There were things you knew would work in the Charlotte Hornets’ favor: They were going to be good defensively immediately this season and point guard Kemba Walker is a profound talent who plays without fear.
Here’s one no one would have predicted: That despite the losses of Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson and Courtney Lee in free-agency, the Hornets would immediately have a reliable bench.
The Hornets are 6-1, tied with Cleveland, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers for the best record in the NBA. They got that sixth victory Wednesday, 104-98, in a home comeback over the Utah Jazz. A huge factor in that victory was Charlotte’s reserves.
Marco Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes combined for 37 points on 16-of-24 shooting. Each one played a significant role in the second half recovery, after the Hornets trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half.
Hawes has been a pleasant surprise, playing heavy minutes as the backup center while Roy Hibbert recovers from a sore right knee. He brings savvy, size and outside shooting to the second unit. And, particularly, he’s a deft passer for a big man.
Hawes’ feed to Belinelli in the second half was one of the biggest baskets in the game. As coach Steve Clifford said post-game, the cut Belinelli made to spring himself free from a defender for that layup looks easy, when in fact it’s very hard.
Belinelli had his best game since the trade from Sacramento to Charlotte, ending with 13 points in 27 minutes. He defended well against a Jazz team with a lot of firepower in Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson.
I had misgivings about the trade last June, not because I thought giving up a draft pick in the 20s was a big deal, but because I just didn’t know how much Belinelli had left. Wednesday, he had plenty left.
Clifford often compares how Belinelli plays to what the Hornets get from Nic Batum. Different as those two are in body type, I can see what Clifford means. Belinelli makes good decisions with the ball and has world class skill as a shooter and passer.
"At both ends he played well. His defense was really good," Clifford said of Belinelli. "He has such feel. He always knows where to go."
Kaminsky hit 6-of-10 shots for 13 points and grabbed five rebounds despite missing Tuesday’s practice with a viral infection. Clifford played him both at power forward and center, which comes in handy with Hibbert out.
Perhaps the best thing about the bench Wednesday was you only saw a portion of the options when at full strength. Jeremy Lamb is out with a left hamstring strain, and he was competing with Belinelli to be the first wing player off the bench.
And the return of Hibbert, who has played only one full game so far this season, would mean either he or Cody Zeller is available as a reserve.
When all that happens, Clifford will have plenty of talent. And plenty of choices.