The Charlotte Hornets three game win streak was snapped last night by the visiting Washington Wizards, who rolled into the Spectrum Center Monday night looking aggressive and surly; a physical embodiment of the all-encompassing, blog-storm of turmoil that is currently radiating from their city. John Wall dropped 18 points in the first half, and frequently punctuated buckets by flexing and taunting the crowd.
We’re used to seeing the Hornets get off to slow starts; they've been an unusually strong second half team all year. But last night had a different vibe to it. Charlotte shot just 37 percent in the first half, many on seemingly good looks that would barely, painfully rim out. It's hard to describe, but some nights the shots aren't falling, and you get the sense that there's really no adjustment to be made.
Last night was one of those games. There was a lid on the basket throughout the contest for the Hornets, and they finished the game with 39 percent shooting overall and 25 percent on 32 three point attempts.
I was holding out hope they would be able to pull it together in the second half as they have many times before. For a team featuring so few players that appear as obvious offensive threats, the Hornets have a peculiar ability to make up large deficits in relatively short amounts of time.
Usually this comes from a sudden increase in concerted intensity. There were bursts of that last night, and to the team's credit, they never rolled over. At several points Charlotte made small runs and got the lead down to manageable single point deficits. But each time they would make a run, Washington would bury them under a barrage of momentum silencing threes.
The Wizards only made 10 threes on the night, but each one of them looked to come at just the right time, either squelching a Hornets run or punctuating one of their own. They finished the night 10 of 25 from behind the arc.
The obvious focal point for Charlotte’s struggles on Monday was with their two stars. Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum combined for just 25 points on the night, shooting a dismal 29 and 22 percent, respectively.
It was Walker’s second poor shooting night in a row, following a 35 percent outing in the previous game against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Hornets are capable of surviving these rare off nights from Walker of course, as was the case Saturday night in the win against Brooklyn. Unfortunately, you can’t play the worst team in the league every night, and against almost anyone else, you’re gonna need some Kemba.
The Hornets are far too reliant on Walker, and while I wish it weren't the case, he’s just not quite the level of transcendent talent that can handle that type of load in a way that translates to consistent team success.
Nor should he be expected to be. The Hornets need to find a way to get buckets when the shots aren't falling for their star. Charlotte has a knack for finding points in unlikely places, and while a random big game from Ramon Sessions or Roy Hibbert is unexpected and fun, it would be nice to have a dependable scoring threat to start alongside Walker. Lately it's becoming more and more apparent that this is one of the team’s most glaring flaws.
Adding to the offensive issues on Monday was the absence of backups Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes. Lamb missed his sixth game in a row with a sore hamstring. This team, as presently constructed, relies on incremental contributions from all 9 of their main rotation players. If one or two of them aren't able to go on a given night, the whole system can fall apart.
One glimmer of hope in that front has been the improvement of second year big man Frank Kaminsky, who's quietly having a nice little January. Take a look at Frank’s shooting percentages from the first two months of the season (FG/3 Pt/FT):
Not an ideal start, to say the least. 27 percent from long range isn't going to cut it for your stretch four (Stretch 44? Anybody?), but more concerning was that seven percent dip overall. While his production has stayed relatively the same, Big Frank has shown an incredible spike in efficiency in January. Through last night's game he is shooting 46 percent from the field, 41 percent from three, and 93 percent from the charity stripe. Granted, a lot of the looks he’s getting from beyond the arc are wide open, as teams have been more than happy to let a 27 percent three point shooter jack bricks up at will. But this month he’s making them pay, and if this is more than just a brief hot streak it will open up the offense greatly, particularly in those high pick and roll situations. I’m not ready to put my money on that just yet, but at least we’re starting to see a glimpse of Frank’s potential as a consistent sharpshooting threat.
For now though, Kemba is left on an offensive island far too often.
A similar trend keeps reoccurring on the defensive side of the ball. The Hornets are putting a lot of pressure on Cody Zeller to be the sole defensive presence in the lane. Cody had another great game last night, finishing with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and 3 steals; providing a grit and toughness that was otherwise lacking on the defensive low post. But he can't do everything. Zeller isn't a true rim protector, and doesn't have the length to alter shots in the way that you really need from a one-man paint protector.
Together, Cody and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist do an admirable job of cleaning the defensive glass and harassing bigs, but that's mostly through sheer, inextinguishable effort and hustle. It doesn't seem sustainable on a night-to-night basis.
When everything is clicking for this team they can look like world beaters. But the formula for that success is a very delicate balance, walking a thin line that requires everything to go right. The Hornets need a little more room for error. And they need to get Kemba and Cody off those damn islands.