The Charlotte Hornets, despite starting the season 4-15, say they are far from out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
Recent history suggests that’s an accurate statement.
In seven of the the past 10 NBA seasons, the eighth and final seed in the East finished the regular season with a losing record. On average in that span, 39 victories got a team in the East into the playoffs.
Certainly it’s plausible the Hornets win 35 of their remaining 63 games. But they have to start closing out victories and Friday’s game, against the similarly struggling New York Knicks would be a good start.
“It’s a very long season. We still have a chance to win a lot of games,” point guard Kemba Walker said. “Things haven’t been going our way, but that happens. Last season we came back and won a lot of games. It’s going to click.
“It’s not insurmountable at all. People might not see it, but we’re getting a lot better as a team. Our chemistry is coming together.”
There were promising signs in Wednesday’s seven-point home loss to the Chicago Bulls. The Hornets looked better organized offensively, particularly in the first half, and led in the fourth quarter.
But the Bulls hit five of eight 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to stretch the Hornets’ losing streak to 10.
The Hornets have had a brutal early schedule, both in terms of the number of games and quality of opponent. The teams they’ve played have an average winning percentage of .550. Fifteen of the 19 teams they’ve played have winning records.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings have played tougher schedules by that measure.
As of Wednesday’s games, the Hornets were tied with the Knicks for 12th place in the East, five games behind the eighth-place Brooklyn Nets. The schedule eases up now; the Hornets are playing three games in the span of 12 days and the next two opponents – the Knicks and Boston Celtics – have losing records.
That only matters if the Hornets get their act together, particularly in the areas of post defense and rebounding. Walker believes the chance to practice more of late is making a difference.
“I think we’re really getting the point now – playing with some purpose, playing really well,” Walker said. “A few mistakes down the stretch are really hurting us. We’ve got to be thinking at those times of the game – late-game situations.”
Nineteen games into last season the Hornets were 8-11. They were actually well into January before the turnaround that made them 43-39 and the seventh seed in the East. On Jan. 11, after a road loss to the Bulls, they were 15-23, well off the pace to reach the postseason.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford takes some solace in past experience. He was an assistant with the Houston Rockets the 2004-05 season when the Rockets added Tracy McGrady to a roster built around center Yao Ming.
That team started out 6-11. It finished 51-31.
“That’s the advantage of being older,” Clifford said of career experience. “We had a very difficult start and ended up winning 50 games.
“Now again, that team had two superstars, so it’s not the same. But with the newness of that team it took awhile. Sometimes it’s one or two things that can change it.”