In 2004, back when America was choosing between George Bush and John Kerry for president, Charlotte’s NBA franchise returned to the Queen City.
Since then, the team has almost seemed jinxed.
Bad owner (Bob Johnson). Bad personnel moves (drafting Adam Morrison). Bad record – the 7-59 mark in the strike-shortened season of 2011-12 set an NBA mark for worst winning percentage. And some just plain old bad luck – holding the NBA’s best chance of winning the NBA lottery and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis after that 7-59 season, the then-Bobcats got the No. 2 pick instead.
A dozen years into Charlotte Hoops 2.0, the team has had more name changes (one, from Bobcats back to Hornets in 2014) than playoff wins (zero).
But this year is different.
The “no playoff win” thing will be banished in April. The Hornets – who are 7-1 over their past eight games and sat in the No. 6 playoff slot in the Eastern Conference before Tuesday night’s games – are a sure thing to make the playoffs. Once they get there, they will at least win a game or two, if not a whole series.
“Since Feb. 1, we’re in the top six in both offense and defense,” coach Steve Clifford told me in an interview Tuesday. “Our balance is a lot better, our defense is better and our offense – except for the first half against Dallas Monday – has been so, so good.”
There’s a real climate change happening around this team. Maybe you haven’t noticed – the Hornets generate nowhere near the buzz they did in the early 1990s – but these Hornets are a lot more fun to watch than they have ever been over the past 12 years.
They move the basketball. They score. They hustle. Instead of starting a shooting guard who can’t shoot (Gerald Henderson), they start players such as Nic Batum, who can do everything, and Kemba Walker, who has become one of the 10 best point guards in the NBA.
Clifford could teach a graduate-level basketball course to a field of experts, but he doesn’t try to prove it every day like his predecessor Mike Dunlap did. The coach has adjusted beautifully to the new NBA game, with its focus on spreading the floor and 3-point shooting. And so a Hornets team that Clifford always has made sure could defend you now can outscore you, too.
While Walker is playing the best basketball of his career, the underrated component of this team is veteran Marvin Williams. When I asked Clifford who was the best defensive player on this team right now, he said: “It has to be Marvin. He’s playing at a really high level.”
With Al Jefferson now coming off the bench as a sixth man, the Hornets have guaranteed scoring on both units. Clifford likes to take it one game at a time, but he’s also curious about how the Hornets’ playoff seeding would affect the team’s chances to win a first-round series. So he had one of his men look up how top seeds fared against lower seeds in NBA first-round playoff series over the past 10 years.
“I was curious,” Clifford said. “Know what it was? The top-seeded team won 60 of 80, so 75 percent. And the only matchup that has been close is the No. 5 vs. No. 4 seed – the No. 5 seed has actually won that one more often.”
The Hornets (37-29) are barely outside a top-five seed entering Wednesday night’s home game against Orlando, but that’s a very realistic goal. And Charlotte has been so good at home this season (25-10) that getting into the top four with the extra home game that entails in a best-of-7 series would be a serious prize.
“Our fans have been so loud,” Clifford said. “That’s a part of everything we’ve done in Charlotte.”
There is much more to come. For the first time in a long time, the NBA season in Charlotte could actually stretch past Easter and conceivably even past Mother’s Day. Finally, the Hornets have a sting again.