His shot selection has improved slightly from previous seasons, showing his maturation as a basketball player. Of his three-pointers, 16.4 percent are of the catch-and-shoot variety now, up from 14.9 percent last season, and he’s knocking down 40 percent of them.
So on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, Walker is shooting 40 percent, but he's only attempting two percent more catch-and-shoot 3-pointers season. Walker still shoots a lot of shots off the dribble, nearly 48.9 percent according to Snyder, so his shot selection hasn't changed a whole lot since last season. Despite this, Walker's shooting numbers say everything -- his field goal percentage of 44.2 percent and 3-point percentage of 36.7 are well above his previous career highs. He's attempting about a shot and half fewer this season compared to last, but he's attempting about the same number of 3-pointers. What's likely helping? Walker is taking higher percentage shots, and he's getting more of those thanks to other scoring options on the floor.
One of those scoring options is Lamb. It's been a breakout year for him, and he's already making the three-year contract he signed earlier this season worth it. Daniel Coughlin of The Lottery Mafia profiled Lamb last Friday, and found that a lot of his success shooting the ball has been thanks to consistent playing time, but more surprisingly, due to an increased shooting percentage from mid-range:
Lamb has stayed fairly constant across the board except for one key area – mid-range. The caveat of small sample size applies: he has only taken about half the total number of shots from mid-range last season so far this season. However, he is shooting over 23 percent better from that part of the court this year.
In the constant war of analytics, shots from very close and three-point range are the most desirable. As every NBA team begins to adopt that mentality both on offense and defense, it gets harder to find those opportunities unless you are Steph Curry. When plays break down and guards come off screens or lose their dribble or the shot clock is about to expire, a mid-range shot will sometimes become an inevitability.
This makes sense, given that Lamb will often take players off the dribble, and if the lane to the basket is cut off he will pull up from mid-range. The numbers speak for themselves -- Lamb is making 58.6 percent of his shots from between 16 feet and the 3-point line, which is second only to his shooting percentage at the rim, which is (get ready) 70.6 percent. Even if Lamb regresses, he'll still be shooting a very high percentage. Right now though, it's paying off, as his 12.8 points per game is the highest average of any player that hasn't started a game this season.