We are roughly one week into the new NBA season, and the Charlotte Hornets are playing an inspired brand of basketball. Is a sample size of 4 games substantial enough to predict the Hornets' performance over the course of the remaining 78?
You don’t need a data science degree from Princeton to know the answer is clearly no.
However it is still encouraging to see this blend of new and old faces wearing the teal and purple meshing together this early in the year. Several factors are contributing to Charlotte’s early success, including a few listed below.
Few things are less surprising than hearing head coach Steve Clifford’s Hornets are playing stout defense. This group finished in the top ten a year ago in opponent scoring average per game, and despite losing a bit of offensive expertise in Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin, they may have actually taken a step forward defensively. Factor in the supplemental boost of defensive wizard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as well as the inside presence of a revitalized Roy Hibbert, and you have a pretty solid defensive unit.
Currently the Hornets are holding opponents to 96 points per contest, which ranks second in the East behind only the Detroit Pistons. Also, according to the Charlotte Observer, they’re blocking shots at a Dikembe Mutombo-like rate. “While the Charlotte Hornets have been an elite defensive team under coach Steve Clifford, they haven’t been particularly strong at blocking shots. That could be changing. Through their first four games, the Hornets are leading the NBA in shots blocked at seven per game.”
All hands on deck
Someone recently asked me who I compared this version of the Hornets to. The question came about as we were discussing what a team like the Hornets could accomplish in a league fueled by superstars. What’s their ceiling in the coming years? My answer: the early 2000s Detroit Pistons.
Now before I start setting unrealistic expectations for this Charlotte group, I must clarify a few things. I do not expect the Hornets to win the NBA title this year. Also, I am not comparing Kemba Walker to 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups. But I do think these Hornets can make another playoff run if they continue to play the same hardnosed, selfless brand of basketball that Larry Brown’s group had patented roughly a decade ago.
It doesn’t matter who leads the team in scoring and it doesn’t matter who gets the last shot (though both tend to be the cold-blooded floor general, Kemba Walker). With expected contributions from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Kaminsky and Marvin Williams, this is a team that should be well-balanced on the offensive side of the ball. After a week, five members of the Hornets are averaging at least 10 points per game (six if you count Kidd-Gilchrist at 9.8 ppg). This is a winning formula for Charlotte.
Money well spent
General Manager Rich Cho has continued to impress with his shrewd personnel moves to construct a winner. Cho has made some unpopular decisions during his tenure in the Queen City, which include not re-signing fan favorites Bismack Biyombo (Orlando) and Jeremy Lin (Brooklyn) due to their inflated price tags, but deserves credit for his discipline as well. Charlotte isn’t a huge market, and currently ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of overall team payroll at just under $100M for the 2016-17 season. The Hornets got the most bang for their buck last year, as well, spending $1.6M in payroll per win. This figure ranked 8th in the league last season, and proves that Rich Cho and Michael Jordan’s savvy personnel decisions are beginning to pay dividends on the court.
Christopher Kreider | @krydr1