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Two things to like, and one to dislike, about the Hornets so far

Taking a look at Jeremy Lamb’s strong start, Dwight Howard’s post touches, and why the Hornets are middle of the league on defense.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been all bad for the Charlotte Hornets so far this season, but it hasn’t been great either. 8-11 through 19 games isn’t where I expected the team to be, and I’m starting to wonder if it was wishful thinking to believe they could be better than a first round exit playoff team.

Injuries didn’t do the team any favors, but they managed to start 5-3 when the injuries had mounted up. Since then, they are 3-8, with an ugly six game losing streak in the center of it. Fortunately, the season is long, and I know by now that records don’t often mean a whole lot with the Hornets until February.

And look, things could be worse. The Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzles, the teams Charlotte beat on back-to-back nights when they were both in first place in the Eastern and Western Conferences, are losers of eight straight games. The Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, have the exact same record as Charlotte, despite the plethora of talent on their roster. Charlotte isn’t in a good spot, but there are worse places to be in.

Last weekend’s losses about negated the previous three game winning streak. Both were rough in their own ways — the Hornets were probably the better team against Cleveland, while the San Antonio game was just a terrible display of basketball, and nearly losing Kemba Walker made it all the worse.

At this point, it feels as the next stretch of games is more important than the last. Charlotte faces three Eastern Conference opponents in the next seven days. Two are division rivals, and the other, Toronto, is one the Hornets have played well against in recent years. There is an opportunity to win all three, but there’s no telling what team could show up.

But let me back up. There’s a lot to unpack with this team, more so than is possible in this article. However, I’d like to look at a few things specifically, namely two things I like so far, and one I don’t. I’ll start with the good:

The emergence of Jeremy Lamb

There is always at least one player heading into training camp that the coaching staff and players rave about. Jeremy Lamb was this season’s, and it wasn’t all that surprising. Still, whether Lamb took the next step was a matter of consistency more than anything. 19 games in, he’s been a model of it.

Lamb is averaging 15.9 points per game, and he’s scored at least 15 points or more in all but four. He’s shooting 45.1 percent from the field, which is slightly down from last season’s average, but is attempting nearly four-and-a-half more shots per game.

The biggest jump, however, has been from beyond the arc. After struggling in past seasons, Lamb is shooting 37.3 percent from the 3-point line. His percentage is up through 12 games in the month of November versus the seven played in October, and he’s shooting 43.8 percent when the team wins (though it should be noted, he’s shooting just 32.6 percent in losses).

His improvement this season comes at an important time given the injury to Nicolas Batum. Without Lamb’s improvement, the Hornets would likely be in a worse spot.

The next step for Lamb is to find consistency from the bench. In six games as a bench player, he is averaging 15.3 points per game, shooting 45.6 percent. That’s good, but his 26.1 percent from the 3-point line isn’t. Part of this may be due to his role — Lamb essentially has to “lead” the bench unit as their primary scorer, etc — but that number will need to rise.

Dwight Howard (on most nights)

At this point, I accept the bad parts of Dwight Howard — the missed free throws, excessive turnovers, and inappropriate gestures — because they don’t outweigh the good. He was awful during the six game losing streak, averaging just 13.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, but in the five games since he is averaging 19.4 points and 14.6 rebounds, while shooting 58.7 percent from the free throw line, which yes, isn’t great, but is higher than his career average of 56.4 percent. Overall, we’ve seen good Dwight more often than bad Dwight, and his impact as a rebounder, defender, and at times, post scorer, has added elements to the Hornets frontcourt that Cody Zeller, for all his worth, can’t.

But I’ve noticed that Dwight tends to play outside of what he is capable of doing. It’s as if at age 31 he believes he can face up, breakdown his defender with a crossover, and expect to finish a baseline reverse lay-up. Or, he thinks that attempting mid-range jumpshots is a high percentage look. I understand that many veterans reinvent themselves at 30 and beyond to stick in the league, but Howard doesn’t have to do that. Rather, he needs to simplify things.

When Howard seals his man under the basket, it’s an automatic two-points. There isn’t much his defender can do but foul, but Howard often gets the shot off before his defender can do anything.

What can Kevin Love do? Nothing, unless you count staring at Howard dunking the ball as something.

Here are two more, first against Karl-Anthony Towns:

And then this one against Nikola Vucevic:

Howard’s strength and positioning give him such an advantage in these situations. There is nothing fancy about it; it’s just effective basketball, and because he has the ball in his hands less, it lowers the chance he will turn it over.

(Sidenote: here’s a weird stat: Howard averages more turnovers per game in wins than in losses, just as we all expected.)

I’d love to see Howard do more of this, and essentially anything right at the rim. I understand he can’t always get this position, but there’s rarely a need to start from the short corner or further out. Hit the block, seal the defender, catch the feed, and profit.

The defense

Finally, here’s one thing I don’t like. (“Just one?” you’re asking.)

Right now, the defense is not where it needs to be. Currently, 17th in points allowed and with the 15th overall defensive rating, the Hornets are sitting near middle of the league, and roughly 10 spots further back than Steve Clifford wants them to be.

Surprisingly, the Hornets rank in the top 10 in both opponent field goal and 3-point percentage (9th and 7th, respectively). This is encouraging, because Charlotte was worst in the league last season in allowing teams to make 3-pointers against them.

Over the course of the game, teams aren’t having a field day, percentage wise, so where are things going wrong? For starters, Charlotte is 2-4 in games decided by five points or less. This partly speaks to playing poorly in the 4th quarter, but it’s on the offense more so than the defense. Charlotte ranks 11th in points allowed in the fourth quarter (not that bad!) but rank 26th in points scored (not good!). But their real issues are in the 3rd quarter, where they allow 27.3 points (ranking 24th) while scoring just 25.9 (15th). In other words, Charlotte is not putting the second unit that starts the 4th quarter in a good spot when they defend poorly in the 3rd. This backs up comments by Clifford, who has said in the past that double-digit lead given up started in the 3rd quarter, not the 4th.

Improving in both quarters should help with rising up the rankings, but clearly this is easier said than done. Still, Charlotte needs improvement in this area if they want to compensate for an offense that currently ranks in the middle of the league.

There’s clearly more than could be discussed, but they’ll have to be saved for the future (you’re welcome to highlight them in the comments, of course). Again, Charlotte isn’t bad, necessarily, but things could obviously be better. Hopefully a few days off gets them in the right state of mind to make up ground over the next week.