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Blogcat's Take 1/10

Believe it or not, I was only mildly delighted by the Hornets’ win over Toronto on Thursday. Don’t get me wrong, when Kemba Walker took that kill shot from 22 feet that looked wide right all the way until it splashed home, and the roaring Raptor crowd shuddered and went limp, it was like flying in an adjoining X-Wing and watching Luke take out the Death Star. But I’d still classify my delight as “measured and relieved,” rather than “orgasmic.” This might seem implausible given my childish histrionics in last week’s post, but something about the Raptors has never impressed me much. It’s probably because in the nuclear holocaust that was the 7-59 Bobcats season in 2011-12, the Raptors were one of the Magnificent 7; we beat them twice, in fact, including what would be our last win of the season on—wait for it—March goddamn 17th. For whatever reason, we’ve had their number, and we had it again on Friday. But we led for most of that game, often in double-digits, and Toronto has Grevis Vaszquez, basketball’s equivalent of an unwitting sleeper agent, who sabotages his own team’s chances anytime he gets his hands on the ball. So my celebration was more like the kind one does when living one trailer park over from the one that got demolished by a tornado. And besides, did you notice we’re playing the Knicks today? It’s got all of the trademarks (or should I say “skid marks”?) of a classic Hornets disaster that I’m already mentally prepared to agonize over. My keel is famously uneven, so I’m taking some preemptive measures right now before it knots up again.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge excellence, which is what we have to do for a couple of guys, starting with Kemba Walker. Besides telling Kyle Lowry fans where they can stick their All-Star ballots, on the previous night against New Orleans, Walker knocked down a ridiculous game-winning bank shot from a decidedly non-traditional banking angle. "It was so awkward because the angle was super awkward,” said Walker in the AP recap. Though it’s not particularly helpful to use the word “awkward” to explain why something was awkward, we don’t care, because we don’t need Walker to describe his dominance; we need him to keep dominating. And we need him to keep leading, which is exactly what he’s done in the 6 games since Al Jefferson went on the inactive list. Prior to Jefferson’s injury, Walker averaged 35.7 MPG, his usage rate was 24.9%, and his true shooting percentage was 49.7% (all stats per NBA.com). Since Jefferson’s groin went into full rebellion, Walker’s upped his playing time to 38.4 MPG, his usage rate has gone up to 28.8%, and his TS% is up to 52.9%. First of all, it’s rare to see efficiency improve with usage. Second of all, this surge has put Walker into the league leaders in usage rate for the season—he’s currently 10th if you filter only on guys with at least 25 games played and 35 MPG. And if Kemba maintains his current shooting accuracy, he would be fully justifying all of those attempts (as of right now, his TS% is last among those top-10). Let’s hope the trendline keeps moving up and to the right.

Besides barging his way onto the league leaderboard, Walker is validating his Team MVP status (which I argued for last year as well, despite the blast of never-before-seen potency from Jefferson at the 5). With Walker on the court over these past 6 games, the team is netting out at -0.5 points-per-100 possessions (100.6 points scored on offense against 101.1 points allowed on defense). That might not seem impressive, especially considering that the Hornets have hardly played a Murderers’ Row of teams (I’m not even sure if it would qualify as a Shoplifters’ Row). But get a load of this: in the 30 minutes that Kemba has NOT been on the court over these 6 games, the team is a cataclysmic -26.5, off of a 93.2 defensive rating and a, a, a 66-point-freakin’-9 on offense. Holy Brandon Lee Starring in The Crow. That’s right, if you check out Gary Neal and Brian Roberts’ play on the court without Captain Kemba, it’s sloppier than a fingerpainting by a cross-eyed preschooler. In fact I checked out the performance of 2-man lineups over the last 6 games, and sure enough, the Neal-Roberts combo has been the third-worst over this stretch on a per-possession basis, and by far it’s the most used out of that bottom three (Neal also has the honor of being part of one of the other combos when he’s paired alongside with—you’ll never believe this—Bismack Biyombo). So praise Kemba, because without him on the court we would be putting up the offensive stats of the Kentucky Wildcats...in 1947.

The other player worthy of citation is Gerald Henderson, the Chrome Dome-inator. He’s seen a much larger jump in usage than Kemba, and while he hasn’t maintained his efficiency, he’s at least kept it respectable. Hendo’s pre-Al usage/TS% splits were 16.7%/54.0%. Post-Al they’re 25.4% and 50.4%. More importantly, Henderson’s actually maintained a positive net point-differential of +1.7 while on the court over the past 6 games—the only rotation player to do so. And the numbers take a similar dive without Henderson, as the team craters to a -18.5 once Henderson goes to the bench. The other delightful attribute about Henderson—that absolutely cannot be taken for granted with this team—is the sheer reliability of his jump shot anywhere along the baseline. It’s very clear from watching all of these games (and Christ almighty, trust me, I’ve watched all of them), that Henderson has recognized his ability to hit jumpers along the baseline and is milking it for all it’s worth. Look at his shooting heatmap on NBAsavant.com and you’ll see what I mean. Whether he’s pulling up, fading away, or turning around, I have a great feeling every time Henderson launches one along the baseline, regardless of his distance from the basket, and that’s something that I’m not sure I can say about any other shot selection from anyone on the team.

Like I said, this can and probably will all go down the crapper the moment we lose to the Knicks on Saturday afternoon. Or the moment Kemba Walker stop-and-pops not just the ball but one of his hamstrings. After so many gut-wrenching losses, my guts are all wrenched out, and I have no illusions about the future. When it comes to rooting for the Hornets, I’m a south Sudanese tribesman, not just fearing more death and destruction but fully expecting it. I’m just taking a breather in-between sieges to acknowledge some of the selfless villagers on the team who’ve been helping to put out the fires.

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