A west coast road trip looms for the Charlotte Hornets this week, starting with a trip to Portland on Tuesday. As losers of four straight, and a record of 4-10 in the month of January, three road games against Western Conference opponents isn’t the ideal type of schedule for a team looking to turn their season around. But if we’re being honest, the Hornets have shown little this month to suggest they can.
They continue to struggle defending at the start and end of games. While their first quarter defense has slightly improved, they remain 21st in points allowed in the fourth quarter. Coaches talk about winning quarters, or even winning stretches of play within each quarter. I can recall listening in on huddles during my time as a student manager in college, as our coach would emphasis winning the next four minutes (or, rather, the time between media timeouts). When broken down this way, winning becomes a matter of small, more manageable objectives. Even if you’re still down on the scoreboard, winning a quarter, or even the last few minutes, can feel like a victory.
The Hornets tend to get their small victories during the middle quarters, specifically in the third, where they rank in the top 10 in points scored and allowed. This tends to not matter in the end, however, as for the season, teams outscore them or pull even in the other three. Small victories can make a difference, but only if you get more than the other team. Charlotte struggles both at the start and end of games is worrisome, and isn’t the mark of a playoff team. And with 34 games remaining, Charlotte is running out of time to get on the right track.
But turning the season around isn’t going to happen all at once. The Hornets have a lot of issues, and its going to take steps to turn things around. Expecting an huge overhaul isn’t realistic. A trade could shake things up, but the Hornets can only work with what they have, and making small adjustments on both ends could help get them in the right direction.
These adjustments will be easier to make if the team can get healthy. Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lamb both remain out, and their absences have been felt. Charlotte is just 1-9 without Zeller, which is telling of Zeller’s impact on both ends of the floor, and also of the team’s inability to replicate what he brings. Zeller is great in the pick-and-roll, and his movement off the ball helps open the offense up. Defensively, he’s the team’s best interior defender despite being a “smaller” center. Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes can help in marginal ways, but neither are the two-way player Zeller is.
Lamb can be streaky, but his ability to score off the dribble and attack the hoop has been missed in the second unit. Marco Belinelli is primarily a catch-and-shoot scorer, Ramon Sessions can score at the hoop but is inconsistent as a jump shooter, and the rest of the team’s bench hasn’t shown enough consistently this season from any spot on the floor to be considered reliable bench scorers. At the very least, Lamb offers a different type of scoring option, and attacking the hoop and drawing defenders opens up shots for others.
Looking beyond the team’s health, Charlotte should look to depend less on Kemba Walker. While is he and should be team’s primary scorer and shot taker, the team’s over-reliance on him is becoming an issue, as Richie Randall of Queen City Hoops tweeted a few days ago:
Walker’s efficiency has rapidly improved the past two seasons, to the point where he’s still shooting the ball effectively even when attempting a high number of attempts. And despite the team’s poor January record, Walker has been great statistically -- averaging 24.6 points, and shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 40.0 from the 3-point line. But Randall’s tweet suggests the team is asking too much of him, even if he’s continuing to shoot well when shooting more.
This could partially be alleviated through Nicolas Batum. While he’s averaging 15.3 points per game this month (up from his season average), he’s shooting just 38.6 from the field, and 32.7 from 3, both figures well under his career averages. Asking Batum to score more is a moot point — he’s not going to be a 17-18 points per game type of player. He doesn’t have to score more, but rather more efficiently.
One way to do this would be to commit more to layups. Batum has a tendency to attack the hoop, rise up for a layup, but then swing the ball back out to the perimeter to an open jump shooter. While it makes sense given Batum’s play style, and there have been occasions where passing off was the right play, there have been other times where the layup was the better option, but he appeared already set on passing once the help arrived. More commitment to finishing the layup wouldn’t hurt, and at the very least could get him to the line more (he’s currently averaging just under four attempts per game). Plus, layups are generally considered higher percentage shots, or at least in Batum’s case, make more sense over the fade-away midrange jumpshots off one leg he tends to go to a lot.
Less reliance on Walker should help, but don’t expect drastic improvements to the offense with the current roster. Charlotte has remained middle of the pack offensively this season, a spot they were expected to be. Parts of their offense have improved from last season, but this team isn’t built to be an offensive juggernaut.
Defense is where it matters most, and improving on this end, even if just marginally at first, could make a difference. If that means simply improving their first or fourth quarter defense, Charlotte has to defend better for more stretches of the game. Despite the month’s record, Charlotte’s defensive numbers haven’t regressed a ton, and still rank in the top 10 in defensive rating and points allowed for the season. Those rankings have dropped in January, but surprisingly only to the middle of the league. As the current four game losing streak suggests, however, they clearly aren’t where they need to be, allowing just over 110 points a game during this losing streak.
Improving their first quarter defense might be the place to start. In two of the three wins prior to the current losing streak, Charlotte defended well in the first, allowing 18 points against Toronto, and 14 against Brooklyn. Starting strong gives them more control of the game, and if things are really clicking, can result in games like their 35 point win over the Raptors.
But whether its at the start or finish, or even somewhere else, Charlotte has to be more consistent. Every game feels like the Hornets either give up a lead or have to make a comeback. Getting Zeller and Lamb back is the first step, and then it comes down to making small adjustments on both ends. The option of a trade is certainly on the table as well with the deadline only a few weeks away, which could help address at least one area of concern, depending on who is brought in.
But again, fixing the Hornets can’t happen at once. Even if Charlotte goes 2-1 on this road trip (which is reasonably the best that could be asked for given the opponents), its most important they begin to undo the issues facing them. Getting healthy is the first step, and then it becomes a matter of getting back to the principles that have been successful before.