If the NBA playoffs began today, the Charlotte Hornets would be mere spectators for a second straight year, and the third time in Steve Clifford’s five-year tenure. Fortunately for Kemba Walker and the Hornets there are roughly five more months of basketball until the postseason begins.
Call it an early-season overreaction if you want, but there are several questions that remain unanswered with this Hornets squad – questions that will need to be answered if Charlotte plans on meeting their lofty preseason expectations.
What more can Dwight Howard do?
Over the course of his career Howard has certainly been a polarizing figure prone to criticism. Yes, his somewhat blithe on-court demeanor is not akin to Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, but the dude is still a physical force in his thirteenth season. Howard is averaging a ho-hum 15 points and 12 boards per game, and is the driving force behind Charlotte’s scoring resurgence in the paint this season (ranked 18th in points in the paint this year, compared to 29th last season).
Despite all this, Howard was not brought to Charlotte to be the second scoring option behind Walker. What more should you ask of Howard? Nothing. Nothing at all.
Is Nic Batum really the answer?
When shooting guard Nicolas Batum was sidelined with an elbow injury to begin the season, the local narrative went something like this: “Wait until Batum returns. Kemba Walker needs Batum to shoulder some of the scoring load, and to ease some of the playmaking burden”. The Hornets were 5-7 in Batum’s absence to begin the year, and have gone 4-6 since his return (as of Dec 6). This is not meant to discount the contributions of the 9-year veteran from France, but rather highlight the fact that this team needs much more than his 10 points on 37% shooting.
Where in the world is Malik Monk?
The Kentucky product has had a rollercoaster of a season thus far, erupting for 25 and 21 points versus the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks respectively, while also occasionally falling out of the rotation altogether. It’s no secret that Steve Clifford deeply adores strong defensive principles, and this is likely the reason Monk has vanished of late. Of all guards in the NBA who’ve played at least 15 games this season, Monk ranks 168th in defensive rating at 110. Pair that with the return of the aforementioned Nic Batum and sudden breakout of Jeremy Lamb, and it's no surprise Monk's had trouble getting heavy minutes.
Will the Hornets ever figure out their road woes?
We’re almost two months into the NBA’s regular season and the Charlotte Hornets have a grand total of one win outside of North Carolina thus far. Charlotte's only victory away from the Spectrum Center was a come-from-behind nailbiter in Memphis on October 30, which required a heavy dose of Kemba Walker’s heroics. I repeat: THE HORNETS HAVEN'T WON A ROAD GAME SINCE OCTOBER. I’ll give you a minute to process the absurdity of that statistic… Only the collection of rookies and G-League players known as the Chicago Bulls have a worse winning percentage away from home this year.
This isn’t just a recent issue for the Hornets, either. Last year Charlotte had 14 total road victories, which ranked better than just one playoff team in the league in the Indiana Pacers.
Is it jet lag? Is it bad room service? Whatever it is, the Hornets must figure out how to win away from the Queen City, and fast!
Christopher Kreider | @krydr1