Scott Fowler

Why Charlotte Hornets could be as good as last season, even if they’re not as pretty

Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) drives to the basket against Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller (40) and guard Jeremy Lamb (3) on Friday in Miami. The Hornets defeated the Heat 97-91.
Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) drives to the basket against Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller (40) and guard Jeremy Lamb (3) on Friday in Miami. The Hornets defeated the Heat 97-91. AP

When the Charlotte Hornets play basketball this season, you will not find a lot of people calling it beautiful.

While Kemba Walker can unleash a gorgeous drive to the basket and Nic Batum will throw the occasional pass that Cam Newton would admire, these Hornets are not as pretty of an offensive team as they were a year ago. They miss the points that came from Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson.

But they can hang with anybody when they play defense well. That’s where this team will butter its bread, and it has done so pretty effectively in a 2-1 start to the regular season.

Consider that it took the Carolina Panthers almost two months to win two games this season. It took the Hornets less than a week.

The Hornets, whose next game is on Wednesday at home against Philadelphia, have a grind-it-out sort of team this year. Walker is clearly the team’s best player – no matter how many zeroes are stacked on the end of Batum’s new contract – and the offense must go through Kemba, especially during the fourth quarter. Through three games Walker is averaging 23.3 points. No one else for Charlotte is averaging more than 11.

But on defense the Hornets are much more well-balanced. The latest “re-addition” of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist means that the team has its best perimeter defender back on the floor again, although every Hornets fan whispers “Please let him stay healthy” every time MKG leaves the ground.

Roy Hibbert – if his troublesome knee behaves – was astoundingly good in his first game as a Hornet and might be the rim protector the team has sorely lacked. And underrated defender Marvin Williams – who can basically defend any player in the NBA other than point guards – gives the Hornets all sorts of versatility.

“There’s no question we can be better on defense this season,” Williams said. “First and foremost, you get MKG back who’s one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. And then you bring in an all-star defender with Roy.”

It’s not foolproof, of course. Hornets coach Steve Clifford was upset Saturday night that his defenders started freelancing too much. Charlotte has often had trouble with Boston, and the backcourt of Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas combined for 55 points in the Celtics’ 104-98 victory. For some reason the Hornets kept going under the screen when Bradley was involved, and Bradley ended up 8-for-11 on three-pointers and scored 31.

Growled Clifford afterward: “When you play defense, there’s a way you do it. ... When guys start making their own stuff up you have no shot against a good team, and that’s what happened tonight. When things get tougher you have to do what you’re supposed to do and that’s not what we did.”

Clifford gets angry about defense in large part because he knows that the Hornets have to be great on D in order to win big this season. For all Charlotte did last season – a 48-win season and three more playoff victories in a first-round series – let us remember that the Charlotte NBA franchise has not won an actual playoff series since 2002.

This team will be OK offensively – I think Frank Kaminsky is going to make a leap, and that will help. But it will ultimately win or lose games on defense.

“It all starts on the defensive end for us,” said Cody Zeller, one of four 7-footers in the Hornets’ rotation.

Yes it does. The Hornets aren’t going to win a lot of 114-112 games this season. It is going to get a little ugly. But if they make the playoffs at the end of the season and actually win a series, that will be pretty enough to justify it all.