Trouble Buzzing in Charlotte

by Spencer Suk

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to take another step forward.  Last year, they made the playoffs for the second time under the reign of Michael Jordan, but were swept out by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.  So the team went to work this offseason, quickly signing the gifted-but-combustible Lance Stephenson away from the Indiana Pacers.  They also added Marvin Williams to replace Josh McRoberts as the starting power forward and drafted a physical specimen in Noah Vonleh and a knockdown shooter in P.J. Hairston.

Charlotte has most of its core returning from last season and is looking to grow into a legitimate contender.  But will these moves be enough to make the Charlotte Hornets one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this year?  ESPN’s Forecast Panel has them projected to finish 5th in the East, but there are some signs that indicate it won’t be quite so easy to duplicate a trip to the playoffs.

Revamped Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference already looks much deeper than last year.  Despite Paul George’s injury essentially ending the Pacers’ season before it could begin, there are a plethora of teams in the East who appear capable of making the playoffs. 

The Cavaliers and Bulls look like the top dogs of the conference; the Raptors and Wizards are poised to build upon last season's success with the development of their young and talented cores; the Heat are still a competent playoff team despite losing the World’s Best Player; the Hawks and Nets will be delighted to have Al Horford and Brook Lopez back in their respective lineups; the Knicks and Pistons are looking to rebound from disappointing seasons with new coaches (Derek Fisher and Stan Van Gundy) and management leaders (Phil Jackson and SVG again); shit, I’ll probably even watch a few Milwaukee Bucks games next year, even if it’s just for Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo (at the point?!).

Charlotte finished 7th in the East last year, and every team that finished ahead of them (Heat, Raptors, Bulls, Wizards, Nets) has a great chance at making the playoffs except for the Pacers.  Add on the Cavs, who are a lock to take one of the top spots with LeBron James and Kevin Love on board.  That leaves only two spots for the Hawks, Knicks, Pistons, and Hornets to clamor for.

Point Differential

The Hornets (well, the Bobcats) were one of only three teams to make the playoffs last year with a negative point differential (they allowed opponents to score more than they did on average).  The other two teams also came from the East: the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks.  However, as mentioned above, both these teams were missing their best players (Horford and Lopez) for the majority of the year; if these two All-Stars had played more of the season, their teams’ point differentials would have undoubtedly improved.  On the other hand, no starter for the Hornets missed more than 9 games other than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed 20.

In other words, the Hornets were extremely fortunate to have made the playoffs with a negative point differential.  From 2011 to 2013, only two teams have made the playoffs with a negative point differential (2013 Celtics and 2013 Bucks).  And to underscore the point even more, the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves missed the playoffs last year in the Western Conference with each posting a +2.6 point differential.


As defenses have gotten smarter in the NBA, the importance of 3-point shooting has risen astronomically.  Having good shooters allows a team to space the floor, preventing the opposing team from focusing all of its attention on protecting the paint and stopping the star player.

In fact, last year only four teams made less 3’s than the league average and still made the playoffs: the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, and Memphis Grizzlies.

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There seems to be an obvious trend going on here: if you can’t shoot 3’s, you better be able to play defense.  The Bulls, Pacers, and Grizzlies were all sub-par from downtown (the Grizzlies ranked dead last in 3-pointers made), but they ranked 1st, 2nd, and 3rd respectively in points allowed per game last season.  The Bobcats were not slouches on defense; they surprisingly ranked 4th in points allowed per game (thanks to new coach Steve Clifford) but they weren’t defending at the elite level the other three teams were.  Losing Josh McRoberts may hurt the Hornets' interior defense because Al Jefferson struggles to defend the rim, but Lance Stephenson should disguise his absence by bolstering their perimeter defense. McRoberts wasn't much of a rim protector either, but Vonleh projects to be a better defender than both of them; depending on how he develops, he could become an elite post defender.

Now let’s take a look at the current Hornets roster and its 3-point shooting from last season:

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While the Hornets roster seems to have significantly improved due to the arrivals of Lance Stephenson and lottery-pick Noah Vonleh, the team will still have trouble spacing the floor. Vonleh showed a promising jumper at Indiana, but he's just a rookie, and Stephenson excels more as a ball-handler and penetrator than as a spot-up shooter.  {C}The current Hornets roster only made 497 3’s last year, a figure that would have ranked 27th out of 30 teams (Charlotte finished 25th in 3-pointers made with their roster from last year); their 3-point percentage of 34.8% would have been good enough for 24th place (the league average is 36.0%).

There are a few players who could really affect the Hornets 3-point shooting and court spacing.  Starting Marvin Williams--naturally a small forward--at power forward may help spread the floor out, but Williams is only a mediocre 3-point shooter (33.5% for his career) and will likely struggle to guard the bigger and stronger 4’s in the league.  Noah Vonleh is a 6’10” power forward with a 7’4” wingspan and the second biggest hands in combine history.  He has drawn comparisons to stretch-bigs like Chris Bosh, but the Hornets maintain the belief that he is not ready to start and will have to develop before taking on a major role with the team.  

3-point specialist Gary Neal and sharpshooting rookie P.J. Hairston should help keep defenses honest, but both are prone to streakiness. Hairston has hit a few bumps in the road early in his career (he was kicked off of UNC's basketball team) and will likely need time to find his niche in the league.  Neal, on the other hand, has been hit or miss during his three months with the Hornets last year: from downtown, he shot 19% in February, 47.6% in March, and 29.2% in April.

Finally, the Hornets offense could really turn a corner if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist learns how to shoot the ball.  MKG is an athletic freak who wowed so many people at the University of Kentucky with his physical assets and motor that he was selected second after Anthony Davis in the 2012 NBA Draft.  However, his shooting ability has restricted his development.  MKG has only made 3 3-pointers in his entire career, and he has struggled from everywhere except right at the rim:

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MKG is absolutely atrocious from 10-16 feet from the hoop and is still miserable from 3-10 feet and 16 feet to the 3-point line.  He still has a lot of time to improve his shot, but I wonder if his struggles have anything to do with the fact that his shooting motion looks like this:


The Hornets’ future looks bright, as their core is very young and can develop together: Kemba Walker (24), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (20), Lance Stephenson (23), Jeff Taylor (25), Cody Zeller (21), Noah Vonleh (18) and Gerald Henderson (26).  While MKG, Zeller, and Vonleh will take time to develop, Walker and Stephenson should immediately form one of the better backcourts in the NBA.  Al Jefferson, the team’s best player, is coming off one of his finest seasons and was awarded a spot on the 2013-14 All-NBA 3rd Team.

Also, the team is in very good hands with Head Coach Steve Clifford at the helm.  He transformed the league’s 2nd worst defense in 2012-13 into last year’s 4th best defense; this feat is even more impressive considering they had Al Jefferson at center, who has never been known as a rim protector (the popular belief being that a rim protector is the most important component of a great defense).  Clifford also improved their win total by 22 games and secured a playoff spot for a franchise that hasn’t had much success recently.  And all of these great things came in only his first year as an NBA head coach.

However, the Hornets enjoyed the benefits of playing in one of the weakest conferences in recent memory, allowing them to slip into the playoffs as the 7th seed with that negative point differential.  Unless their shooting and offense improves, it will be a dogfight for the last couple of playoff spots in the East, and nobody should be surprised if the Hornets are left out.