A home loss to the Lakers on the second leg of a home back-to-back isn’t exactly the end of the world—the Lakers are bad, but they compete like hell, and they’ve got some high-upside young dudes, and shit happens on the back end of a back-to-back. But the first leg of this home back-to-back was a loss to the Bulls, and the Bulls are as bad an NBA team as you are likely to ever see. The Hornets, having lost two games in two nights at home to these two teams, are now 9-16. They suck. They’re dead.
The Hornets of the Steve Clifford era (we’re still counting this as the Steve Clifford era, even though the coach is on indefinite leave with “health issues”) have had a few calling cards over the last couple years, which is generally a good sign for a team hoping to scramble out of mediocrity and become a real force: they’ve been sound defensively, they don’t turn the ball over, and they own the defensive glass. Getting Dwight Howard certainly wasn’t going to make them any more enjoyable as an entertainment product, but the move was designed to keep them playing to their strengths while improving their overall talent. And, lo and behold, the Hornets are second in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage (81.4 percent), a respectable 11th in defensive rating, and best in the league in turnover percentage.
But they’re not winning, and the Hornets are starting to look like a lesson in the upside limitations of feasting on the low-hanging fruit. Yes, they manage to not shoot their own dicks off on a nightly basis; on the other hand, eventually you need some guys who can win individual match-ups and produce points, and the Hornets are about as poor in those categories as any team in the league. They’ve sunk to 27th in the league in True Shooting, a measure of a team’s scoring efficiency, and their offense is ranked in the NBA’s bottom ten. Over their last eight games, of which they’ve lost seven, the Hornets are producing a putrid 97.4 points per 100 possessions, the very worst mark in the NBA.
They’ve got too many damn guys out there who can’t do anything. Michael Carter-Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are each among the most offensively challenged players at their respective positions in the league; Howard and backup Cody Zeller set some great screens, and play some terrific defense, but neither guy needs to be defended outside of the restricted area, and all of their offensive contributions require someone else to create their shots; Frank Kaminsky has been a big old bust; Nic Batum’s scoring efficiency has gone all the way into the toilet this season; guys like Traveon Graham and Dwayne Bacon are not likely to develop into solutions; Malik Monk, who very well could develop into a partial solution, is still in the playing-like-a-rookie phase of his rookie season, producing the lowest offensive rating (94.9) of any Hornets regular.
The burden of threatening opposing defenses enough to cause them to actually contort a little therefore falls almost entirely to Kemba Walker and [gulp] Jeremy Lamb. Kemba’s not having quite the season he had last year, but he’s still a remarkable offensive engine for a guy his size, and with his workload. Lamb is having a career year, but it’s important to note that a career year for Jeremy Lamb is average efficiency on above-average usage, and not anything even remotely star-like. Opponents are still taking a make-him-prove-it approach to defending Lamb, which means the lanes and alleys needed to create a shot for, say, Marvin Williams, are still clogged in the meantime.
This is going to get uglier for the Hornets. Their next two games, Monday and Wednesday, are on the road, at the Thunder and Rockets. The remainder of their December schedule is brutal: in addition to those two games, they’ve got the Blazers, the Raptors, the Bucks twice, the Celtics, and the Warriors, with a couple lesser opponents sprinkled in. Hornets fans might look up on January 1 and find their team something like 14 games under .500. For it to not happen, the Hornets will need to find some offense, but where that might come from is anyone’s guess.