The buzz in the Eastern Conference might revolve around the Toronto Raptors, the team with the best chance of knocking off the Cleveland Cavaliers. Buzz for coach of the year is primarily focused on the Western Conference, but in the East, Brad Stevens has done the most with a given set of resources.
One could view these statements as inconvenient truths in Charlotte, with the Hornets surpassing expectations left and right. Yet, isn’t overachievement its own very great reward?
The Hornets might not get hardware or the foremost laurels in the league, but if they make the playoffs — and that’s just what they’re about to do — why should they worry about awards or public opinion?
It’s been a great season to this point in Charlotte, a city basking in the giddiness of the Carolina Panthers’ run to Super Bowl 50. That team was also a surprise, defined by the rise of Cam Newton to an even higher level of performance. The evolution in Newton’s game lifted his teammates. More precisely, it compensated for the lack of a star wide receiver after Kelvin Benjamin went down.
What the Hornets are doing on the hardwood is not as remarkable as what the Panthers did — the Panthers, unlike the Hornets, became a championship contender. Yet, one can definitely see the parallels between Charlotte’s football team and its basketball team.
Cam Newton took his game to the next level on the gridiron in 2015. That rise and transformation were meteoric. The player who ended the season was very different from the one who started it. When this NBA season began, everyone knew that Kemba Walker was growing into an increasingly more formidable player. What’s impressive and conspicuous is just how polished Walker is now becoming.
Consider what he did on Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans:
Kemba Walker logged his first career game with 30+ points and 0 turnovers. pic.twitter.com/vgrLLQS0a9
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 10, 2016
The lack of a single turnover speaks to the even more ripened nature of Walker’s game. Given the enormous platter of responsibilities he carries for Charlotte — especially since coach Steve Clifford necessarily remade the offense — Walker is making a difference far beyond the obvious highlight-reel plays you see from him each night. Ballsy jumpers, daring slashes to the tin, they’re all there, but the ability to efficiently run an offense is even more important, and Walker did this to perfection on Wednesday against New Orleans.
When a point guard asserts himself as a scoring threat, the defense constantly has to worry about helping, especially in terms of clogging driving lanes in the paint. The eternal temptation for a ballhandler is to take matters into his own hands too many times. This leads to a shoot-first instinct which, in turn, creates moments when a point guard commits to a drive or a shot; sees the defense collapse; and then makes an improvised pass at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Turnover.
That’s not happening very much with Walker, and it didn’t happen at all against the Pelicans. When a point guard displays firm and fully controlled floor leadership, a team’s component parts can become so much greater. Such is the case for Charlotte, which has spent almost all of this season without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and needed the identity change Clifford pursued at the start of the season.
The leadership of Walker is manifested not just in his more seamless and airtight game, but in his resilience. Charlotte went through a horrid patch of play in the middle chunk of the season. Once 14-8, the Hornets then lost 14 of 18 games to fall to 18-22. Their season was about to head off a cliff; MKG returned, only to injure himself again, so it’s not as though the team had the chance to climb back into a playoff spot without him. Kemba has led the charge over the past two months. The Hornets are 17-6 in that time, placing them sixth in the East, 2.5 games ahead of ninth-place Detroit. With four more games left on a fat homestand, Charlotte is making it increasingly difficult to see how it won’t make the playoffs.
The team that lost 14 of 18 is nowhere to be seen.
Steve Clifford is one core reason, but Kemba Walker is the biggest one.
Catch highlights of the Hornets’ win over the Pelicans here:
— NBA (@NBA) March 10, 2016