The Charlotte Bobcats have been searching for an identity ever since coming into the NBA. Multiple rebuilding efforts and numerous trips to the lottery never produced a star who could make them a true contender. They made the playoffs twice and were swept both times. They have never been able to sustain success over a prolonged period of time or make a splash on the national stage. They eventually started calling themselves the Hornets in order to associate themselves with the more popular incarnation of the franchise from the league’s first go-through in Charlotte.

Things bottomed out again last season. Their top draft pick (Noah Vonleh) never found the floor, their top free-agent signing (Lance Stephenson) backfired completely and they squandered any momentum they had generated from a trip to the postseason the year before. If they couldn’t build through the draft or free agency and couldn’t count on internal improvement, what could they do? What they came up with was putting their finger in the air and jumping on a league-wide trend. This year’s version of the Hornets are a controlled experiment to see just how far hoisting 3’s can take an average NBA team.

If you look at all the transactions they made this offseason, it’s amazing how many can be explained solely through the prism of adding three-point shooting to the exclusion of everything else.

- Trading Lance Stephenson for Spencer Hawes

- Trading Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson for Nic Batum

- Drafting Frank Kaminsky over Justise Winslow and Myles Turner and passing up on a deal for four first-round picks

- Signing Troy Daniels

- Trading for Jeremy Lamb

The end result was a dramatic transformation for a team that had looked like it stumbled out of a time machine from the mid 1990’s. Last year’s Hornets were built around a low-post scorer, a point guard who lived in the mid-range and two wing players who couldn’t shoot 3’s. They played in no space in the halfcourt and tried to grind out games by holding the ball and squeezing other teams on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in 3-point attempts, 26th in 3-point makes and dead last in 3-point percentage.

You don’t have to dig too deep into the statistics to see what has changed this season. Through the first two weeks of the season, Charlotte is ranked 11th in the NBA in 3-point makes, 16th in 3-point attempts and 6th in 3-point percentage. As you would expect given the sea change in identity and personnel, their defensive and offensive ratings have flipped. They have gone from the No. 28 offense and the No. 9 defense to the No. 7 offense and the No. 19 defense.

What really accelerated the change was the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason. If the Hornets could hang their hat on anything over the last few years, it was the suffocating perimeter defense of MKG, one of the rare players who could match-up with four positions on defense and take over a game on that side of the ball without being a rim protector. The team went as far as MKG could take them - they were 26-27 when he played last season and 6-21 without him.

However, for as much as MKG gave them on defense, he took almost as much away on the other end of the floor. Other teams just didn’t have to respect him from the perimeter, a problem that was only made worse next to Gerald Henderson, Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker. The Hornets were worse than the sum of their parts because none of their best players was a consistent three-point shooter and other teams could pack the paint, dare them to shoot over the top and run the ball back at them the other way.

This year’s group is the exact opposite. Everyone is playing in max space, the defense has to guard the entire width and breadth of the court and the ball can just move and find the open man. The Hornets have completely embraced the four-out revolution, starting Marvin Williams as a small-ball 4 next to Jefferson and bringing in two more stretch big men - Hawes and Kaminsky - off the bench. With the exception of Jefferson, everyone in the rotation has the green light to fire away from beyond the three-point line.

Taking 3’s has become more and more important ever since the league moved away from the illegal defense rule and allowed defenders to sag off their man. Space is the lifeblood of an offense in the modern NBA and if you don’t have role players who can force their defenders to guard them 25+ feet from the rim generating efficient offense becomes almost impossible. Just look at how much more efficient Jefferson and Walker have been this season.




Al Jefferson

16.6 points on 48.1% shooting

15.8 points on 56.1% shooting

Kemba Walker

17.3 points on 38.5% shooting

17.2 points on 44.9% shooting

Even when their supporting cast isn’t making 3’s, the mere fact that they are taking them and they have to be guarded from deep opens up the game for their stars. A good example of that was their 108-94 victory over the Dallas Mavericks last Thursday, when they went only 6-27 from 3. Despite all the misses, Dallas let Jefferson play 1-on-1 against Zaza Pachulia and Dwight Powell and he put both of them in the torture chamber on the block with hook shots, face-up jumpers and up-and-unders. He finished the game with 31 points on 15-18 shooting in only 27 minutes.

“I’ve got guys all around me,” said Jefferson after the game. “These guys make my job a lot easier. Tonight, they didn’t double team me until toward the end.”

“It’s just simple plays. It’s simple basketball,” said Steve Clifford.

Of course, the downside of bringing in all those shooters comes on the other side of the floor, as the Hornets don’t have a lot of defensive-minded personnel on the roster, especially upfront. Jefferson has never been known as a rim protector while Williams, Hawes, Zeller and Kaminsky are all more comfortable on offense than defense. Beat the first line of defense in Charlotte and there’s not much behind them to clean up any mistakes.

The key for them going forward is how much their perimeter players can contain dribble penetration. If Walker, Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb and PJ Hairston can keep their men in front of them and force them to beat them over the top, the Hornets will have a chance against a lot of teams. If they let the offense get into the paint, they will be in for a long night. That’s what happened to them in their worst loss of a season, a 114-94 beating at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs who carved them up with dribble penetration and ball movement all night and then swung the ball back outside for open 3’s.

For the most part, the Hornets are just going to have to count on Kemba and Jefferson dominating their match-ups while the rest of the team outscores their opponents from beyond the the three-point line. Clifford will do the best he can with this defense but there’s only so far you can go without rim protection on the interior and a lot of stoppers on the perimeter. Good offense can lead to good defense, though, so as long as they are knocking down their shots and getting the opportunity to set their defense, they should be able to stay competitive.

While they only have a 3-4 record to start the season, they have a +1.9 point differential despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the league. Five of their first seven games were against playoff teams from last season (the other two were Miami and Minnesota teams that have gotten off to strong starts) and only two of those games were at home. Maybe the most impressive part is how competitive they have been, as their only blowout loss came at the hands of the Spurs. Taking a lot more 3’s may not get them back into the playoffs but it at least makes them more fun to watch. As Charlotte well knows, there are worse identities for an NBA team to have.