Charlotte Hornets: What’s wrong with the crunch-time offense?

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images /

Kemba Walker needs to play better in crunch-time, but he’s far from the only problem for the Charlotte Hornets.

The Charlotte Hornets currently sit at 8-12, and have lost three straight games despite the return of Nicolas Batum. Of the 20 games they’ve played, 12 have involved clutch situations, which the NBA defines as the last five minutes of any game in which the two teams are separated by five points or less. In those games, the Hornets are 5-7.

Struggling in the clutch isn’t a new problem for this team: Last season they finished 22-29 in games that included crunch-time, and played in the second-most such games in the NBA, which certainly contributed to an 11th place finish in the Eastern Conference.

But in a relatively wide open race for playoff seeding in the East, which has seen the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks outplay expectations so far, the Hornets should be able to compete for a postseason berth. If they continue to under-perform in the clutch, that task will be increasingly difficult.

The most glaring clutch issue for Charlotte has been their shooting. Per, the Hornets are shooting just 32.4 percent from the field in the clutch this season, with a ghastly 13.3 percent rate from behind the arc.

These numbers are jarring when compared to the rest of the league: they rank 27th in clutch shooting, and two of the three teams behind them — the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz — have only seen half as many clutch situations. The Los Angeles Clippers, who have been without a point guard for much of the season, are the only team to shoot worse with 10 or more clutch games.

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Five players signed past their prime in the second Hornets era
Five players signed past their prime in the second Hornets era /

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  • It would be easiest to trace the problems to the star: only LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have attempted more clutch shots than Kemba Walker, and both of those players are shooting above 60 percent in those situations. Kemba, on the other hand, sits at 38.2 percent.

    There’s no doubt that a dominant late-game scorer can change everything for a team — the Boston Celtics are 11-4 in a league-leading 15 clutch games — but the problem is deeper than one player. Jeremy Lamb, who is having a nice shooting season overall, is 2-for-12 in the clutch. Marvin Williams is 0-for-10.

    One recent game exemplifies Charlotte’s crunch-time issues — last week’s 100-99 loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs loss stings because the Hornets shot 1-for-11 in the final five minutes, essentially shooting themselves out of a winnable game over a talented team that would have boosted morale as well as the win column. The glaring problem down the stretch against Cleveland was the lack of diversity and quality in Charlotte’s shot selection.

    They ran five post-ups for Dwight Howard in the last five minutes, on which he was fouled twice, hitting 3-of-4 free throws; passed to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist once, who was fouled and hit 1-of-2 free throws; and missed twice (badly). Howard is simply not an efficient post player. He ranks third in the NBA in post-ups, but his 0.75 points per possession is worse than just about every comparable big man. He turns the ball over more than any other high-volume post player. These plays need to be cut from the crunch-time playbook.

    Dwight’s post plays hurt the team in more ways than one. In addition to being mostly fruitless, they stagnate the Hornets’ offense. Taking possessions deep into the shot clock can be beneficial in clutch time, when both teams are dealing with fatigue, but the Hornets would have been better served with more player movement.

    While the defense was solid in this one — there’s not much that can be done about LeBron barreling towards the rim — there was a notable difference between the pressure the Cavs put on Charlotte’s defense by attacking the rim late and the lack of pressure the Hornets put on in return.

    Aside from the post-ups, the Hornets’ clutch plays in this one included three badly missed 3s from Kemba, two ugly, contested mid-range pull-ups from Jeremy Lamb, and a tough mid-range shot by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The only made basket in the last five minutes was in transition, when Kemba found MKG for a dunk after a steal.

    The offensive struggles for the Hornets late in this and other games can be instructive, even if they can be frustrating. Kemba Walker is at his best when he’s using screens to get into the lane or get a slower player switched onto him, and those types of plays should be relied on far more down the stretch than inefficient, outdated offense. Against the Cavs, the Hornets didn’t run a single pick-and-roll or get all the way to the rim on any drive.

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    The recipe for clutch success is more complex than just keeping the ball in Kemba’s hands and hoping some shooting materializes, but the Hornets would be well served to play to their strengths in the game’s biggest moments.