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The Precarious Balance of the Charlotte Hornets

They’re well coached, athletic, and off to a great start. Oh, and Kemba Walker has transformed himself into Steph Curry East, and they’ll ride his hot start for as long as it lasts.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one was talking about the Hornets in the offseason. They didn’t sign any major free agents or make any big trades. They spent most of their time retrenching, trying to bring as much of their team back as possible. The Hornets made a big bet on continuity, spending a combined $230.5 million on new contracts for Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams during the offseason and an extension on Cody Zeller days into the season. It has paid off so far, as they have gotten off to a 7–3 start, including narrow losses to the Raptors and the Cavs over the weekend in games where they more than held their own. The Hornets know who they are, and everyone in the starting lineup has a clearly defined role on both sides of the ball. In a league where so much changes from year to year, that type of stability can be a huge advantage.

Everything in Charlotte starts with Kemba Walker, who has taken a big step forward in his sixth season in the NBA. Kemba has gotten better every season he has been in the league, and the Hornets have reaped the benefits of growing with him. A lot like DeMar DeRozan, Walker came into the league as a fairly limited player, and he was asked to play over his head on a team that didn’t have a lot of other options on offense. The Hornets fed him possession after possession over the years, and he has gotten better by sheer force of repetition. He knows exactly where on the floor he has to go to get his shot off, and he knows every move the defense can make to stop him, as well as every possible countermove. Nothing surprises him anymore, and the game has slowed to a crawl.

Kemba has been playing like a miniature version of Charlotte’s native son, Steph Curry. Walker is knocking down 3-pointers off the dribble as if they were layups, and pulling up with confidence from anywhere on the floor. He is averaging 25.8 points and 5.5 assists a game on 49.1 percent shooting, and shooting 47.8 percent from 3 on almost seven attempts a game from beyond the arc. Steph is the only player who has had a season like that in NBA history. Walker’s shooting numbers will certainly go down as the season goes on, but a huge part of playing like Steph is operating in an environment similar to the one Steph has in Golden State, and the Hornets have turned themselves into a streamlined version of the Warriors. They don’t have nearly the same amount of individual talent, but the Hornets play better than the sum of their parts would indicate because their key players fit into roles that get the most out of their abilities.

If Kemba is Curry in the Hornets system, then Zeller is a taller, whiter version of Draymond Green. He is at his best when the defense traps Kemba off the screen, doubling him to get the ball out of his hands, which allows Zeller play in a 4-on-3 situation. He is comfortable making plays in space, and he can drive to the front of the rim, find the open man at the 3-point line, or stop at the free throw line for the floater or the pull-up jumper. Like when the Warriors move Draymond to center in their Lineup of Death, the Hornets are giving up bulk at the position to feature more speed and playmaking ability. DraftExpress has the lane agility scores of 18 current starting centers in their pre-draft measurements; of the lot, Zeller has the lowest time:

The key to letting Zeller operate in space in the pick-and-roll is a 3-point shooter at the power forward position, which the Hornets have in Marvin Williams. Williams is a 12-year NBA veteran who embodies the way the league has changed in the past generation. He started his career as a small forward who took less than one 3 per game, and he’s now a small-ball 4 who takes nearly 60 percent of his shots from the 3-point line.

The Hornets started the season with Roy Hibbert in the starting lineup, but he injured his knee in their second game, and they have played so well with Zeller in his place that it would be a surprise to see them go back, even after Hibbert is off his minutes restriction. When Zeller, Williams, and Kemba are all on the floor together, the Hornets have a net rating of plus-12.5, one of the best figures in the league among three-man lineups with at least 150 minutes played. Something will always be open with those three together. Either Kemba has the switch against the bigger and slower defender, Zeller is rolling to the rim in space, or Williams has an open 3. The spread pick-and-roll is the foundation of most offenses in the modern NBA, and Charlotte runs it as well as anyone.

The Hornets have a lot of speed and playmaking in their frontcourt, but they don’t have a lot of size, which is why it’s so important for them to have length and athleticism on the wings. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum are two of the biggest wings in the NBA, and their ability to crash the boards and clog up passing lanes prevents opposing teams from dominating the offensive glass and burying the smaller Hornets big men in the lane. The Celtics are the only other team in the league that starts two perimeter players who grab at least 10 percent of the total available rebounds when they are on the floor. Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist can both push the ball up the floor on misses, giving the Hornets an extra dimension to a half-court offense that is so reliant on Walker commanding defensive attention and creating opportunities for everyone else.

If Kemba’s shooting starts to regress, there’s no one capable of picking up much of the slack.

Batum has never averaged more than 15 points in his career, and his usage rate has exceeded 20 percent only twice in his career — it’s hovering just below at 19.5 after 10 games. Batum is better as a secondary playmaker, facilitating for other players after the ball has already been rotated, than he is creating his own shot off the dribble. Neither Zeller nor Williams has shown much of an ability to create offense for themselves, while Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting has fallen off a cliff following multiple shoulder surgeries last season. With former shooting guru Mark Price now coaching in college, Kidd-Gilchrist’s jumper looks as ugly as ever, and most of the progress he made from two seasons ago is gone.

The Hornets live with MKG’s offensive struggles because he is the lifeblood of their defense. He not only provides rebounding and shot-blocking help for Zeller and Williams, but makes Batum and Walker’s jobs easier on the perimeter. While Kemba’s defense has always been an issue due to his lack of size, the decline in Batum’s game on that side of the ball has been noticeable in Charlotte, whether it has been due to age, a bigger role on offense, or playing up a position against smaller and faster offensive players as a 2 instead of a 3. Against the Raptors, Batum rarely got the defensive assignment on DeRozan, even with MKG sitting out with a back injury. His individual defensive numbers on play types have slid across the board since his days in Portland, according to Synergy. Just as they were last season, the Hornets are a better defensive team with Batum off the floor.

The Hornets starters mesh well together, but the fit is not as seamless when they go to their bench, which was decimated by the losses of Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin in free agency. Ramon Sessions, their primary shot creator among the reserves, is on his eighth team in the past eight seasons, if you count two separate stints in Charlotte. The Hornets acquired Marco Belinelli in a draft-day trade with the Kings, but he is a spot-up shooter who has never been much of a defensive player. Their most interesting perimeter reserve is probably Jeremy Lamb, who has struggled with injuries in the first few weeks of the season. He lost the confidence of the coaching staff last season, but he has shown flashes of two-way ability in his time in the NBA. Until the Hornets can get some consistency from Lamb, though, their strategy with their reserves revolves around buying time while Walker and Batum are off the floor, and it shows. The team’s net rating plummets without either of its two stars in the game.

The reserves who could change the trajectory of their team are all in the frontcourt. Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert split time at center behind Zeller, and they each offer a different element when they are on the floor. Hibbert is trying to resurrect his career after a disastrous season with the Lakers, and he is by far the best shot blocker on their roster. The question is how much value a slow-moving Leviathan like Hibbert can provide in a league where so many teams have guards who can threaten a defense coming off a screen and big men who have to be guarded at the 3-point line, making his preferred strategy of hanging back in the lane on the pick-and-roll much less valuable. Hawes is the best shooter of the three, and playing him as a stretch 5 opens up the floor, although he’s not as mobile a perimeter defender as Zeller or as capable an interior defender as Hibbert.

The Hornets still need to figure out what they have in second-year big man Frank Kaminsky, who has yet to really carve out a role for himself. On paper, Kaminsky could solve many of the team’s problems. He was a mismatch nightmare at the college level, with the ability to take bigger defenders off the dribble and to score over the top of smaller ones in the post. The problem is that his shooting ability has yet to translate to the NBA, as he is shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3 in his first two seasons, and he still has a long way to go on the defensive end of the floor. Kaminsky is coming off his best game of the season, with 20 points and 5 assists in a win over the Timberwolves on Tuesday, and Charlotte needs him to take offensive pressure off Batum and Walker and anchor some of its bench units.

If the Hornets don’t find more help for those guys, there is a legitimate concern that what happened in the playoffs last season could happen again. For as well as Walker has played so far this season, what happens if a team is able to keep him under wraps, like the Heat did in the playoffs last season? Kemba is generously listed at 6-foot-1, and he’s giving up a ton of size against a lot of potential playoff opponents, which can wear on a player over the course of a seven-game series. Kemba was one of four guards listed at 6-foot-1 or shorter who were their team’s primary option in last season’s playoffs; with the exception of Chris Paul, the other three all saw significant dips in efficiency. Over the past three postseasons, the average height of a starting point guard in the second round is 6-foot-2 and 3/4 inches. It’s not a dramatic difference, but every bit of height helps.

The problem for Steve Clifford is that fixing one problem in his lineup invariably opens up another. Kaminsky is a better shot creator than either Zeller or Williams, but he’s not nearly as good as a perimeter defender. Their defense would improve without Kemba, but their offense would collapse. Taking out MKG would improve their spacing, but it would come at the cost of their best defender, and Batum can no longer handle the defensive assignments MKG gets, not with the load he has to carry on offense. Clifford has done an excellent job of building a system around the limitations of his best players, but it’s a very delicate balance, with each member of the starting five covering for the holes in the games of their teammates. Pull one thread and the entire thing collapses.