The Charlotte Hornets have the rest of the month to save their season. It’s that simple, that stark.
Twenty-seven games are a third of an NBA season: A more than sufficient sample to examine what this roster is and isn’t. They are 10-17. To place that record in perspective, they are as close to the worst record in the NBA (the 6-21 Atlanta Hawks) as they are to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference (the 14-13 Detroit Pistons).
Despite Monday’s victory in Oklahoma City, they have demonstrated they are fragile on the road (2-11). That’s why the rest of December already seems crucial to their season: Starting with Friday’s game against the Miami Heat, the Hornets play six of seven at Spectrum Center.
The Hornets’ schedule is dramatically front-loaded with home games. Only 13 of the 41 home dates come after Jan. 26. So they need to turn things immediately, survive a four-game West Coast trip at the New Year, and then exploit eight more home games.
Four things that must change in the next two weeks:
1. The bench can’t be such a liability.
The biggest agenda of the offseason was improving this team’s depth, which had been a huge weakness. The loss in Houston Wednesday was awful in that regard. Frank Kaminsky was a minus-38 in the plus-minus category – the team’s advantage or deficit in the minutes that player is in the game. Jeremy Lamb was a minus-32.
The depth took a major hit with center Cody Zeller’s torn meniscus. By the time he’s back – the knee injury will cost him a minimum of six weeks – the playoff hunt could be over. Kaminsky has to play more center now, and that means more defense, not his strength.
Lamb has improved this season, but still must get better defensively. Rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon are on the fringes of the rotation. Monk has a long way to go to be an effective NBA defender.
2. They must reach resolution on Nic Batum.
Batum came back after six weeks from a torn ligament in his left elbow. He keeps aggravating the injury, causing frequent pain and missed games. This limbo – not knowing sometimes until tip-off whether Batum is available – is counterproductive. The percentages suggest the injury affects his shooting (and probably his defense, too).
Batum and the team need to determine whether he can be effective in his current condition. If not, then maybe sit him for a period to see if more healing is required. Or perhaps even have the surgery he avoided back in October.
3. Ride Kemba Walker for all he’s worth.
You can’t play Walker 48 minutes a game, but perhaps you need to play him more with the second unit. It was illustrative that acting coach Stephen Silas started the fourth quarter of the victory over the Thunder with Walker on the court.
In the past, Batum playing with the second unit addressed this weakness. Maybe bringing in Michael Carter-Williams with the starters for a few more minutes and using Walker to smooth out the substitution pattern is worth exploring.
4. Get come clarity on Steve Clifford.
It has been five games since coach Steve Clifford left the team with a health concern of undisclosed nature. I think Silas is more than qualified to run things right now, and the players appear to feel the same way.
Nothing is more important than Clifford’s health, and his devotion to his work is obvious. But his status being an open question can only be a minus.