Charlotte Hornets Continue To Soar, Clinch Playoff Berth

The Charlotte Hornets, although completely under the radar in the NBA sphere, have now skyrocketed up to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference standings. With last night’s Chicago Bulls loss, the Hornets clinched a playoff spot with six games remaining on the schedule, something that was almost unfathomable just a few months ago.

Since acquiring Courtney Lee at the trade deadline, the Hornets are 16-5. Lee has fit in perfectly with the Hornets, and his scorching March helped Charlotte fly up the Eastern Conference standings. Lee shot 48.9 percent from behind the arc last month and has helped space the floor next to Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum on the perimeter.

Charlotte’s development goes much farther than what can be seen in the wins and losses column. The Hornets have played a completely different brand of basketball this season compared to last, and Steve Clifford has embraced his team’s new style of play. However, Charlotte’s top-10 defense has remained the Hornets’ backbone despite the difference in play style.

Offensively, the Hornets are taking more three-pointers and less midrange jumpers, displaying a more modern approach to shot selection. This change in philosophy has propelled Charlotte from No. 28 in offensive efficiency to No. 10, and their newfound spacing is easily observable.

As Mike Prada from SB Nation explains, the Hornets have been clear in trying to replicate the approach of other successful teams in the NBA.

Steve Clifford has a favorite stat he recites anytime someone asks about his team’s new look. Last year, four of the top five teams in three-pointers made were also the final four teams standing in the NBA Playoffs: Golden State, Cleveland, Houston and Atlanta. Those four conference finalists generated three-pointers by having four shooting threats hanging around the perimeter in most of their lineups.”

With this in mind, Charlotte has completely revamped their roster this offseason, allowing the Hornets to play less traditional basketball for a more free-flowing offense. Marvin Williams spent this offseason working on his three-point shot, and that has allowed him to become a legitimate stretch-foward after most NBA teams wrote him off. Williams is shooting a career-high 38.9 percent from deep, and his increased production has led to more minutes than ever in his past five seasons.

Furthermore, Walker has been at the heart of this development as well. Charlotte’s starting point guard is having the most efficient season of his career, especially from three-point range. Walker is shooting 5.9 three-pointers per 36 minutes at 37.9 percent, and both marks are easily the highest of his career. Consequently, Walker’s true shooting percentage is now almost four percentage points higher than in any other season in his career.

Next to Walker, Batum’s addition has taken the Hornets to new heights. Batum has cemented Charlotte’s starting lineup, giving them a playmaker next to Walker and a player who can defend the other team’s best offensive threat.

Surprisingly, the Hornets have done much of their work this season without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is out for the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Kidd-Gilchrist could infuse even more life into Charlotte, adding another capable perimeter defender to one of the league’s best defenses.

Currently, the Hornets are one of only five teams in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. On Sunday, Charlotte will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the game could be used as a possible benchmark. No matter what happens in that game or in this year’s playoffs, the Hornets are a team on the rise and should not be taken lightly as the postseason nears.

[Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images]