Charlotte Hornets: Another Scorer Needed To Reach Next Level

The Charlotte Hornets have hit a ceiling in terms of what their players can produce. One key move could help the team break through and contend in the future.

The Charlotte Hornets are in a serious rut.

The Hornets fell to the Boston Celtics 108-98 on Monday night. Isaiah Thomas and his patented fourth-quarter scoring (he averages a league-high 10.1 points per game in that frame) led Boston to a home victory. It’s their third consecutive win.

Meanwhile, Charlotte completed a winless five-game road trip. They also lost their seventh game in the last eight. They fall to 20-21 on the season, a half-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

The Hornets also fall to 0-7 on the season against the current top three teams in the East: the Cleveland Cavaliers (0-3), Toronto Raptors (0-1), and Celtics (0-3).

The Charlotte Hornets have come a long way since their infamous 7-59 2011-12 season as the Charlotte Bobcats. The team has made two postseasons since then, with the opportunity this year to make a third.

However, their winless record against the East’s beasts shows that the Charlotte Hornets have hit a ceiling for how productive they can be. Moving into that tier with those franchises is going to require them to make a key transaction or two in the near future.

The Hornets perform well in a number of facets. Knowing which ones they’re good at can give a better understanding as to what type of player the team needs.

Kemba Walker is having a strong season as the team’s lead guard. Walker averages 23.0 points (a career-high), 5.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game. He could very well find himself at the All-Star Game in New Orleans next month.

Charlotte also concedes the third-fewest turnovers per game in the league (12.0). They even did well to hang on to the ball during their recent losing skid. The Hornets averaged just 12.2 turnovers per game over their last five games.

The team can also get to the line while preventing their opponents from doing likewise. The Hornets are second in free throw rate (.234) while also being first in the NBA in opponent free throw rate (.164).

The Hornets possess strong rim protection. The team holds opponents to 56.5 percent on shots within five feet of the rim.

A lead guard, smart ball-handling, minimal fouling and rim protection are key attributes for any contender. However, there are still a number of things keeping the Charlotte Hornets from getting to the next level.

Their perimeter defense is wildly inconsistent. The Hornets have kept teams to less than 35 percent shooting on 17 nights this season. They’re 11-4 in those games. At the same time, they have conceded 10 made three-pointers or more 25 times. They are 8-17 in those games.

The Hornets are good at taking care of the ball, but opponents are also good at doing the same against them. Charlotte only forces 12.6 turnovers per game, second-worst in the NBA.

But their lack of a consistent second scoring option is by far their biggest deficiency. The player efficiency rating statistic (PER) does a good job of illustrating this point.

Championship teams tend to have at least one player with a PER of 20.0 or more and two more players with 18.0 or higher. PERs higher than 20.0 indicate all-star level performance, while 18.0 indicates a suitable secondary offensive option.

The Hornets fulfill the first part of the requirement. Kemba Walker holds a 22.1 PER as of Jan. 17. However, the next highest PER on the team is Cody Zeller‘s 17.5.

That is followed by Jeremy Lamb (16.9), Nicolas Batum (16.1), and Spencer Hawes (15.0) to round out the only players with a PER at or above the league average of 15.0.

The ratings for the latter four players are good, but normally indicative of tertiary scoring options. The gap between the Hornets’ two most efficient players makes the need for a second star even more evident.

Specifically, the Hornets are in need of a two-way forward to supplant Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Marvin Williams in the starting lineup.

The need may be apparent, and there are a number of eligible candidates, acquiring that second star will be tricky. The Hornets have a lot of money tied up in their current core of players.

Batum and Marvin Williams just signed long-term deals this past offseason to stay with the team. Zeller signed a contract extension in November that kicks in next year and lasts through 2021.

Both Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are in the midst of contract extensions that are guaranteed through 2019.

This had to be done almost out of necessity, as the team needed to ward off defections. Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson and Courtney Lee all left over the course of last summer. Therefore, the Hornets had to dole out money to make sure the rest of their players remained in the Queen City.

While those moves are justifiable, it puts them in a bit of a financial bind. Currently, if all three contract options are picked up, the Hornets will have $4,298,660 more on their payroll next season despite four players coming off of the books.

Even if none of the options are picked up, that only frees up $9,007,261 in payroll.

In order to get a second scorer, they would most likely have to move one of the big contracts (besides Kemba Walker) that were recently signed. Figuring out what teams would want a Hornets player with a big salary that isn’t Walker is another story.

The Charlotte Hornets are a talented team that is currently in a rut. They have a number of good pieces, including an All-Star leader and good role players. But the team is still a player or two away from contending in the Eastern Conference.

Some financial chess will be required if the Hornets wish to accomplish that goal. It will most likely require them to lose one of their current core players. But sometimes a team has to take a small step back in order to keep moving forward.

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