Charlotte Hornets

Can Hornets salvage season, make playoff run? Here’s what coach Steve Clifford thinks

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford: What this team need now to win

Where the Charlotte Hornets stand, as coach Steve Clifford returns from medical leave, on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
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Where the Charlotte Hornets stand, as coach Steve Clifford returns from medical leave, on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

It’s one game into the second half of the Charlotte Hornets’ season. They are 17-25, about five games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Their coach is back from medical leave, and the only remaining player significantly injured -- center Cody Zeller (knee surgery) -- could be back in two to three weeks.

Can this season be saved? Should it be saved?

Steve Clifford, who coached a practice Tuesday for the first time since early December, believes his team is still in playoff contention if the group progresses in consistency. Clifford believes the fan base overreacts to individual wins or losses in the context of an 82-game season. Blowing up the current group, as has been frequently suggested lately, is an overreaction, he maintains.

If that’s so, then what must happen to salvage this team’s season heading into a five-game home stand that starts Wednesday against the Washington Wizards?

“We have to find two or three things at both ends of the floor that can make a difference so we can make progress,’ said Clifford, who missed five weeks because of severe headaches related to sleep deprivation.

“The thing that stands out for our team would be shot-making. We’re 29th (among 30 NBA teams) in 2-point percentage and 21st in 3-point percentage. But again, it’s game-to-game and week-to-week,” said Clifford.

So what do you do to change that?

“It might be one play for Jeremy Lamb, an action that gets him two more baskets a game,” Clifford said. “Or it might be one more way to get a fast-break basket.

“It’s never easy (coming up with these fixes). That’s why the film work is everything.”

A big emphasis for Clifford before - and now after his forced absence from the team - has been forcing more points off turnover. The Hornets are just 29th in average steals at 6.64 per game, so it’s not surprising they are tied with the Dallas Mavericks for last in the NBA in points scored-off-opponent turnovers at 13.9 per game.

The Hornets must find ways to make the game easier for a roster of limited skill. Starting guards Kemba Walker and Nic Batum are essentially the only players with enough play-making skill to lift teammates’ offensive productivity. The standard measure of NBA efficiency is points per 100 possessions. The Hornets are 22nd in offensive efficiency at 1.03 points per possession.

The team has traditionally been stronger defensively than offensively in Clifford’s four-plus seasons in Charlotte. That’s the case again this season, but they fall short of Clifford’s stated goal of a top-5 defense. Currently, the Hornets are 10th in defensive efficiency, allowing 1.036 points per opponent possession.

“If we keep going this way, 10th on defense and 23rd (actually 22nd) on offense isn’t going to be enough to win consistently,” Clifford said.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell