This NBA season has many storylines from the unbeatable Golden State Warriors, to the underperforming Cleveland Cavaliers, and to the quiet but deadly San Antonio Spurs. The least discussed story this season? The resurgence of the Charlotte Hornets.
Let that sink in…
Sunk in yet?
Yes, the Charlotte Hornets. Although as of this writing, they have lost two games straight, don’t let that detract from their season. In a previous post I detailed that the Hornets Optimal Team Net Efficiency (a team’s quarterly Net Rating when its Offensive eFG% is above 50% and Defensive eFG% is below 50%) is the fourth best of the eight teams examined. Let’s look at a chart that examines this in more detail.
Essentially, when averaging an Offensive eFG% above 50%, the Hornets are more than 25.03 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents. When their Defensive eFG% is below 50%, they are 21.72 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents. And when both are true, the Hornets are 40.41 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents.
The Hornets were the team that last season had the sixth worst three-point attempt rate in the NBA. This year, they have the fourth best. The Hornets were the team that took 38 games last year to reach 14 wins. This year it took them 22 games. The Hornets were the team that last year had the second worst eFG% on catch-and-shoot opportunities. This year they are seventh best. They were the team that had the worst eFG% on wide-open jumpers. This year, they are 15th, or what is essentially the NBA average. So what’s behind this resurgence?
First, the Hornets had a productive offseason. The additions of Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin, and especially Nicolas Batum have paid dividends. Batum is averaging his highest PER and Usage Percentage in his entire career.
Jeremy Lamb looks like a different player compared to who he was for the Thunder. In Charlotte, Lamb is averaging his highest PER, eFG%, Offensive Rating, and Defensive Rating of his career.
Frank Kaminsky has outpaced expectations for his rookie career. The Wisconsin product has the highest on/off court Net Rating (essentially, how much better the Hornets are with him on the court than off) on the team.
Lin, in his quest to find a true home in the NBA, has played consistently well. An examination of points per game, defensive impact, efficiency, and overall impact demonstrates that this is Lin’s best NBA season since his 2011-12 campaign with the New York Knicks. Additionally, he has the second highest on/off court Net Rating on the Hornets.
Moreover, Cody Zeller is finally developing into a productive NBA player. On offense, his eFG% is the highest it has ever been. His Field Goal Percentage with a defender between 0-4 feet (or in NBA terms, what is defined as a “tight” shooting space) has increased from 21% to 53%. These stats are especially important, because as a big man, the numbers of open shots are less.
Cody Zeller has also made slight improvements on defense. His Defensive Field Goal Percentage (DFG%) in the paint has improved by 3%. Additionally, in three-man lineups that have played at least thirty minutes, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, and Frank Kaminsky have the highest Defensive Rating. Yet, his overall DFG% has remained the same and his Rebound Percentage has decreased by 2%. It is on this end that Zeller must improve if he hopes to be a main contributor in the NBA.
Yet, none of these players have been as important as Marvin Williams. By all metrics, Marvin Williams is having his best defensive season of his career. Using Defensive Rating as a measurement, in five-man lineups that have played at least thirty minutes, Marvin Williams is in all of Charlotte’s top-six units.
Additionally, he has helped the team overall. Utilizing Net Rating, Marvin Williams is in five of the top-six Hornets lineups that have played at least thirty minutes.
Williams has not been perfect. When three and four-man lineups are examined, Williams is not in any of the top-five defensive units for either. This suggests that his team defense has improved, but his individual defense has not. Nonetheless, as the chart below attempts to demonstrate, the Hornets are better with Marvin Williams than without, and this is a significant improvement from last season.
Figure 2 via ESPN Stats & Info
But overall, what is causing these, at best, historically league average NBA players to improve so significantly? Additionally, with the only true all-star candidates being a continuously improving Kemba Walker, as well as borderline candidates Nicolas Batum and Al Jefferson, can the Hornets remain a viable threat in today’s NBA?
To answer the first question, the system itself is helping the Hornets. First, they’ve gone from, last year, shooting 31% on three-point shots to 35.7% this year. This gives players like Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams, and even Jeremy Lamb room to drive they did not have on their teams last year.
This change is, in part, due to the substitution of Nicolas Batum over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Batum is playing at a borderline all-star level. Even in Portland, Batum has always been a nearly perfect “Three-and-D” player. He shoots three-point shots at a high rate and can usually defend some of the opposing team’s top perimeter threats. This is compared to Kidd-Gilchrist, who has been a solid defensive player with an absolutely ridiculous jump shot (see article here).
Consequently, Batum’s addition tends to free up the floor allowing for a more motion-based offense and three-point shots. As will be detailed below, this offense is a huge part of the improvement.
Figure 3 Data Via NBA.com/stats
The frequency of open shots and frequency of catch-and-shoot opportunities is indicative of the Hornets new motion-offense system. The result, simply, can be seen in their eFG% on wide-open jumpers, which has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, their offense is not at the level the 2013-14 Spurs were at, where their offense created 21.3% open shots. Nonetheless, the Hornets system has undoubtedly improved their offense. Moreover, the change has allowed players to exert less effort on forcing plays, giving them a greater ability to defend at the other end.
So, can the Hornets remain a viable threat in the East? Possibly. Atlanta was able to compete last year without any true “star;” however, 24.7% of the Hawks shots came on wide-open jumpers. The Hornets just aren’t at that level.
It’s also important to note that most players on the Hornets are having the best seasons of their careers. What this means is that, unfortunately, players like Nic Batum and Marvin Williams could ultimately revert to their old-standard. This revision would be a death knell for the Hornets.
Nonetheless, through today, Charlotte has been a top-three team in the Eastern Conference. If their players continue to play at their current levels and the motion-offense steadily improves, they could be a threat come playoff time. Regardless, especially when Al Jefferson returns, they are a team any NBA fan should be attempting to watch.