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Blogcat's Take, 12/27

With 4 wins in a row against mediocre or worse competition, Friday night’s visit to OKC served as a true measuring stick for the Hornets—a stick they were then brutally bludgeoned to death with by Russell Westbrook & co. Watching Westbrook relentlessly attack, maul, gore, and annihilate everything in his path—he’s like a wolverine with a pull-up—I’m amazed at how many trade rumors he’s been involved in over the years. If this guy played for Charlotte, the only speculation would be how many bridges we would name after him. Otherwise there wasn’t much to take away from this latest biannual beatdown by the Thunder, besides a severely sore rectum. Other than Westbrook’s mayhem, the only entertainment value for me lay in the courtside advertisement for the University of Oklahoma. Every time I see it I wonder, who’s the target audience for that sign? Is there some local kid who is unaware of OU as a college option? And who from out of state has OU on their wish-list? Anyway, these are the sorts of things you ponder as your team is being ferociously mowed down and converted to fertilizer.

Thus tonight’s game against Orlando takes on added significance, helping us to determine that if Charlotte is not structurally sound enough to weather a volcanic force of nature like the Oklahoma City Thunder, can we at least withstand the run-of-the-mill threat posed by the Magic? There’s evidence to suggest that we can. First, although Orlando has one more win than us, including a win against us, we’re actually three spots ahead of them on the RPI index. This is because we’ve played the 5th-hardest schedule so far compared to Orlando’s 14th-ranked sked, and because we’ve got a better points differential. We’re also two notches ahead of Orlando in net offensive/defensive efficiency, although neither of us really has a pot to piss in in this category; maybe we have a Gatorade bottle and the Magic are just openly urinating in an alley.

But besides a Gatorade piss bottle, we’ve also got Kemba Walker, who’s suddenly making shots. Even taking into account last night’s defenestration in Oklahoma, over the last 5 games Walker has a TS% of 54.5% and an eFG% (which accounts for the added value of 3-pointers) of 49.4%. Compare these to the first 25 games, in which his TS%/eFG% split was 47.6%/42.7%, and you can see we’ve had a nice little injection of competence. It’s not easy to pinpoint where this improvement is coming from, because his shot mixture over the last 5 games is roughly similar to what it was in the first 25 games—which is to say, it’s about a 45-30-25 ratio of shots from within the paint, mid-range, and above-the-break 3’s (in that order). He’s also having to dribble roughly the same amount prior to his shot attempts, so that’s not it, either. The only real change has been the percentage of open shots Kemba’s taken. In the first 25 games, 27.1% of his shots came with a defender within two feet of him. Over the last 5 that number has plummeted to 18.1%. Given that extra real estate, Kemba will make you pay, especially in the 15-24 foot range. In the first 25 games, Kemba made 35% of his 15-19 footers, and 32% of his 20-24 footers. Over the last 5, try 50% of the former and a scorching 67% of the latter (data from NBA.com’s shot tracker).

The question then becomes, is this sustainable? Sub-question: how much of this can we blame on Lance Stephenson? Regarding sustainability, Kemba’s got a career eFG% of 44.3%, so he’s due to come down a peg, but he shouldn’t fall out of the treehouse completely and land in the birdpool that was the first part of this season. And as far as Lance goes, believe me, nothing would make me happier than to uncover a stat that shows that Lance has been sabotaging Kemba this entire time, preferably with hidden video footage of Lance literally sabotaging Kemba by poisoning his cereal or something. Sadly, I wasn’t able to find one, and trust me, it was not for lack of trying! But when I looked at possessions that ended with a Kemba shot during the first 25 games, his efficiency was basically the same, with or without Lance: 0.96 points-per-possession with Lance on the court versus 0.97 PPP with Lance off the court (data courtesy of NBAwowy.com). So as trivial as it sounds, the only thing we can say for sure is that Kemba is getting himself more open lately. If you want to say that’s because defenses aren’t able to cheat off Gerald Henderson the way they are off of Stephenson, fine, but Henderson is also shooting WAY above his pay-grade at the moment (50% eFG this year compared to a lifetime 46.1%), and I wouldn’t expect that trend to last.

To end on a high note, though, in these last 5 games the Hornets haven’t been playing all soft defenses. Sure, some of the teams have been putrid, but only the Utah Jazz and Nuggets are specifically putrid on defense. The Thunder, Bucks, and even the Sixers are all in the top half of the league in terms of defensive efficiency. So while Kemba’s sudden surge in shooting ability can’t just be chalked up to Lance’s strained pelvis, it’s also not merely a result of slicing through warm defensive butter, either. Now that we’re done being trampled on by OKC, we’ve got to hope that the trend line on Kemba’s shot chart continues up and to the right.

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