Charlotte Hornets Ascending into Second-Tier Status in the NBA’s Eastern Conference

Kemba Walker is averaging 21.4 points per game this season, including four outings of 38 or more.Kemba Walker is averaging 21.4 points per game this season, including four outings of 38 or more.

In a season full of incredible individual and team accomplishments, there are many forgotten storylines in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors’ run at history, San Antonio Spurs hanging right on their tail, and Cleveland Cavaliers firing their coach with the best record in the East have all stolen headlines. Stephen Curry’s never-ceasing-to-amaze hailstorm of threes isn’t bad either. But what about the “best of the rest?”

The feeling is that the winner of a potential Warriors-Spurs Western Conference finals showdown will be the NBA champion. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t change the fact that 14 other teams will participate in the playoff tournament. It is appearing evermore certain that the Charlotte Hornets will be a part of that.

Winners of five straight, the Hornets (35-28) suddenly find themselves as the No. 5 seed in the East, just 1.5 games out of first in the Southeast division behind the No. 4 seed Miami Heat (37-27). Charlotte is beating the teams it is supposed to beat, as proven during this stretch. In their last 21 games, the Hornets are 16-5.

So just how seriously can we take the Hornets? They don’t have the sexy star power of the league’s elite, yet they are efficient in many areas. They are tied for 10th in the NBA in scoring (102.7 points per game) and fifth in defensive rebounding (35.0). In his fifth season, guard Kemba Walker is having his finest season yet, averaging 21.4 points per game. He is the only Charlotte player averaging at least 15 points a game, and has postedĀ four outings of 38 points or more. During this current five-game run, he is averaging 31.6.

The Hornets have mostly built their 35-30 record by beating up on lesser foes; they are just 7-9 against teams currently in playoff position in the Eastern Conference and winless against the top four teams in the West. The one team the Hornets have had success against in 2015-16 that they may face in the playoffs is the Indiana Pacers. Charlotte is 3-0 against Indiana.

Give Charlotte the nod. A young team still learning how to win — and one that also happens to be 5-0 in overtime this season — is improving daily, it seems. Third-year head coach Steve Clifford is getting the most from the likes of Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, and Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (42.9% shooting from three-point range).

It may be another year or two before we take the Hornets more seriously, but this is a franchise that has reached the postseason just twice in the last 11 years (10 of those seasons as the Bobcats). They won’t remind owner Michael Jordan of his 90’s Bulls team, but they are on the up-and-up and if nothing else, should gain some valuable playoff experience in 2016.

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