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The Hornets have a fourth quarter problem

It’s been a problem in seasons past, and a new coaching staff and scheme haven’t been able to fix it.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Charlotte Hornets
Borrego doesn’t have nearly as entertaining a photo gallery as Steve Clifford.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

We spent a good bit of time talking about the Hornets late game woes at the end of the Steve Clifford era in Charlotte. The Hornets lost at least a dozen one possession games in a row and just about every player had brutal numbers in crunch time. With a new coaching staff and scheme in place, one could reasonably hope those issues would be resolved. They haven’t, and it’s only gotten worse as the season has gone on.

Since the calendars turned over to 2019, the Hornets have been the worst fourth quarter team in the NBA, and it’s really not close. Their 106.7 offensive rating ranks 22nd and their 120.0 (!!!) defensive rating ranks 29th. It makes for a -13.3 net rating, worst in the league by a solid 3.8 points per 100 possessions.

To put that futility in perspective, no NBA team has had a -13.3 net rating for a season since the 2011-12 Bobcats. Yes, that Bobcats team. The worst team in NBA history (Their net rating was -15.1).

The offensive issues are rather hard to pin down. Kemba Walker’s usage ticks up a couple percentage points in the fourth quarter, but that’s pretty typical for star players. His efficiency has been a bit of a problem, however. He’s shooting just 39.6% from the field and 31.3% from three in fourth quarters in since January 1st. Those numbers aren’t great, but they also aren’t atypical for guys who shoulder a heavy offensive burden for their team. Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin have been similarly inefficient, for example.

It’s not just a Kemba problem though. Jeremy Lamb is shooting 27.3% from the field and 18.2% from three in those same circumstances while Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller disappear off the face of the Earth. Nicolas Batum’s fourth quarter usage is 10.0%. Cody Zeller’s is 12.1%. Both are Bismack Biyombo-esque numbers that are typically reserved for the least potent offensive threats in the game.

Batum in particular cannot be that passive late in games, especially when he’s actually been a positive asset when he does shoot- he’s connected on 51.2% of his field goals and 46.7% of his 3-pointers. The guards are shouldering too heavy a load and not doing well with it. He needs to provide them with some relief.

The defense has been its own special kind of bad. Only the Suns have allowed more points per fourth quarter possession in this calendar year, and they’re duking it out with the Knicks for worst record in the league.

Since January 1st, Hornets opponents are shooting 48.0% from the field and 39.4% from beyond the arc in fourth quarters, both the third highest marks in the league. The Hornets are bottom ten in steals, defensive rebounding, opponent fast break points, and opponent points in the paint in fourth quarters. They’re bad in every which way.

The problems are more pronounced when the bench is on the floor and, more specifically, when Kemba Walker is off it. In that same post January-1st timeline we’ve been living in, the team is -23.4 points per 100 possessions while Kemba gets a fourth quarter breather. The team is -8.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, which is still awful, but it’s the best mark out of any of the 12 Hornets who have logged at least 80 fourth quarter minutes this calendar year. The team has a net rating of -30.0 with Devonte’ Graham and/or Dwayne Bacon on the floor and -26.2 with Frank Kaminsky on the floor. Next is Jeremy Lamb, who sees the team sport a -19.8 rating with him on the floor.

Those numbers jibe with the eye test. The Hornets fourth quarter collapses seem to start early. Close games turn to blowouts and Hornets’ leads turn to deficits in the early parts of the fourth quarter, which is when the group on the floor would be comprised mostly of bench players.

I don’t know what the solution is. Kemba can’t play the entire second half, and the team can’t upgrade the talent at this point in the season. This will probably remain a problem until the roster is overhauled.