Charlotte opened the month of November on a high note, shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo and surviving a 43-point outburst from Khris Middleton en route to a 126-121 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
From there, things went downhill.
The Hornets lost six straight games, dropping to 5-9 after a dispiriting loss to a terrible Chicago Bulls team put a bow on their disastrous stretch. They’ve recovered well, winning three straight and approaching a .500 record again, but it’s still a disappointing start to what was supposed to be a season that ended with a comfortable postseason berth. Obviously, it’s too early to freak out or write this team off. But the early returns have not been promising.
There are a few reasons for those six straight losses. First and foremost, the defense was just abysmal. Over the winless two weeks between November 3rd and 17th, Charlotte put up a defensive rating of 110.6 – if that was spread over the entire season, it would be the worst in the league. Part of that defensive breakdown is due to the absences of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed some time due to a personal absence, and Nicolas Batum, who recently returned after an elbow injury.
Batum and MKG are both plus defenders – especially the latter. The Hornets’ defensive rating is 5.7 points better with Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor than off, and 1.4 points better when Batum plays. MKG missed the first three games of the losing streak, while Batum missed the first four and was not 100% immediately upon his return. Missing two lengthy, athletic players with good defensive instincts help explain a lot of the defensive struggles.
Photo taken by Keith Allison
Of course, it’s not just the defense that’s had issues. While Charlotte wasn’t putting up a terrible offensive rating during the losing streak, it struggled mightily with inconsistency. Three-point shooting isn’t exactly something this team has excelled in, but shooting .333 or worse in four games during the losing streak was disastrous for a team that wasn’t playing great on the other end of the floor.
In addition to streaky long-range shooting, the Hornets suffered from a lack of a reliable second option. Outside of his 47-point performance against the Bulls, Kemba Walker didn’t shoot particularly well during the losing streak, and he didn’t have enough reliable backup. Other than Walker, not a single player scored 15 or more points in back-to-back games. Jeremy Lamb had one good performance and five solid-to-mediocre ones; Dwight Howard was horribly inconsistent both on offense and on the boards, and Batum’s steadying influence was sorely missed while he was recovering from his injury.
The ugly losing streak came to an end, though. Charlotte followed it up with three straight wins. So what changed between an ugly, dispiriting stretch and an encouraging streak of wins?
First and foremost, a massive improvement on the defensive end.
The Hornets posted a 99.8 defensive rating over the last three games, a number that would be top-five over a full season. And it’s not just a series of weak teams boosting the numbers, either – the Clippers, Timberwolves, and Wizards are all top-14 in offensive rating this season, with the latter two ranking in the top 10. Charlotte’s defense stifled the first two and managed to slow down the Wiz just enough to win an overtime shootout.
The offense improved, too. Lamb and Howard have been able to consistently contribute, each scoring at least 16 points in all three games during the win streak. Howard was also dominant on the boards, with at least 13 rebounds in each game. A pair of complementary players helping Walker on the offensive end in addition to a dominant defense? That’s a recipe for success, and it’s no wonder that Steve Clifford’s team is on a winning streak.
There’s been another change that’s helped, but it’s one that has some fans angry. In searching for answers, Clifford made the decision to bench Malik Monk. It’s frustrating to see a highly-regarding rookie registering DNP-CDs, but he simply wasn’t playing nearly well enough to justify getting time on a team that sees itself as a playoff contender. The Hornets were significantly worse on both sides of the ball while Monk was on the floor – until he can contribute regularly on either side of the ball, he’s not able to play big minutes. Registering one total minute across three games is maybe a bit extreme, but it’s understandable. Clifford is trying to bring this team to the playoffs, and Monk isn’t quite ready.
So which Hornets team is the one to be expected moving forward? It’s hard to say. They aren’t as bad as the team that lost six straight, but it’s hard to see them consistently performing at a high level on both ends of the floor moving forward. When Lamb and Howard are playing well, the team can be hard to stop. They just haven’t shown that they can be relied upon to do that consistently. Additionally, Batum is still dealing with some injury issues.
Moving forward, Charlotte shouldn’t be as bad as it was during its six-game losing streak. But expectations have certainly lowered from the beginning of the season, and there’s a reason for that. The playoff run fans were hoping for seems more and more unlikely.