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Undermanned and overtasked; taking stock of the Charlotte Hornets so far

Take things with a few grains of salt until LaMelo Ball comes back, but there’s plenty for the Hornets to build off of.

Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Data from the NBA stats page within the first few weeks of the season can be wonky; small sample sizes conflate numbers that pass the “eye test” with those that are bound to regress as the season wears on. In the case of the Charlotte Hornets, the team’s three best players have yet to play a single minute together on the court, blurring that line even further.

As most teams in the league surpass the 10-game mark and have played between 10 and 15 percent of the 82 games in a season, those sample sizes grow to the point where fans can start to glean from them and at least vaguely project areas in which a team may or may not excel. Of course, in our case, that’s still a slight mystery given the absence of LaMelo Ball and the games missed by Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin and Terry Rozier. Still, many Hornets that are healthy right now will be in the rotation once all of the core pieces are back in place. There’s been plenty of action that we can draw from so far, so why not take a dive into it?

Modernized CliffBall?

Without any reliable shot creation and little in the way of playmaking, the Hornets offensive rating of 105.8 ranks 28th through 11 games, due in large part to an ice-cold shooting stretch that has been exacerbated by the absences of Ball, Hayward and Rozier. After starting the season at the top of the league in three-point percentage, Charlotte has plummeted to 23rd, shooting 33.9 percent from deep as a team.

PJ Washington has had some good performances, Kelly Oubre Jr. can get hot at any given moment, and Jalen McDaniels started the year off scorching hot before slumping the last few games, but players that were role-players in training camp and the preseason are now the lead options. Not only is that difficult for those players to adjust to, it limits head coach Steve Clifford’s creativity as a play-caller and architect of the offense. Only so much can be expected from an offense relying on floor-spacing wings and forwards as initiators and playmaking hubs.

Charlotte’s 29.7 offensive rebounding percentage is way up from Clifford’s first tenure where the team was consistently at the bottom of the league in that category, and as a result, a much larger percentage of the team’s shot attempts are coming at the rim. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Hornets rank fifth in the NBA with 38.7 percent of the total shot attempts within four feet of the basket. It’ll be interesting to monitor that number as the season goes on, along with the team’s three-point attempt rate (31.9 per game), which currently ranks 23rd with volume gunners in Ball and Rozier missing time.

At least in the short-term while interior finishers Nick Richards and Dennis Smith Jr. are giving the team a boost, Clifford has adapted his style to the strengths of the roster to give them a fighting chance whenever shots are falling at a reasonable clip. Even without Ball, the team has the sixth-lowest percentage (77.2) of plays ran against a set defense, per Cleaning The Glass, and Inpredictable has them at 13th with 14.2 seconds per possession. There’s a very slim chance those numbers go down when Ball comes back, further indicating that Clifford has evolved from his first go-round and will allow the Hornets to play an up-tempo style.

Leaning on defense

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Clifford has always been a stout defensive coach that squeezes every last drop of defensive juice from his roster, regardless of their preconceived abilities, and that hasn’t changed a bit this time around. Smith has been a revelation, reviving his NBA career with suffocating on-ball defense and disruptive activity off the ball. Having Smith as a point-of-attack specialist that’s strong enough to bulldoze through ball screens while running offense (team-leading 6.2 assists per game) on the other end will provide balance to the second unit and establish a true backup point guard, as opposed to Rozier sliding on-ball when Ball sits.

Martin, the team’s best perimeter defender, has played one single minute on the season, yet the Hornets rank 13th in defensive rating (110.8). Along with Smith, significant improvements from Richards as a pick-and-roll defender and rim protector have buoyed that ranking, but Washington has still brought it on a nightly basis despite being asked to use more energy than usual to create shots and score and Oubre has shown flashes of the defensive awareness we saw from him in Phoenix and Golden State. There are far fewer slow or missed rotations, low-effort closeouts and moments of inactivity off-ball, which should lead to a stronger defensive base and more consistent execution as the team gets healthy.

Smith only missed one game with his ankle sprain, Rozier is back in the fold, and Martin has been on the court during practice and pregame warmups as of late. There’s no doubt the medical staff is being cautious with Ball and Hayward, but neither of them seem to have a weeks-long injury timetable at this point. It seems like Hornets fans have been wishing for health for the last two seasons, but thankfully the team has given us some bright spots in the meantime. Nobody is excited about a 3-8 record, obviously, though it’s hard not to give the Hornets the benefit of the doubt while the team is undermanned.