The NBA All-Star break is significant for the Charlotte Hornets. It is the first time this season nobody is injured.
Had Nic Batum been healthy in camp, and learned to play with new big man Dwight Howard, how big a difference would that have made? What if maligned rookie Malik Monk had been healthy in camp when Clifford and his staff had time to teach?
The Hornets are 10 games below .500 going into Wednesday’s game in Orlando against the Magic. Every team has injuries. But Charlotte’s rotational players have missed more games than most.
Steve Clifford, Charlotte’s head coach since 2013, says this is the most talented team he’s coached. But even if they had spent the season free of injury, they don’t strike me as a team that would contend for home court in the playoffs. They do strike me as a playoff team.
Charlotte wants their team to play well. Whenever I write that, I hear from readers who don’t like the NBA and contend that Charlotte doesn’t care. No other sport attracts such consistent cynicism. But the city does care. We just need a reason to get excited.
What the Hornets lack is a draft pick who qualifies as a steal. Such players do exist. You see them on other teams.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte’s lone All-Star, went No. 9 in 2011. He was a fine pick, and should have gone higher. Through work and will, he annually elevates his game.
Look at the players selected in his neighborhood. Bismack Biyombo went seventh to Charlotte. (The Bobcats made the pick after a draft-day trade with the Sacramento Kings.) Brandon Knight went eighth and Jimmer Fredette went 10th.
Kemba obviously was the prize of the neighborhood. But steals would follow. Klay Thompson went 11th, Kahwi Leonard 15th, Jimmy Butler 30th and Isaiah Thomas 60th.
Dwight Howard has been good for Charlotte. Batum has moments. But when the clock runs low in a close game, the ball, appropriately, goes to Charlotte’s best player. We all know that Kemba will get the opportunity to win the game. Charlotte’s opponent knows it, too.
They are only one good player away from contending for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But, man, has that player been tough to come by.