Is Charlotte’s Great Start a Fluke?

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The Charlotte Hornets are off to an excellent start. They are 6-1, which is good for a tie at number one in the Eastern Conference with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Leading the way is star point guard Kemba Walker, who is averaging career highs in points (23.9,) assists (5.6,) steals (1.9,) and his percentages (46.6% FG and 43.5% from three,) while averaging the lowest minutes (32.3) since his rookie season.

The rest of the Hornets have contributed as well. Four more players are averaging double figures: Nicolas Batum (12.3,) Frank Kaminsky (11.4,) Cody Zeller (11.4,) and Marvin Williams (11.0.) The Hornets also have five more players averaging at least seven points per game, so a lot of players are contributing to their effort.

Nell Redmond / Associated Press
Nell Redmond / Associated Press

On Steve Clifford’s Hornets teams, however, they win games with their defense. The team owns the 2nd best defensive rating in the league (98.2,) behind only the Los Angeles Clippers, who are off to an even more impressive 7-1 start.

Individually, some of their key players are playing dominant basketball. Here are the offensive and defensive ratings of the Hornets’ best players:

Per 100 Poss Table
Rk Player G MP ORtg DRtg
2 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 7 205 115 93
3 Roy Hibbert 2 36 127 94
4 Spencer Hawes 7 135 105 95
6 Cody Zeller 7 156 129 97
8 Marvin Williams 7 201 100 99
9 Kemba Walker 7 226 115 99
10 Nicolas Batum 7 232 100 99
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/11/2016.

When the Hornets get Roy Hibbert back from injury, they will be even better, but even with Hibbert, there is reason to be concerned.

The Hornets have played great defense, but their offensive efficiency is still at an average level. They are 15th in the league in offensive rating (106.7,) which is right in-between New York (106.8) and Portland (105.8). Portland and Oklahoma City (101.9) are the only other teams in the bottom half of the Offensive Efficiency ranking that have a record greater than .500.

Jack Follett / Sporting Headquarters
Jack Follett / Sporting Headquarters

This might not be such an issue if Charlotte had played against the level of competition that the Thunder and Blazers have played against. Portland (1st) and Oklahoma City (6th) have had two of the hardest schedules in the league. The Hornets, on the other hand, have had the 28th hardest schedule in the league out of 30 teams. The combined record of the teams they’ve played against is 21-33.

Despite the low level of competition the Hornets have played against, many of the Hornets have struggled offensively. Walker has been solid, but the team is below average in shooting as a whole. They place at 19th in the league right now in field goal percentage (44.2%) and three point percentage (33.2%,) and their players have struggled:

Shooting Table
Rk Player MP FG%
Dist.
3 Ramon Sessions 128 .282 10.1
4 Nicolas Batum 232 .364 19.3
5 Marvin Williams 201 .378 17.8
6 Jeremy Lamb 41 .391 13.6
7 Marco Belinelli 175 .396 18.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/11/2016.

These players are all important to the success of the Hornets as a team, and they are struggling. Williams and Batum are both starters, and Sessions, Lamb, and Belinelli are the first players off the bench on the perimeter for Steve Clifford. If they are struggling from the field against low end competition, then it is really hard to believe that the Hornets have a good chance of winning against some of the great teams in the league they have yet to play.

Bill Streicher / USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher / USA TODAY Sports

With them struggling, Lamb and Roy Hibbert out, and three of the Hornets next four games against Cleveland (6-1,) Toronto (5-2,) and Atlanta (6-2,) these next few weeks are going to be a real test of the Hornets ability to compete against the best in the league.

Last year, the Hornets went 1-2 against Atlanta and Toronto, and 1-3 against Cleveland, and that was with Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, and Al Jefferson on their team. They were also able to claim the league’s 9th best offense to go along with their consistently stingy defense during 2015-16. This year’s Hornets might not be able to match even that limited amount of success against those teams.

The Hornets should not be criticized for having an easy first seven games, but their struggling offense within them should be cause for skepticism and concern going forward. Still, even if they lose against these three Eastern Conference powers that the facts suggest they will, their league-2nd best defense is still going to win them a lot of games, and secure them a playoff position no matter how badly their offense struggles. Their offense simply determines what seed they end up with in April.

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