The Charlotte Hornets will have to climb in the Eastern Conference standings the second half of this season to quality for a second consecutive playoff berth.
The good news is that climb looks more like a hill than a mountain.
Despite their various struggles and injuries over the season’s first 40 games, the Hornets were tied with the Detroit Pistons for the ninth-best record in the Eastern Conference as of Friday’s games. At 15-25 entering Saturday’s home game against the Indiana Pacers, the Hornets were two games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the eighth and last playoff berth.
The Hornets have been through a lot the season’s first three months: They’ve had to play of late without center Al Jefferson, who has a groin strain. They played Saturday without point guard Kemba Walker, who suffered inflammation in his left knee.
They have struggled to assimilate shooting guard Lance Stephenson, their high-profile free-agent signing in July. Stephenson and Walker both need the ball a lot to be effective offensively, which makes them an awkward fit as a starting backcourt. After missing 14 games with a pelvic sprain, Stephenson is now playing as a reserve.
The saving grace in all this – the reason the playoffs are still a reachable goal – is the Hornets have already played a wealth of the toughest games on their schedule. That’s particularly true against the more daunting Western Conference.
The Hornets have completed their two-game series with the top three teams out West – the Golden State Warriors, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies. They have also played one of two games against the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.
They were 0-10 in those games, but at least those near-certain losses are behind them.
That’s quantifiable: ESPN.com keeps a running tab of each NBA team’s strength of schedule. The Hornets are tied with San Antonio so far for the 11th-toughest schedule (a .505 winning percentage). Detroit has played the 18th-toughest schedule (.498), and the Nets have played the weakest schedule among the NBA’s 30 teams (.479).
Hornets coach Steve Clifford said he doesn’t take much consolation in burning through all those tough games because the standings aren’t on his mind until late in the season.
“I don’t even look at the standings until there are about 25 games left,” Clifford said. “To me, it’s all about having the right mentality. I look at our next three or four games and have a plan for the week. I try not to get too far ahead.”
A remarkably front-loaded schedule – the Hornets played 18 games in the season’s first 32 days – made for little rest and practice in November. Now that schedule evens out; last week the Hornets played two games in the span of seven days.
The Hornets, and most of the NBA, will get an extended break this season around All-Star Weekend. The Hornets will play no games between a Feb. 10 home date against the Pistons and a Feb. 21 home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. During that down time, the NBA’s trade deadline comes on Feb. 19.
What will it take for the Hornets to reach the playoffs? Five key factors:
Some return to health: Jefferson has been cleared for all physical activity except contact drills. He said Friday he hopes to play Wednesday against the Heat. The source of Walker’s knee pain is a cyst he has had since high school. It occasionally flares up, but Walker doesn’t consider this a serious injury.
Finding a role for Stephenson: The Hornets are paying Stephenson $9 million per season and so far haven’t gotten much return on that investment. Perhaps he’ll play better with the second unit, where he can dominate the ball and use reserve point guard Brian Roberts as more of a spot-up shooter.
Survive that March trip: The Hornets have to vacate Time Warner Cable Arena the week of March 15 to make way for NCAA tournament games. They head west for five games – at Utah, at the Clippers, at Sacramento, at Minnesota and at Chicago. They need to go 2-3 that trip after going 1-4 during the West Coast swing in November.
Feast on the East: The Hornets have six games left against likely lottery teams Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and New York. They probably need to go at least 4-2 in those games; no more slip-ups like the two previous home losses to the Magic.
Beat your peers: The Hornets have eight games left against the Heat, Nets, Pacers and Pistons. In all likelihood that group, plus the Hornets, are the field for the last two playoff spots in the East. Going .500 in those games seems a must.