Charlotte Hornets: How Is Courtney Lee Fitting In?

Mar 2, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Courtney Lee (1) looks to pass during the first quarter of the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 2, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Courtney Lee (1) looks to pass during the first quarter of the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports /

After a slow start with the Charlotte Hornets, Courtney Lee is starting to carve out his role with the team.

The Charlotte Hornets are streaking and for the first time in recent memory, basketball in Charlotte is fun. Move over Duke and UNC, there’s more than just college basketball in North Carolina. The Hornets have won six games in a row, 12 of their last 15, and 17 of their last 22. Since Jan. 22, they have climbed from 12th in the Eastern Conference all the way up to fifth.

There’s still plenty of season left, so the pessimist in me knows that disaster could strike, but for the time being Charlotte is an excellent spot when it comes to playoff positioning.

When this recent winning streak started, the Hornets were buoyed by the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His energy and defensive ability gave them a spark and significantly improved both their offense and defense. Unfortunately, MKG dislocated his shoulder for a second time this season just one game before the All-Star Break.

The season-ending injury to Kidd-Gilchrist left a gaping hole in Charlotte’s starting lineup. The thought was that Hornets head coach Steve Clifford was going to insert P.J. Hairston back into the starting five. This was a disappointing thought due to Hairston’s struggles earlier in the season.

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Instead of going with Hairston, Charlotte’s front office decided to make a trade. The Hornets shipped away Hairston, Brian Roberts, and two second round picks to acquire Courtney Lee from the Memphis Grizzlies.

Lee is obviously a significant upgrade over Hairston. He’s a better defender, a better shooter, and really just a better everything than Hairston. In theory this was a great move. How has it panned out in reality? Has bringing in Lee helped the team win?

After a slow start, Lee has been exactly what the Hornets hoped for. He’s rarely going to take over games with his scoring, but he does his job every night and occasionally shows a burst of scoring with his outside shooting and his strange but potent pull-up jumper. In 10 games since the trade, he is averaging 8.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field and 43.5 percent from three-point range. The Hornets are 8-2 in his 10 games with the team.

Last week he seemed to be struggling to figure out what exactly his role with the team should be. He was too passive and missing open looks, something just looked off. He posted three consecutive games with lackluster shooting lines. He went 2-for-5 against Philadelphia, 1-for-4 against Indiana, and 2-for-7 against Minnesota. They didn’t trade for him to be one of their top three scorers, but they still expected him to be efficient.

Struggles like this are to be expected when a player is traded in the middle of a season. Adjusting to new teammates and a new offense can take several games. The good news is Lee is no stranger to this process.

He’s played for six different teams over the course of his seven-year career and has now gone through two midseason trades. Common sense suggested at some point Lee would start to get comfortable and make an impact for the Hornets.

Wednesday night against the Pelicans, the light bulb seemed to turn on for Lee. He scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds on 6-for-12 shooting and 4-for-5 from three-point range. It was exactly the kind of performance the Hornets expected to get from Lee on a regular basis. He played solid defense, though most of his teammates did not, and hung out around the three-point line knocking down open shots.

Friday night against Detroit he was fantastic again, but in a different way. Against the Pistons he scored 15 points and nabbed six rebounds on 7-of-9 shooting.

Instead of launching three-pointers like he did Wednesday, Lee got his midrange game cooking. He made three midrange jumpers and then scored four buckets in the paint by attacking the rim. It was the exact opposite of his performance against the Pelicans in terms of style, but it was just as effective.

I’m intrigued to watch how Lee plays for the rest of the season. Will he continue to get better or were the last two games just a mirage? If he truly has discovered his role with this team, he could make a huge impact during the playoff push. It looks like the Hornets are going to make the playoffs and I’m still not sure what their crunch-time lineup would look like during the postseason.

A Courtney Lee that’s knocking down outside shots and unleashing his funky midrange game with regularity could be a part of that crunch-time rotation. If he’s struggling and not making shots, Jeremy Lin could get big fourth quarter minutes come playoff time. Steve Clifford has until mid-April to figure all that out, but it’s certainly nice to have options.

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Credit to Charlotte’s front office for making a trade when it had to be made. He’s not a star player, but Courtney Lee is starting to play his role perfectly.