A team that sits nine games below .500 at the NBA season’s midpoint can’t view itself as much more than mediocre.
The Charlotte Hornets have had plenty of early adversity; right now their top two players – center Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker – are out with injuries. The roster was sufficiently banged-up the first three months that only one player – reserve point guard Brian Roberts – played in every game.
But injuries don’t explain everything about this season. The Hornets don’t seem to have the same defensive toughness and cohesion of a season ago. Maybe that’s what they lost over the summer when they failed to re-sign power forward Josh McRoberts.
Jefferson was spectacular the second half of last season, reaching 20 points and 10 rebounds nearly every game. That earned him third-team All-NBA honors.
His numbers this season are roughly comparable, but his shooting percentage is down (48.8 percent vs. 50.9 last season) and the Hornets don’t seem quite as adept at punishing teams when they double-team him in the post.
There have been some positive developments: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s improved jump shot has made him more of a factor offensively, and Cody Zeller’s improvement from his rookie season thrust him into the starting lineup.
If there’s any consolation in the Hornets’ 16-25 record it’s that they’re one win behind their pace from last season. But it took a great late season – eight victories in their final nine games – for those Bobcats to secure a playoff spot.
Team grade: C
B- Bismack Biyombo: The coaches like what they have seen of late from Biyombo, who was pushed into a starting role by Al Jefferson’s groin strain. Coach Steve Clifford has told Biyombo to focus on his strengths – protecting the rim and rebounding – and not concern himself too much with his limited offensive skills.
B P.J. Hairston: Hairston has gotten playing time as a rookie because he offers something the Hornets desperately need – 3-point shooting to space the floor. It’s the intangibles that sometimes raise questions. Clifford has said Hairston doesn’t consistently play with the intensity that demands more minutes. But he’s young and that can be developed.
B+ Gerald Henderson: Until Henderson becomes a better 3-point shooter (and that might never happen) he can be only so good as an NBA shooting guard. But there is an intensity and a physicality about the way he plays that the Hornets need. He stepped up his game big-time when Jefferson and then Kemba Walker were injured.
B Al Jefferson: Jefferson was pretty much automatic the second half of last season for 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He is slightly off that pace this season (18.0, 8.2). He said he shouldn’t have tried to play through the groin strain that has him sidelined.
A- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: Clifford recently said Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn’t be a high pick in anyone’s fantasy league, but he does winning things. Translation: He brings energy, toughness and savvy to this team in ways that aren’t always reflected in a summary.
C Jason Maxiell: Of course he’s limited, or he wouldn’t have been available just before the start of training camp. But Maxiell has been a pro and a solid fifth option in the big-man rotation. He’s a good post defender, a bridge until rookie Noah Vonleh is ready to contribute at the NBA level.
B Gary Neal: Neal had the best November on this team, shooting 43 percent from 3-point range before missing four games with a sprained shoulder. He fell into a shooting slump recently as defenses paid more attention to him. His ball-handling (he played point guard for San Antonio) has been a bonus with Walker out.
C Jannero Pargo: He doesn’t play a lot, but that was never the plan. He’s here because he’s reliable, with a coach’s eye for the game. He hasn’t played since late December because of a sore lower back.
B+ Brian Roberts: Roberts has been a nice surprise, coming over from New Orleans via free agency. His 3-point percentage (35.6) is the best on the team, slightly ahead of Marvin Williams. He’s solid in the pick-and-roll and a better facilitator than predecessors Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions.
C- Lance Stephenson: Stephenson’s first 25 games as a Hornet met no one’s expectations, including his. He has shot poorly (39 percent from the field, 15 percent from 3-point range) and sometimes overdribbles, eating up the shot clock. To his defense, he’s an above-average rebounder (6.7 per game) and a willing passer (4.7 assists per game).
I Jeff Taylor: Taylor ruptured an Achilles tendon 13 months ago and served an NBA suspension resulting from a domestic violence charge. So he has played virtually no basketball of late, and a crowd at the wing positions means he might not crack the rotation this season. He gets an incomplete.
I Noah Vonleh: The Hornets drafted Vonleh ninth overall in June as a long-term investment, rather than someone who would have quick impact. His development was slowed by a sports hernia that caused him to miss most of the preseason. Another incomplete.
A Kemba Walker: Jefferson told Walker he’d have to carry the Hornets while Jefferson was injured, and that’s an accurate description of Walker two weeks ago, when he averaged 30.3 points during a 4-0 week. That the Hornets still are in the playoff hunt is largely Walker’s doing.
B+ Marvin Williams: His 3-point shooting (35.2 percent) probably is his most useful skill. He’s not much of a driver, as illustrated by just 30 free-throw attempts in 38 games. His defense is decent, though he is undersized for a power forward.
B+ Cody Zeller: He has improved greatly since his rookie season. He’s a more reliable outside shooter (though not yet a 3-point threat) and a good passer. He still needs to get stronger, and he fouls a lot (102 this season, 31 more than any other Hornet).