Nic Batum: Hornets need to reach playoffs, then win
Are you a sports fan who misses the Carolina Panthers? Are you stuck deep in a month-long Super Bowl hangover and still can’t figure out how to get out of it?
Here’s the solution. Watch the Charlotte Hornets. The season they are having is strangely similar to the one the Panthers just finished in several ways, including these half-dozen:
1) Kemba Walker = Cam Newton.
Cam Newton had an MVP season and also had a hand in 50 Panthers touchdowns when you include the playoffs. The charismatic quarterback was the biggest reason the Carolina Panthers won 17 games before losing in the Super Bowl.
Kemba Walker is a small man compared to Newton and Kemba’s celebrations are quieter, but he has a similarly big impact on his team. This year Walker has increased his three-point shooting percentage from 31.7 to 37.0 and has scored at least 30 points in 10 different games. Every pro team needs a clearly defined best player. Cam and Kemba both play that role.
2) Al Jefferson = Charles Johnson.
The careers of Al Jefferson and Charles Johnson have paralleled each other in a number of ways. Both are extremely well-paid, prideful men who were bigger parts of the Hornets and Panthers, respectively, in years past. Both have been hurt this season. Both had long periods of inactivity or ineffectiveness. And both will likely not be here much longer (Johnson in fact has already been released, although a re-signing at a much lower salary is not out of the realm of possibility. This is the final year of the 31-year-old Jefferson’s contract).
But Johnson had three sacks in the playoffs after having only one during the regular season, and Jefferson is killing other teams’ backup centers as the Hornets’ new sixth man.
“They are bringing basically an all-star center off the bench,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said after his team lost for the third straight time to Charlotte this season on Friday night.
3) Their head coaches are smart, honest men who were obscure career assistants before getting head jobs in Charlotte. It’s no wonder Ron Rivera and Steve Clifford are good friends. In terms of career path and personality, they were practically separated at birth.
4) They both lost a big star for most or all of the season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should be the second- or third-best player on this Hornets team, but he played in only seven games before getting shut down with a serious shoulder problem. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (knee) didn’t play a single game out of the Panthers’ 19.
5) They both were underrated by the local sports columnist. Oops! I infamously picked the 2015 Panthers to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs, getting swept up in the incorrect notion that Benjamin’s injury would badly alter the season. And I picked the Hornets to go 40-42 and miss the playoffs, too. They are currently 33-28 and would have been a No. 6 playoff seed had the season ended Saturday.
6) They have gotten a lot of clutch plays from an underrated veteran who has resurrected his career. For Carolina, that would be Ted Ginn. For the Hornets, it’s Marvin Williams.
Now are there big differences, too? Sure. The Hornets don’t have a pair of defenders like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis – MKG would have come closest to that role, and he’s hurt – and they just aren’t as talented overall. They don’t occupy the lofty place in the standings that the Panthers did all year.
No, the Hornets aren’t going to make it to the final two teams, like the Panthers did. But what Charlotte is going to do is make the playoffs and then at least make a little noise there.
If you haven’t checked these Hornets out yet, it’s time. On a good night – and after winning 11 of their past 14, they are having a lot of good nights – they’ll remind you of somebody, I promise.