Written by David W. Walters
WHAT TO MAKE OF THE PAST FEW WEEKS…
Your Charlotte Hornets (28-34) have certainly had a dramatic season full of ups and downs but, over the last few weeks, this team has begun to develop an identity as the position themselves in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The Hornets have gone 7-4 since the All-Star break, including a five-game win streak as Charlotte played six games in the span of nine days.
While the entire team has stepped up their play recently, It’s not a stretch to say that the trade for Mo Williams may have saved the Hornets season. Charlotte was desperate for a scoring punch, and while Brian Roberts filled in admirably for the injured Walker, he wasn’t the floor general that this team was sorely lacking.
Shot happy Gary Neal was traded in exchange for Williams and D-league sharp-shooter Troy Daniels and the pair had to wait until after the week long All-Star break to make their debut in Charlotte. Mo came out firing on all cylinders in his first outing with the Hornets and he hasn’t looked back since, is averaging 21.4 points and 8.5 assists in his 10 games played since joining the Hornets.
His numbers since coming to Charlotte have been on par with some of the best guards in the league, and it’s shown as he was recently named the Eastern Conference player of the week while averaging 19.5 points and 10.8 assists in 35.5 minutes played for the week, while shooting .429 from the field (24-56), .375 from beyond the three-point line (9-24) and .913 from the free-throw line (21-23), as the Hornets posted the NBA’s only 4-0 record on the week. The Hornets as a team are benefitting from Williams’ touch on offense as well, boosting their offensive output to 102.9 points per outing since the trade, resulting in a lot of free pizzas for all the fans.
Williams is essentially the antithesis to Lance Stephenson, rarely showing any emotion with his no-nonsense approach to the game. Williams has been all over the league during his career so getting acquainted with a new team is nothing new to him; it also doesn’t hurt that he was reunited with a fellow Mississippi native Al Jefferson, with whom he played with in a stint in Utah.
Williams also has a high basketball I.Q. and the ability to make the players around him better as evidenced by having all five starters score in double figures in five of the last seven games.
Speaking of Stephenson, he has seemingly settled into his role with the second unit and has begun to play some good basketball when called upon. While he certainly has fallen short of the teams’ expectations this season, he is helping this team get into the thick of the playoff picture.
Speaking of playoffs, the Hornets are currently sitting in the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference standings as of now. They are in a battle with Indiana, Miami, Boston and Brooklyn for the seventh and eighth seed in the playoffs making it paramount to play with purpose to stay in the thick of the playoff race. They have a somewhat favorable schedule down the stretch that includes dates with each of the teams vying for position along side of them, so the Hornets playoff destiny is in their own hands.
And last but not least, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is making a strong case for becoming the leagues defensive player of the year, or at the very least, the leagues most improved player. Much was made of the improvements on his jumper in the offseason, but it seems that those changes have spread to all other aspects of his game. The Hornets struggled with energy, particularly on the defensive end, while MKG was sidelined with a stress injury in his foot earlier this year and also while he was out more recently with a hamstring strain. Now that teams are forced to respect his jump shot, it has opened up lanes for him to get to the basket and draw contact; which was his calling card in the first place. MKG has averaged 12.3 points on .515 shooting from the field (51-99) and 8.8 rebounds in his 10 games since he returned from injury.
But his biggest impact will always be on the defensive end of the court, where he regularly draws the opposing teams top assignment. In a recent game against the Pistons, Coach Clifford put MKG on Detroit point guard Reggie Jackson after he had a monster first half. MKG bothered him the rest of the game, making Jackson ineffective and giving the Hornets what they needed to come back and win the game. The Hornets are a completely different team with him on the floor, and hopefully they can keep him healthy as they make their way into the playoffs.
The big news coming out of Hornets nation this week will be the return of starting point guard Kemba Walker after a 20-game absence following knee surgery. Walker intends to return tonight against the Sacramento Kings and, while Coach Clifford plans on limiting his minutes, the ultimate intention is to pair Kemba with Mo in the back court. How this experiment will pan out remains to be seen, but the returns on such a pairing with two ball handlers capable of scoring could work out favorably as teams struggle to cover the two guards. Hypothetically, the presence of Williams will open up the floor for Walker and vice versa.
Looking ahead to the next week or so of games, the Hornets have an excellent opportunity to keep things rolling starting off with tonight’s game against the Kings. This will be the first of two games against Sacramento, a talented team that has undergone three different coaches this season. Now, with veteran coach George Karl at the helm, the Kings are working their way towards respectability as they try to build some sort of consistency out of what has become a perennially unsettled situation.
Sacramento features one of the leagues most talented big men in the mercurial DeMarcus Cousins. They also feature some serious athleticism on the wings in Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore. While their record and their average numbers aren’t that impressive, they are a very talented team that is sure to give the Hornets a challenge. It will be interesting to see how Kemba plays in his return to action as he was on a crazy scoring tear before his knee became so problematic.
Next up is a match up in Charlotte against the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are currently without the services of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler due to injuries; together they form one of the top back courts in the NBA. Make no mistake about it though, the Bulls are still deep, talented, and they feature one of the leagues best defenses to go along with a stout front court featuring Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, who leads the league in double doubles. This will no doubt be a good teat for the Hornets, albeit a tough defensive match up.
After that, the Hornets are headed out on a five game road trip, beginning with a matchup on Monday in Utah. The Jazz are a young team but they have also begun to find their way recently behind the play of Gordon Heyward and big man Derrick Favors. Utah is currently second in points allowed as rapidly evolving big man Rudy Gobert has given the team an intimidating defensive presence down low.
Charlotte is back in action the next night as they travel to Los Angeles to face a strong Clippers team that has persevered despite the rash of injuries they have experienced lately. Blake Griffin has been out with injury as has Jamal Crawford, and point guard Chris Paul has basically been playing on one leg as he deals with a knee injury. Hopefully the Hornets will be able to pounce on LA while they’re down but that certainly hasn’t been an easy task of late, as the Clippers’ depth has shown with DeAndre Jordan picking up the slack down low while J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Austin Rivers have stepped up their play recently.
The Hornets get a few days off and then they travel to Sacramento for the second game in two nights against a talented young Kings squad.
This will be the last long road trip for the Hornets before they head down the final stretch of the season. If ever there was a time for the team to hit a consistent stride for the season it would be now. Charlotte not only needs a strong finish to hold on to make the playoffs but getting some momentum going as they roll into the postseason wouldn’t hurt either.
Pay attention Hornets fans, its just now starting to get interesting! Until next time, KEEP BUZZING!!!
you can follow David W. Walters @Original_DWade.