Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan was recently tabbed as a billionaire by Forbes, but the NBA legend won’t be able to use his considerable wealth to get his team back into the postseason.
At 25-33, the Hornets are locked in with the Brooklyn Nets (25-33) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 24 games remaining in the regular season. The Indiana Pacers (25-34) are just behind Charlotte, but have claimed two of their three matchups this season. An April 3 final meeting could play a pivotal role in both squads’ postseason aspirations.
Since Jordan took a controlling interest in the Hornets back in March 2010, they have made the postseason twice, last losing to the eventual East champion Miami Heat in a four-game sweep in 2014.
Should the Hornets earn a playoff berth, it’s reasonable to presume they won’t go any higher than the No.7 or No. 8 seed. There are plenty of reasons to believe Charlotte will rise up the East standings and make their first back-to-back postseason appearance since 2002, but there are also enough reasons to believe it won't happen.
Why the Hornets Will Make the Playoffs
Simply put, the Hornets postseason hopes were resuscitated thanks to a smart and timely trade, and now they’ll keep their fingers crossed that their top scorer can return.
For the last couple of years it was fairly evident the Hornets had a solid nucleus of leading-scorer and top point guard Kemba Walker, along with former All-Star center Al Jefferson and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But they needed some extra scoring punch. Enter veteran guard Mo Williams.
Williams joined Charlotte at the beginning of what would be a five-losses-in-six-games slide, but so far he’s netting 22.8 points and 8.0 assists with 1.2 steals per game in six games. Assuming Williams can mesh well with Walker when he comes back from a knee injury, Williams could be a major crunch-time force for the Hornets. They’re currently 27th in the league in scoring (94.6 ppg) and 22nd in assists per game (20.6), all of which should tick up with Williams in the starting lineup.
Williams also gives the Hornets a legitimate three-point threat. Only the Denver Nuggets are behind Charlotte in three-point percentage this season.
Walker, who at this point could be considered an All-Star snub, isn’t supposed to return to the court following knee surgery for a couple of weeks, but Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is planning to pair Walker and Williams.
Walker’s absence has opened up opportunities for Kidd-Gilchrist, who averaged a season-best 13.4 points in February. The 6-foot-7 swingman is also netting a career-best 7.4 rebounds per game, giving Jefferson some help on the glass, and he has the athleticism to defend some of the East’s top guards and small forwards.
Kidd-Gilchrist is also a big reason why the Hornets are fifth in the NBA in points allowed, and 11th in rebounding this season.
Jefferson improved as the season progressed in 2013-2014, averaging 24.7 points per game and 10.6 rebounds in March, and 24.5 points per game and 14.3 rebounds.
Meanwhile, Clifford seems to have a strong grasp on team defense, though the backcourt will need to have to better performances than their effort on Tuesday night. Against the hapless Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan Clarkson and Jeremy Lin combined for 42 points in a tight Hornets victory, 104-103.
Why the Hornets Won't Make the Playoffs
The move for Williams came at the right time, as Charlotte faces a fairly harrowing schedule for the next 25 games. The Hornets have 12 games left at home and 13 on the road. The bulk of games away from Time Warner Cable Arena take place from March 16-27, including difficult matchups against the No. 3-seed Chicago Bulls, the No. 5 Washington Wizards, and the Western Conference's No. 5 Los Angeles Clippers.
In April, the Hornets take on Indiana, the Miami Heat, the No. 1 Atlanta Hawks, and the No. 2 Toronto Raptors, all on the road. Charlotte will also host Atlanta, Toronto and the No. 3 Houston Rockets before the wrapping up the regular season.
Can the Hornets manage wins against quality opponents?
It’s a stretch that would be difficult for any team, let alone one that’s currently missing their best all-around player. Walker’s health, and his ability to return to form, will likely be the biggest factor in Charlotte’s push. It's anyone's guess how well the 24-year-old plays after being out since Jan. 24.
Things appear to be improving for their competition. The possible return of Indiana’s All-Star forward Paul George could play a significant role for the Pacers' postseason hopes. George does figure to return at some point to help the Pacers, and even if it’s in a limited capacity, the swingman can affect games in myriad ways even if he’s not the Pacers No. 1 scoring option right away. The Pacers have a balanced attack, and are well coached.
The Nets, despite their struggles, are also a veteran-laden team and have been to the postseason before with guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson a formidable force in the half court game that favors most playoff-bound teams. In their most recent game, the Nets received 26 points from Brook Lopez in a win over the Golden State Warriors.
Even without LeBron James, the Heat still have the look of a playoff-bound team. Despite losing Chris Bosh for the season, the Heat have one of the best backcourts in the NBA, and adding Goran Dragic should keep Miami competitive for the final stretch of games. Luol Deng is coming off a strong February, and the Heat seem to have enough weapons off the bench.
Conclusion: Unless Williams can continue his tear, Jefferson can get hot, and Walker can come back earlier than expected, its likely the Hornets miss the postseason. Indiana might not be able to score as much with George out, but they are still a solid defensive squad and have a relatively easier schedule than Charlotte. Miami could also keep the No. 7 seed even with Bosh done for the year thanks to Dwyane Wade and center Hassan Whiteside, along with the addition of Dragic. There seems to be a better chance that the Heat and Pacers find a way to squeak into the postseason at the expense of the Hornets.