Today’s Game Trend is quickly becoming a troubling “franchise trend” for the Charlotte Hornets.
Jimmy Butler went off for 52 points, 12 rebounds and six assists against Steve Clifford’s crew last night; the latest in a growing list of superstars to feast against Charlotte’s “all you can eat buffet” style defense.
Of course, those quantity-based restaurant promotions always come with the advertised caveat of “*limit one per customer.” You can go back to the trough as many times as you want, just don't try to sneak an extra plate to your friends. Take a look at the Chicago Bulls box score through three quarters:
Charlotte contained the rest of the team for the most part, content to let Jimmy Buckets “get his.” This is where the metaphor falls apart though, because even the most insatiable, bottomless-pit of a competitive eater eventually hits their limit. But as 20 years of watching Kobe Bryant taught us, alpha dog scorers not only finish everything on their plate, they look at yours and ask “are you gonna eat that?”
Sometimes it works, as was the case recently when Serge Ibaka effortlessly dropped 20 first half points when the Hornets took on the Orlando Magic. Ibaka cooled off significantly in the second half, more due to an increased intensity overall and a huge, momentum swinging scoring burst by the boys in teal rather than any specific changes to the defensive scheme.
Then there are the times it doesn't work. Two of the highest individual scoring games ever have come against the Clifford era Hornets, with Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James pouring in 62 and 61, respectively. Last season Demarcus Cousins set a career high against Charlotte with 56 points, and in December James again had his way with the Hornets, pouring in 44 points, nine rebounds and ten assists. Save for Cousin’s game where the Hornets squeaked out a double-overtime win, all resulted in losses.
Clifford’s defensive schemes often land the Hornets near the top of the league in defensive rating, but they don't always pass the eye test. He’s frustratingly stubborn about leaving perimeter defenders on an island, rarely sending help defenders to the ball or double teaming guys when the start to cook.
Butler had 35 by the third quarter, with no other Bull cracking double digits. You would think the game plan for the 4th quarter would be to contain the explosive wing.
Instead Clifford left Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum in one on one coverage to depressingly get scorched over and over again. Butler ended with 17 points in the 4th quarter. If you have a four alarm fire going, you don't send one firefighter to put it out.
If you play enough pickup basketball, you’ll eventually get matched up on a guy that just keeps scoring on you. If this happens say, three times in a row, it becomes embarrassing. You feel like you’re letting down your team, because well.. you are. Usually at that point the best guy on your team will push you out of the way and say “I got him. He ain't getting anymore.” If the guy keeps scoring after that, your squad kind of silently agrees to just stop him at all costs. Double-teams, triple-teams, whatever. Of course sometimes, no one else wants to look bad, and they leave you to get scored on mercilessly until you spiral into clinical depression. Which brings me to my next point:
We need to talk about MKG.
Kidd-Gilchrist is inevitably on the business-end of the majority of these one-man outbursts, and you have to begin to wonder what the cumulative effect is on his basketball psyche. Analysts and pundits have long lauded MKG’s defensive abilities, ranking him as one of the most valuable perimeter/team defenders in the league. And while there may be no greater “doesn't show up in the box score,” guy around, the fact remains that he simply isn't the type of guy who can shut down a superstar scorer one on one.
To be fair, only a handful of those guys have ever played in the NBA. The wing positions are as loaded with talent as they've ever been, and it's simply too much to ask of a single player to try to contain the likes of Lebron, James Harden, Russel Westbrook or Kevin Durant. We can excuse MKG’s play in that regard and chalk it up to the coaching staff not setting him for success.
Still, something seems off about him this year. The problems with his jumper are well-documented and almost legendary at this point, and it’s an emotional roller coaster every time he winds up for a wide open 18 footer. It's beginning to seem like he really won't ever be able to add this element to his game. Most Hornets fans made peace with this at some point over the last couple of years, but the rest of his game seems to have made a regression as well. MKG looks timid and unsure a lot of the time on offense, and frequently his ball handling even during routine moments like bringing the ball up the court has made me want to say things out loud like, “are you ok, man?” I can recall at least two instances in the past several games where he had to actually look down at the ball while dribbling to make sure he was still in possession. In both instances, there wasn't a defender was within five feet of him.
The other issue right now is a lack of depth. Marco Belinelli still isn't back from a nagging ankle injury, and while his endless collection of fine Italian suits brings some much needed panache to the Hornets bench, his offensive spark is sorely missed in the second unit.
With Cody Zeller out indefinitely in the NBA’s concussion protocol, the Hornets have to play Frank Kaminsky, Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert extended minutes. Hawes and Hibbert both look like they've passed into the “vet at the end of the bench dispensing wisdom and clowning on people” stage of their careers, neither seems like a great option to fill in for extended minutes for any long stretch of games.
Kaminsky’s shooting woes continue. Most of his court time on Monday night coincided with the Bull’s Nikola Mirotic, whom he matched up with. Watching these two “go at it” back and forth I came to the terrifying realization that Mirotic may be the most realistic ceiling for Big Frank.
Kemba Walker continued his hot streak and seems dead-set on securing his first all-star selection, scoring 34 points and adding an impressive 11 rebounds. It was the second game in a row Walker scored 30, and the second game in a row he didn't get quite enough help from the supporting cast to pull out the win.
It may be time for the Hornets to seriously start looking at trades. Or at the very least, reconsidering how they defend the perimeter.