Only in the Eastern Conference could a team storm into playoff position while playing some of the worst offense in the league. Such is the story of the Hornets – winners of nine of their last 11 games and current owners of the East's No. 8 seed. In the last week alone, two of those Charlotte wins came by scoring in the 70s. In one particularly painful bout with the Pacers, both teams capped out with 68 points before trudging into overtime. The Hornets shot 29.7 percent from the field in regulation... and won.
Charlotte's scoring efficiency of late is of league-worst-caliber, and would rank as such were it not for the truly visionary work of the Knicks and Sixers at the bottom of the board. This makes the Hornets a deeply flawed outfit in the grand scheme of things. It also makes them kind of amazing; over their past 20 games, Charlotte has churned out just 97.8 points per 100 possessions and still outscored opponents by 3.3 points. That margin bests that of the Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers, Bulls, Wizards, and Raptors over the same stretch.
Doing so has required a run as the best statistical defense in the league. The Hornets haven't the firepower (especially through Al Jefferson's recent absence) to make up for slow starts or sloppy defensive outings, leaving them to execute nightly on a razor's edge. Any particularly bad quarter could prove fatal. Yet Charlotte has recently managed a triple crown of defensive solvency: highly competitive play on the ball, timely help that has influenced shots while avoiding fouls and elite rebounding to keep opponents to a single scoring attempt.
It's easier for the Hornets to hit those marks consistently when playing an East-heavy schedule, though the underlying improvement in the team's defense is legitimate. Charlotte was a mess to start the season, dinged up by injury and at an apparent loss in incorporating newcomer Lance Stephenson. Credit goes to Steve Clifford and his staff for turning Jefferson's injury – a potential disaster – into an opportunity for reset. Kemba Walker played some of the best basketball of his career in response and the Hornets on the whole now more closely resemble the team that finished in the top five in defensive rating last season.
If only the story ended there. While Jefferson and Stephenson have returned, Walker will now undergo surgery on his left knee to address a torn meniscus. His projected six-week timetable could cover 17 games. That it spans the All-Star break is something of a relief, though a poor showing over the next few weeks could still sink Charlotte's playoff candidacy.
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The Hornets, then, are right to entertain the notion of a trade. Chasing point guard help makes sense, if only to keep the ball out of the hands of some of Charlotte's spottier decision makers. Walker isn't only the team's leading scorer, after all, but its most ball-dominant influence. His touches and minutes will need to be replaced along with his shots, which may give lesser ball handlers more freedom than the Hornets would prefer. Built-in to Charlotte's defense is a transitional shield, of sorts, in the fact that Walker so rarely turns the ball over. Remove the primary caretaker from the offense and that strength begins to compromise.
Tasked in theory with filling Walker's role will be reserve guard Brian Roberts. He's a decent player, if a bit mismatched for his circumstances and in way over his head. Roberts is a pick-and-roll guard now on a post-up team, if for no other reason than it must be. A healthy Jefferson is a worthy offensive fulcrum and, without Walker, the only plausible one Charlotte has.
Roberts can be a solid entry passer and give Jefferson a touch more spacing with his spot-up jumper than Walker could have, though he may be most valuable to this team by making a few moves through tight spaces when the offense otherwise breaks down. Roberts can't quite replicate Walker's ability to cull something from nothing, though as reserves go he's an adequate try. It's telling, though, that the Hornets' already crummy offense has tripped further with Roberts at the helm this season. It takes a special player to redeem an offense with so little spacing and so few creative threats. Roberts is not that.
That said, the rumored pursuit of the Nets' Joe Johnson – while undeniably costly – could prove a worthwhile step in both weathering Walker's injury and cultivating a more dependable offense. Johnson wouldn't solve Charlotte's big-picture problems, but he is a steady hand at and a capable shooter at a position where the Hornets badly need both.
Perhaps a turn of greater involvement will unlock Stephenson's season and make such a move unnecessary. More likely, though, is that a month or so without Walker will position the Hornets to endure Stephenson's up-and-mostly-down play without much recourse. This was already a team short on creators. At this particular moment, its best (Jefferson) isn't quite in form, its secondary (Walker) is sidelined by injury and its expected third (Stephenson) seems to have lived out the past few months in his own universe. Johnson – still a balanced contributor off the bounce – would be a sensible basketball address if the Hornets are willing to swallow his outrageous $23.2 million salary.
That they'd consider it should broadcast clearly how desperate this team is for offense. Hard defensive work (spearheaded by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, and Gerald Henderson among others) has the Hornets above water for the first time all season, though sustaining their recent pace of prevention will be nearly impossible. At some point Charlotte will have to manage credible offensive output if they're to win consistently. In Walker's absence, that might not be feasible.
Theirs is an uphill battle. It will take defiance against regression, strong play from Jefferson, and perhaps a move of some kind. But if Charlotte survives the coming months to qualify for the playoffs, it will do so by the saving grace of the Eastern Conference.