I honestly wish I didn’t have to write this, but it feels necessary. Yes, the Hornets just lost to a winless Lakers team. Yes, they should have won. And yes, I was upset about the game myself. But there is a bigger picture. I’m not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of the loss, but one thing of note is the Hornets’ schedule thus far. They’ve now played 7 games. An overtime game to start the season, 4 games in 5 nights that included an overly physical contest with the Grizzlies and 2 road games (New York and New Orleans). That was followed up by a double-OT game, then a trip across the country to play the Lakers who couldn’t have been more rested. There is a lot to be learned about NBA scheduling and its effect on performance, but that’s the type of game Popovich would have rested his entire team. Does this qualify as an excuse? Not really. But there are legitimate reasons a team may seem to be lacking energy and effort.
The real question is what this loss, along with the team’s performance up to this point, say about where the Hornets are right now and what to expect from them as the season wears on. Truthfully, that all depends on what your expectations were entering the season. And that’s the rub. Performance tends to be judged against expectations, and I’m not sure fans’ expectations were what they should be. In defense of Hornets fans, and fans of any kind, the term “fan” is just short-hand for “fanatic.” By definition we are supposed to be unreasonable and temperamental. That applies both to expectations and results on the micro level.
I’d like to use this loss as an opportunity to manage expectations. First things first, high expectations for the Hornets made sense. The team finished over .500 for the second time in franchise history, went to the playoffs, and created their own emotional high by bringing back a Hornets name that mattered more than I think any of us realized (seriously, these home games have been hype). The front office upgraded clear weak points in the lineup by adding a versatile shooting guard and a plethora of shooters via free agency and the draft. Add in some internal improvements from young players and more familiarity with an excellent coach and you end up with words like “contender” and “division champs” being thrown around.
The problem here is that basketball is not a plug-and-play sport most of the time. Just ask the Cavs. There were a couple prominent tweets that really rubbed me the wrong way in regards to this.
The Hornets are officially the most disappointing team of the first two weeks.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) November 10, 2014
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) November 10, 2014
I don’t mean to compare the Hornets to the Cavs. But I do want to address the idea of “system/personnel continuity”. Charlotte returned 4 starters, replacing Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams. But that’s not an entirely accurate depiction of the team. Gerald Henderson, a starter who had a usage rate of 22.4, can barely get in games. He’s averaging half the minutes he did last year, and that probably overstates his involvement considering MKG’s injury early this season. His replacement, Lance Stephenson, doesn’t exactly play the same way. In fact, you could argue that the adjustment to playing with Lance is akin to the adjustment the team had to make when Al Jefferson arrived. Stephenson comes over after posting a usage rate of 19.5. Many saw him as the playmaking replacement for McRoberts, but McBobs was a ball-mover and Lance is often more of a ball-stopper. He also handles the ball coming out of the backcourt quite a bit, something Kemba didn’t have to do with Hendo as his running mate. All that is to say this is a huge change.
Lost among his mid-season All-Star campaign and the excitement over his signing is the fact that Stephenson has never posted a PER over the league average of 15. He also went over 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career last season. This isn’t meant as an indictment of his abilities. He has improved every single year he’s been in the league. What I mean to point out is that he’s still learning about himself as a player both individually and in the context of the Hornets’ roster structure. There has been a clear lack of comfort when Lance is on the court. Guys don’t want to step on each other’s toes. Kemba is trying to make sure both Lance and Al are getting touches. There is a lot of adjusting to be done by everyone.
Perhaps none more so than Steve Clifford. Not only is he having to integrate new pieces, but he’s doing it without the benefit of a full preseason due to a plethora of injuries. There hasn’t been a consistent rotation on a night to night basis yet. And Lance isn’t his only mystery to figure out in the rotation. Cody is seeing an increase in minutes, from 17.3 mpg his rookie season to 22.9 this season, as he grows more accustomed to the NBA game. PJ Hairston got minutes due to injuries and showed that he needs a place in the rotation. When Gary Neal comes in the offense finally starts to flow, so Clifford has to figure out how to most effectively deploy him.
A lot has changed on this team. Growing pains happen. It’s easy to remember the big wins and the playoff appearance, but there was a major adjustment period last season. Given these facts, what are reasonable expectations for the 2014-15 Hornets? At the beginning of the season I suggested that they merely need to stay afloat, right around .500, heading into the new year, at which point I expect everything to start coming together. I haven’t really seen anything to move me off my 45 win prediction along with a playoff series win. The Hornets sit at 10th in defensive efficiency right now, even after that stink fest in LA. A top 5 defense should be the goal. Offense is going to be a struggle, even as it improves. There’s really not evidence you can build an efficient offense around a low post player in the modern game. It’s possible Kemba Walker is what he is. Right now the ceiling is relatively low. Defense is what drives this team’s success and that’s not changing any time soon.
Let’s pump the breaks on the panic, but also identify realistic expectations for this team. It’s going to be a good season. Home games have been great. The young guys are getting better. The team is undefeated in the division. And for the love of everything, don’t suggest to anyone that Derek Anderson should start over Cam Newton. That’s just beyond ridiculous.