It is official — the Charlotte Hornets are good.
You probably already know that, and read the previous statement, rolled your eyes and proclaimed 'DUH.' But you may not realize exactly how good this team is, both in regards to their NBA brethren and among all-time Charlotte teams.
We are 20 games into the 82-game NBA season. We have moved past the point of small samples and can now truly see and observe some trends. There is still plenty of time left in the season, but the Hornets are within serious striking distance of the top record in the East. They are one of just five teams ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, along with Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indiana. Their point differential (+3.6) is eighth-best in the Association. They skyrocketed from the worst 3-point-shooting team in the league last season (.318) to the 15th-best this season (.349). The Hive has once again become one of the louder and more intimidating venues in the NBA, as the Hornets now have a 9-3 record at home. They are 1.5 games back of the first place Cleveland Cavaliers, and currently are tied for the fourth seed in the East — a much improved Eastern conference mind you.
If it seems like it has been a while since we could write something like that, it is because it has been a long time — more than a decade actually. The last time a Charlotte basketball team had a winning record 20 games into the regular season was in 2000, when Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis led the Hornets to a 12-8 record. The next best 20-game start in the last 15 years was 9-11, done by the 2001-02, 2009-10 and 2013-14 squads.
Random additional side note: Charlotte had also started the season 5-15 three times, most recently a year ago, which seems like an eternity away at this point.
At this point, it is not to say that the 2015-2016 Hornets could end up being one the best Charlotte teams in a long time. For those curious, the best regular season record Charlotte ever had was 54-28 in 1996-97, and this year's Hornets are on pace to win 49 games.
When Steve Clifford took over as head coach for the then-Charlotte Bobcats, he wanted to change things first by creating a suffocating defense — which he has done and then some — and a dangerous inside-out attack centered around Al Jefferson. Now, after having lost one of the best defenders in the Association in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and without a proven inside defensive force, Charlotte still has one of the better defenses in the league, ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, opponents points per shot, free throws attempted against, offensive rebounds allowed, steals and blocks, and are just outside the top 10 in multiple other categories, including points per game.
But where the Hornets have really turned the page is on offense, which is night and day different than it was this time a season ago. Charlotte has evolved beyond their trademark Al-fense into one of the more noted 3-point-shooting teams in the league. No longer is the offense centered around Jefferson and Kemba Walker, as others have stepped up to help carry the offensive load. Nicolas Batum, who is have a carer year, has been everything Lance Stephenson was supposed to be, and then some. Jeremy Lamb, given consistent minutes for the first time in his career, has become a dependable scoring spark off the bench. Jeremy Lin is playing his best basketball since the Linsanity stretch, and has become a crucial component of the team.
Possibly the ultimate sign of how Charlotte's offensive attack has become more team ball than hero ball is that six different players average double-digit points per game, none of which come close to cracking the top 20 in the Association.
It is not crazy to call this the best coaching job of Steve Clifford's young head coaching career, and he is absolutely worthy of Coach of the Year consideration.
But what should not be overlooked is the job general manager Rich Cho did in putting this squad together, which should have Cho in the running for Executive of the Year. He took Lance Stephenson, Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh and turned it into Batum, Lamb and Hawes. He signed Lin when no other team would sign him. Drafting Frank Kamisnky, while controversial at the time, has worked out quite well so far. Cho has given Clifford the versatile offensive threats he has been craving for years, and Clifford has responded by giving Charlotte the most fun basketball team to watch in years. Michael Jordan put a ton of pressure on Cho to perform this past offseason, and thus far, he has delivered.
I would be remiss if I didn't start pushing Jeremy Squared for Sixth Man of the Year honors. Lamb and Lin have been the key to the revival of Charlotte's bench, which is now one of, if not the best in the league. The two combine to average 22.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 1 block in an average of 23.6 minutes per game. The biggest issue the two may have would be that they may take votes away from one another.
Long story short, sit back and enjoy the show. This Hornets teams is one of the best Charlotte has had in quite some time. Hornets fans have waited a LONG time to have a team this good and this much fun, and while there is still plenty of time left in the season, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic and excited for the rest of the season, starting with the next week's slate of games.
Stats via ESPN.com, NBA.com and Basketball-reference.com