I picture this voice in the back of Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s mind each game, chanting “How long can I trust them? ... How long can I trust them?”
“Them” are the five players who make up the Hornets’ second unit. The bench was a liability last season, and was addressed in the offseason, particularly when trading for center Dwight Howard moved Cody Zeller to the reserves.
Except it hasn’t really blossomed. You can blame Zeller’s knee surgery or Michael Carter-Williams’ adjustment, or whatever, but the Hornets’ second unit has often been unreliable. So much so that Clifford memorably played All-Star Kemba Walker the entire second half of what ended up a road loss in Miami.
That’s why these past two games – both victories – resemble traction. The second unit, and Frank Kaminsky in particular, played as solidly as it has all season. So maybe the voice in the back of Clifford’s head was at peace long before the finish of the Hornets’ 114-98 home victory Sunday over the Detroit Pistons.
“Our bench was terrific,” Clifford said. “I think about as good (of a) five- or six-minute sequence as they’ve had all year.”
The numbers were impressive: The five reserves who played before garbage time Sunday – Jeremy Lamb, Carter-Williams, Zeller, Kaminsky and Treveon Graham – combined for 51 points, compared to 28 points for the Pistons’ bench. That’s a pleasant departure from the norm, when Clifford is trying to project how long he can trust his nonstarters before calamity strikes.
Charlotte’s starting unit has actually been in the top half of the NBA this season in plus-minus (a measure of whether that unit outscores its collective opponent in the minutes together on the floor). Clifford has tinkered a lot with how to manage that situation, whether it be playing Nic Batum or Walker with reserves in the second half, or whether to sometimes ask marathon minutes from his top players.
Sometimes that’s simply not an option, such as the current stint, when the Hornets will play 10 games in 17 days, including some games on back-to-back nights. This week, for instance, the Hornets will play at home Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls (a game they had better win after going 0-2 previously against that lottery-bound franchise), then Wednesday against the Celtics in Boston.
Sometimes circumstance means Clifford has to ignore that voice, and just trust the second unit. Sunday, they provided reason to trust.
“(The criticism) does get annoying, and you do start taking it personally, but that’s up to the five guys (in the second unit) to change it,” said Kaminsky, who totaled 13 points and eight rebounds Sunday, after scoring 23 points Friday in Washington.
Lamb is the best of the five, the leading bench scorer in the Eastern Conference this season. His ability to create his own shot off the dribble is something the Hornets generally lack. Kaminsky and Carter-Williams take a lot of scrutiny; Kaminsky because he was the ninth overall pick in 2015 and the Hornets turned down a package of draft picks from the Celtics to select him. Carter-Williams because he’s not a particularly strong scorer (though Clifford says his defense is important).
The Hornets’ playoff chances might be slim, but this veteran team is still focused on that as its goal. At 27-33, the Hornets would need to pass at least two teams (currently the Pistons and Miami Heat) to be the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference. Sunday’s victory clinched a tiebreaker over the Pistons, but the Hornets have already lost a tiebreaker to the Heat, who are four games better than the Hornets in the standings.
Kaminsky said he and his teammates knew a victory Sunday would clinch a tiebreaker over the Pistons; a little thing, but at this point, every little thing matters with roughly a quarter of the regular season left.
“This is our season. This is our playoff push,” Kaminsky said.
“Everybody has to be at their best.”
The second unit was Sunday. Now the trick is replicating that all the way through April.