The most surprising narrative of the 2015-16 NBA season may be the resurgent Charlotte Hornets, a team intermittently removed of portions of its bedrock, yet surging toward a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Not just a berth, either: if the season ended today, they’d be the fourth seed, 1.5 games back of the top spot in the conference, with a point differential (plus-4.7) that ranks sixth among all teams.
The primary reason very well may be the presence of Nicolas Batum, a rangy 6-foot-8 hybrid forward who is in the throes of his first season under head coach Steve Clifford. A once-vapid offense that finished 28th last season in points produced per 100 possessions (97.6) has blossomed into one that ranks fifth (104.4, the highest average of the past five seasons), and fifth overall in offensive efficiency.
“He changes everything. For everyone,” Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker recently told the Charlotte Observer.
While Batum — who, it’s worth noting, is being targeted on more possessions than ever before; 23.5 percent usage rate compared to a 17.3 percent career average — has left his fingerprints on everything Charlotte does, his critical contributions have been made along the perimeter, on both sides of the ball.
Clifford’s unit connected on the worst percentage of any team from beyond the arc last season, netting the fourth fewest three-point field goals per contest. More than a month into this year’s regular season, they rank in the top 15 in percentage and are tied for fourth in made three-pointers per contest (10). Compared to a season ago, Charlotte is seeing 9.9 percent more of its points come from beyond the arc, and while mostly the entire league is trending toward the analytically-advantageous three-point arc and spots closer to the basket, Charlotte’s numbers this season in the context of its past five seasons are jarring.
Batum ranks 15th among all players in made three-pointers this season, and has been the catalyst for the franchise’s progressions along the wings. He’s shooting nearly a career-high clip from beyond the arc (39.1 percent), and is helping the Hornets connect on nearly four more three-pointers per game compared to a season ago.
More specifically, the eighth-year player is lethal on hand-off plays, having netted the second most points of any player in the league on the play type, second only to the Clippers’ J.J. Redick. Batum’s 1.16 points per possession on hand-offs put him in the 82nd percentile; Redick, for example, is in the 70th. No moment was this proficiency put on better display than late in the team’s win over the Chicago Bulls, when Batum took a hand-off around a screen and buried a three-pointer while drawing the foul, essentially producing the game-winning points in the process.
Defensively, Charlotte has jumped from ninth in defensive efficiency a season ago to sixth this year with Batum in the fold. Teams are shooting just 34 percent from beyond the arc against Charlotte, one of the lowest marks in the league, and while Batum isn’t solely responsible for the low percentage, he most certainly has something to do with the 1.7 percent dip in opponent three-point shooting compared to a season ago, and the 2.9 percent drop in opponent three-point shooting percentage when he’s on the court versus when he takes the bench.
He has been so impressive through 23 games that Charlotte beat reporters are already calling for Michael Jordan to cut him a max deal this summer to stay with the franchise.
Again, it’s worth reiterating that all of these contributions are being made while Batum learns an entirely new system.
“This is a new role, a new job for me, new opportunity, new challenge, new everything with this team,” Batum told Sports Illustrated recently.
Despite Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the team’s top wing defender, going down prior to the season, and leading scorer and rebounder Al Jefferson’s on-court and off-court issues keeping him off the floor for nearly half of the team’s games, the Hornets are thriving. Charlotte’s newly acquired creative Frenchman is turning a franchise that finished 16 games below .500 a season ago into a possible contender.