The Charlotte Bobcats were one of the NBA’s most surprising teams last season, going from a dismal 21-61 in 2012-13 to 43-39 and the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference under first-year head coach Steve Clifford. The Bobcats were swept away by the Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs, but that didn’t diminish what Clifford accomplished with his team after the franchise spent several painful years in the cellar. Clifford transformed one of the league’s worst defenses into one of the league’s best in the span of a year, and the future looked bright.
The momentum the franchise gathered from last season appeared to charge full steam ahead into this year. The Bobcats became the Hornets again, complete with a shiny new logo, new uniforms and a sweet court design. The re-branding had people excited about the direction the franchise was headed, and with the addition of talented young guard Lance Stephenson in free agency, it appeared the Hornets were ready to take another step forward.
But over the first two months of the season, everything was a disaster.
Stephenson looked like a complete bust, as he averaged 10.2 points on 38.6 percent shooting overall and a wretched 15.1 percent from three-point range before going down with a groin injury on Dec. 17. The fit with Kemba Walker – who signed a four-year, $48 million extension just prior to the season – looked poor because of a lack of shooting. While Stephenson was struggling himself, Walker averaged just 13.3 points on 36.6 percent shooting overall and 26.5 percent from three in November. That kind of terrible shooting in a backcourt kills spacing, especially with the departure of Josh McRoberts, who turned himself into a solid stretch 4 in 2013-14.
In addition to a wretched offense, the strong defense that helped fuel Charlotte’s turnaround last season disappeared. An injury to wing-defender extraordinaire Michael Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t help matters, but it was still surprising to see the Hornets give up 106.1 points per 100 possessions in November, per NBA.com.
After a 10-game losing streak that spanned from Nov.15-Dec.3, Charlotte found itself at 4-15. The rest of 2014 was just one step forward and two steps back. A two-game winning streak was followed by a four-game losing streak, which was then followed by a four-game winning streak. And right when it seemed like the Hornets had maybe turned a corner, they dropped five games in a row to fall to 10-24, a season-high 14 games under .500.
But when all seemed lost, in came Walker to save the day.
Walker has exploded in January, and he helped key a five-game winning streak that has gotten the Hornets back on track. During that streak, Walker averaged 30.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 49.5 percent overall and 40.0 percent from three. This all happened without Stephenson and Al Jefferson in the lineup due to injuries, and the impressive run helped earn Walker Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors.
The winning streak was snapped in a tough loss to the San Antonio Spurs, but Charlotte has won two in a row since, even with Walker out due to a sore knee. Stephenson and Jefferson have returned to the court, although both are coming off the bench for now. Jefferson is sure to return to the starting lineup soon, but Clifford may opt to keep Stephenson in a bench role.
Walker shouldn’t miss much more time, and the Hornets will try and keep things rolling with a healthy roster. Charlotte is 17-25 and just a half-game behind the scuffling Brooklyn Nets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s pretty wild considering the disastrous start, but that’s life in the bottom of the East. A strong surge from a non-playoff team can result in playoff contention. Just ask the Detroit Pistons, who started 5-23 and now sit at 16-26, just behind the Hornets in the standings.
While Charlotte has looked good lately, they still have to prove they can consistently get the job done against strong competition. Of the seven wins in January, only one of them came against a team that currently has a winning record, and that was against a Toronto Raptors team that has been scuffling.
Still, the Hornets are trending up, and it’s not just because of Walker. The defense has regained its identity, and Charlotte is all the way up to ninth in defensive rating, per NBA.com. The Hornets have given up just 90.8 points per 100 possessions in January, the best mark in the league.
The offense is still a major work in progress, but Charlotte can be competitive against most teams by simply playing strong defense. If the offense can drag itself out of the depths and even become consistently mediocre, the Hornets have a legitimate chance at the postseason.