Charlotte Hornets: How Are They First In The East?

The Charlotte Hornets are one of the league’s early surprises, currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference. What has lifted the team so far this season?

The Charlotte Hornets were not supposed to be among the contenders to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics added Al Horford, the Toronto Raptors took two games against them in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and Indiana revamped its rotation while also having the East’s second-best player in Paul George.

It was never going to be the Charlotte Hornets, who lost major pieces from last year’s team. The team whose point guard played over his head last season, with little bench punch and a diminished frontcourt and backcourt.

This is a line from a prominent website’s season preview of the Charlotte Hornets:

Barring several breakout years, this roster looks a little weaker than last season’s. It should still be strong enough for a postseason return, but the Hornets may have to settle for a lower playoff seed.

This, written by another mainstream NBA website, again emphasizes how average the Hornets were supposed to be:

When it all shakes out, the Hornets will be around .500 and among the bottom four playoff teams in the East, possibly landing the sixth seed for the second straight year. Anything more than that would be significant overachievement.

A quick perusal of season predictions had the Hornets finishing anywhere from fifth to 10th in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Steve Clifford would always have the Hornets playing sound defense, but their offense would regress and they would struggle to keep pace as the middle of the East rose up around it.

The weight of evidence is that the entire NBA landscape is shocked by Charlotte’s 6-1 start, tied for best in the Eastern Conference. Only the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors boast more wins, and the Hornets’ winning percentage is better than Golden State, San Antonio, Boston or Toronto.

They are, quite simply, one of the very best teams in the NBA thus far this season.

Their start is fueled by a dominant defense, something becoming commonplace in Charlotte under Clifford’s tutelage. Only the Clippers boast a better defensive efficiency than the Hornets, fueled by elite wing defense and the league’s third-best defensive rebound rate.

Charlotte hasn’t slouched on offense either, currently hovering just outside the top-10 at 11th in offensive efficiency. The strength of their offense is limiting turnovers, a statistic they lead the league in. With a diverse collection of offensive options, the Hornets are outscoring their opponents by 8.4 points per game, third-best in the league.

Some critics less ready to admit their dominance may point to a number of games against the dregs of the Eastern Conference. It is true that the Hornets racked up a win against the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Miami Heat are only 2-5 this season after losing Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng this offseason.

But a pair of teams thought to be mediocre before the season — the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks — are a combined 7-7 in games other than their losses to the Hornets. Charlotte won both games on the road, part of their 3-0 record away from Time Warner Arena.

An Indiana team headlined by Paul George came into Charlotte and was blown away, unable to even keep the game close in a 122-100 Hornets victory. Steve Clifford’s group followed that win up by their most impressive game this season, clawing their way back from an early deficit to win 104-98 against the impressive Utah Jazz Wednesday night.

Nov 4, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) looks to put up a shot against Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris (12) in the first quarter at Barclays Center. Hornets win 99-95. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Kemba Walker has improved his game every season of his career, developing from a step-back wizard in college and adding defensive instincts, quick hands, long-range shooting, and one of the most impressive hesitation games in the league. He is currently averaging 23.9 points per game, up from 20.9 last season, and is putting up career highs in three-pointers and free throws made.

The second key to their success is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the team’s true “addition” this offseason. Kidd-Gilchrist missed all but seven games last season with two separate shoulder injuries, but has been dynamic on both ends of the court for the Hornets.

Already an elite defender, Kidd-Gilchrist is putting up career-highs in rebounds, steals, and blocks as he builds an early resume for the NBA’s All-Defensive team.

Behind their stars, the Hornets are getting contributions from across the roster. Cody Zeller returned from a preseason injury to show he is deserving of his new contract extension, scoring double-digit points in each of the team’s wins.

In the team’s marquee win over the Jazz, Marvin Williams dropped 19 points and eight rebounds, adding in five three-pointers. The maligned bench unit has come through as well, highlighted by efforts such as Spencer Hawes’ 13-point, 13-rebound performance against the Pacers, or three separate players scoring in double figures off the bench against Utah.

Hornets’ fans and doubters alike will see the team’s true mettle in the next week. Over the next four games the Hornets will play the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors – the three teams directly below them in the East standings.

If Charlotte wins two of three, that would be validation of their place among the East’s contenders. A clean sweep may cause even the harshest critics to fall out of their seats.

That’s the effect Charlotte has had this season, shocking the league on their way to the top spot in the East. If they continue their success, this team will be in line for All-Star selections, individual awards, and the first playoff victory since 2001-02.

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