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The Charlotte Hornets are better than this

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The Charlotte Hornets are better off through 38 games than they were a season ago, but expectations have changed.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at New York Knicks Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Given the way last season ended, it’s easy to forget the Charlotte Hornets were by no means a playoff lock for much of the season. Through 38 games, they were 18-20 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, and had just snapped a seven game losing streak. This season, they are two games better at 20-18, good enough for 6th in the East. Despite the better overall record, however, little about this season feels like an improvement on the last.

That said, there are things to feel good about. Continued improvement from Kemba Walker has him on the verge of his first All-Star appearance, while Cody Zeller has settled well in his first full season as the starting center. Marco Belinelli and Jeremy Lamb are legitimate wing options off the bench, while Spencer Hawes, for all his quirks, has filled in nicely when either Zeller or Roy Hibbert have missed time. Most remarkably, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has remained healthy thus far, missing just one game.

But all these positives are individual, and while they shouldn’t be dismissed, where it boils down is how the Hornets are playing as a team.

Offensively, Charlotte is actually marginally better in most offensive categories aside from 3-point shooting. The perimeter regression isn’t surprising given the losses of Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, but the regression from Marvin Williams in particular has forced a change in style. So far, they’ve successfully adjusted, increasing the percentage of points that come from 2-pointers, while getting to the line more, ranking second in percentage of points that come from free throws. While none of their shooting percentages are marginally better, their increased emphasis on attacking the rim and getting to the line has resulted in averaging roughly three more points a game this season than last (105.2 vs 102.4). They also rank in the top ten in every major assist category, and commit the third fewest turnovers in the league.

This offensive improvement is nullified, however, because defensively they have regressed in certain areas. The interesting part is the regression isn’t coming from any of the defensive principles Steve Clifford emphasizes — they continue to be strong in transition and defending the paint, allowing fewer fast break points and points in the paint than last season — and they commit the fewest fouls of any team. Where they are being continually punished is from the 3-point line. Teams are making 10.6 3-pointers a game, which is third most in the league, while attempting over 30, resulting in teams averaging 31.7 points per game against them from beyond the arc.

Additionally, the Hornets struggle defending in the first and fourth quarters of games, ranking 21st in points allowed in both. For the season, they are best in the third quarter, ranking 6th, but this has regressed in the past three games, where they are allowing 28.7 points, four more than their season average. This speaks to what appears to be at the core of the Hornets issues this season -- they simply haven’t been consistent enough.

It could be argued the team’s strong start was a bit of fool’s gold given they lost four straight after starting 8-3, but two of the four losses were in overtime to New Orleans and New York, and the loss to the Pelicans came after blowing multiple double-digit leads. They have also had at least two other bad losses this season, an overtime loss to Minnesota where again they led by double-digits, and a two point loss to Brooklyn where they allowed the league’s third worst 3-point shooting team to shoot 15-31 from beyond the arc.

The culmination of these losses has resulted in a record, that while better than at this point last season, doesn’t reflect the team’s talent and makeup. Arguably, Charlotte is the fourth best team in the East. Hawks and Pacers fans might argue differently, but Atlanta just traded Kyle Korver and are looking to trade Paul Milsap, while over in Indiana Paul George has been vocal in his frustration with how their season has gone. The Hornets, on the other hand, return the same core from a season ago (and another starter returned from injury). They also managed to overcome the losses of key bench players, as this season’s second unit averages more points per game than last season’s. Comparability, the Hornets have faced far fewer issues both on and off the court.

A season ago, 20-18 would have been more than acceptable, but expectations have changed. MKG is healthy, and P.J. Hairston isn’t the starting shooting guard. There is no ailing Al Jefferson missing time to injury or having his minutes cut, and Zeller isn’t having to adjust to a new position. With all the team went through last season, 48 wins was remarkable.

Much was discussed before the season about the Hornets regressing because other teams — Detroit, Washington, New York, Milwaukee, and Orlando — were all expected to challenge or pass them. This talk led to bit of temperance when predicting the Hornets. Until it could be determined just which of these teams were ready to make the leap, it couldn’t be truly determined where Charlotte would fall. Currently, these five sit below Charlotte in the standings. Given this, and the earlier struggles of Atlanta and Indiana, Charlotte appeared in better shape than many of these teams. In the early goings, the Hornets strong third quarter play was becoming a staple of who they were. Whether leading or trailing, their third quarter play put them in control and won them a few of those early season games. As the season has progressed, however, the inconsistency has increased, most evident by the recent stretch of games where they have lost games in the third.

A consistent string of injuries have affected them — it seems as one key player returns from injury another has gotten hurt. But injuries are not an excuse for the times where Charlotte had multiple opportunities to put a team away, only to blow the lead and lose the game.

Above everything else, what’s most frustrating is that Charlotte had a great opportunity to create ample separation between themselves and much of the East, but didn’t, and now sit amongst the mess of the conference, where places 4-12 are separated by just five and a half games. It’s an ugly place to be in, as arguably each of these teams are talented enough to make the playoffs. The Hornets could conceivably be in the top eight the rest of the season, only to go on a bad run as the season ends and miss out. It’s a grim prediction, but it’s plausible.

That said, history may be on Charlotte’s side. During the team’s two previous playoff clinching seasons under Clifford, the Hornets didn’t hit their full stride until late February, and the month of March has been has been their most successful, winning 9 games in 2013-14, and 12 last season. Coincidentally, these successful runs have come soon after a subtle deadline day trade that gave the team more balance and addressed an area of concern. If the past is any indication, Rich Cho will be looking to make another similar move.

But March is still a couple months away, and the reality today is that Charlotte has not played to their potential. 20-18 isn’t a terrible record, and by no means have they been a major disappointment, but the inconsistency, particularly on defense, has made for a few too many frustrating evenings. The opportunity to build off last season remains, but it could be wasted if the Hornets continue to play below what they are capable of.