What happens to Charlotte Hornets when Kemba Walker isn’t great?
It’s no secret this Charlotte Hornets season is teetering on the brink.
Three straight losses have the team desperately clinging to the final playoff spot in a weak Eastern Conference, and with one of the NBA’s most difficult remaining schedules, there’s no obvious relief on the horizon. More than half of Charlotte’s remaining 21 games are against teams that could make the postseason.
So, yeah, just about the worst possible time to be backsliding into an old bad habit.
And yet here the Hornets are, a supposed “new” team — this is the first year for both coach James Borrego and general manager Mitch Kupchak — struggling with the same issue that has hamstrung the organization for years:
Lackluster bench play at the season’s most critical juncture.
That couldn’t have been more apparent than Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, where despite leading by 12 in the waning minutes of the third quarter, the Hornets still managed to stumble and eventually lose, 118-113. And for all the incredible feats the Hornets did produce against playoff-bound Houston — limiting reigning MVP James Harden to a pedestrian 10-of-29 shooting, Kemba Walker’s 27-point first half, a 26-4 run before halftime to erase a double-digit lead — none was as shocking or significant as the stark drop off between the team’s starters and second unit.
“You look at our statline — our starters vs. their starters — we won that game. Our starters won the game tonight, gave us a chance,” Borrego said, “and I’ve just got to figure out what to do with the second unit.
“That’s the challenge in front of me.”
‘It goes back and forth’
While Borrego’s point isn’t entirely accurate — Houston’s starters actually outscored Charlotte’s 91-86 — the thinking behind it absolutely is: The Hornets’ bench, if it keeps playing like it has since the All-Star break, is just not productive enough for this team to make the playoffs.
Charlotte’s 27 bench points against the Rockets came on just 8-of-25 shooting (32 percent). That’s somehow still better than Monday night, when Hornets reserves went just 7-of-25 (28 percent) in a loss to the Golden State Warriors.
“You can’t sit here and say ‘It was the bench’ or ‘It was the starters’ — sometimes we’ve been awful too, it’s part of a team,” forward Marvin Williams said. “It goes back and forth every night ... We just have to lift each other up.”
Only, there hasn’t been a back and forth since the All-Star break. During those four home games — a win over Washington, plus three consecutive losses to Brooklyn, Golden State, and Houston — the Hornets’ bench has produced comparatively less and less offense to the team’s starters. In three of those four contests, Charlotte’s bench has accounted for 30 percent or less of the team’s overall scoring. Compare that to the team’s most-recent three-game win streak in January, when the bench accounted for 38 percent of scoring, and the difference is obvious.
That lack of bench production has also forced the starters to play — and exhaust themselves — more to compensate.
What’s the root of the problem?
The Hornets’ recent bench woes are also in part due a substantial lineup change.
Rookie wing Miles Bridges replaced guard Jeremy Lamb in the starting five. That means Lamb, the team’s second-leading scorer with 15.1 points per game, is now carrying the second unit offensively. (Lamb has scored 16, 4, 16, and 18 points, respectively, since moving to the bench.)
“I’ve got to find a way to help the second unit better,” Borrego said. “Tried to move Lamb to that group, which I think helps, but I’ve got to do a better job helping that second unit offensively. That’s on me.”
Considering Lamb has hit double-digits in three of those four games, he appears to have adjusted to that role, one he occupied as recently as last season. But what that has done is siphon offensive looks away from second-year guard Malik Monk, who has completely bottomed out of the rotation.
Monk is just 1-of-12 shooting in his last four games for six total points, and he’s played less than eight minutes a night during this three-game losing streak. Because of Monk’s defensive shortcomings, there’s really no reason for Borrego to keep him on the court if he’s not scoring. He’s accounted for 9.7 points per game this year, but his cold stretch is significantly hampering the rest of the rotation.
Without Monk as a scoring threat, defenses are free to focus more on Lamb and veteran point guard Tony Parker, who hasn’t provided the same consistent spark off the bench that he did earlier this season. Given the limited offense Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo offer, that scoring onus naturally falls to Lamb, Monk, and Parker... but without Monk and Parker making an impact, what can Borrego do?
‘You win together, lose together’
Realistically, if Monk can find a scoring rhythm and allow starters a few minutes to rest each night without having to worry about losing a lead, the balance on the team should work itself out. Fewer minutes for the starters mean they’re more efficient while on the court, and both Monk and Lamb have shown this year they can score in bunches.
It’s not just a Monk issue right now, but rather a consistently problem — and that in itself is troublesome this late in the season.
More than half of the team’s remaining 21 games are on the road, including Friday at Brooklyn. More than half are also against teams currently slated to make the playoffs.
The Hornets have struggled on the road (8-21) and against top teams — if that was the case when their bench was a strength, why would things be any better now that it’s a weakness?
“(Wednesday) maybe was just one of those nights where the bench maybe wasn’t playing their best,” Williams said, “but nah, you can’t blame the bench or anything like that. We’re a team — you win together, lose together.”
Right now, it’s a lot more of the latter. And while you can’t pin the Hornets’ up-and-down season on the bench alone, that old problem may end up the reason the team finishes like the teams in years past:
On the outside of the playoffs looking in.