The last two games for the Charlotte Hornets have been very good in terms of results, despite Kemba Walker suddenly struggling with his shots, mostly because Jeremy Lin has stepped up instead, something that looked very unlikely due to his recent form and the current rotation of the team.
Lin has scored 50 points in the wins against the Spurs and the Nets, suddenly shooting well from the field, hitting 63.3% of his shots. In his last three games, including the home loss to the Denver Nuggets, which included Lin (16 points at the time) getting weirdly pulled out of the game in the fourth quarter, he has shot 62.5% from the field and 87.5% from beyond the arc. This coming after a rough stretch of playing a lot less and shooting miserably from everywhere but the free throw line. In a six weeks stretch that included 19 games, starting with a loss to Miami and ending with a win against Miami (with Lin hitting the clutch free throws), Lin shot just 33.3% from the field and 28.2% from three, spending just 22.1 minutes per game on the floor.
During that run, that included going 15-4, Kemba Walker hit the best phase of his career. After missing a big win over the Cavaliers (with Lin carrying the torch again), Walker averaged 24.4 points through the next 19 games, shooting 46.4% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc, including 6.1 assists per game. Clearly, the Hornets didn’t need Lin to be good, when you look just at win-loss records and his numbers. But obviously, there’s more than Walker and Lin to this equation. Al Jefferson slowly came back from a long absence and mostly succeeds in his new role off the bench. Marvin Williams has been the main enjoyer off of Walker drawing attention. Nicolas Batum does a little bit of everything. Courtney Lee has helped make the Hornets forget about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist getting injured in one of the best midseason trades we’ve seen in recent years, not a first for Lee himself.
The problem with Walker, and often with the Hornets offense in general, that is comes down to shooting form. And while Walker is presented as the superstar of this franchise, he isn’t at that level. Maybe he will be. But just like a lot of other talented players in this league, his points come more from his individual skill and improved long range shooting instead of fantastic ball movement and spacing by the Hornets. They’re much better at it this season than in the previous one, but they’re still not where they could be. And leaning on that kind of scoring is always dangerous, unless you have a safety net. Fool’s gold as some might call it. One other thing Walker has improved at is taking a step back when he realizes it’s not his night.
Walker has been struggling recently. Not just the last two games, but in the last six or seven. He has made 50% of his field goals just once in the last 8 games. He is shooting only 34.7% from the field in the last six games, and less than 40% in all of his last five games. Wins help mask and sometimes ignore problems or droughts by the team’s leading scorer. Heading into more road games and eventually the playoffs (Walker’s shooting on the road is 40.9% compared to almost 45% at home), that’s something to think about.
Is Lin the most important, best player on the Hornets? On some nights. Hard to tell. It’s so rare that he’s given the chance to play as the playmaker (let’s forget about positions and stick to roles) it’s really hard to say. The last two games should say yes. He shared it with Nicolas Batum, and we still haven’t seen enough of a lineup that includes Lin, Batum and Lee together, which might not have the explosiveness of Walker but is much better defensively and while Lin is shooting well (we need a larger sample size than the last three games), can be just as good or even better than it is with Walker as he is right now.
There’s a lot more to the Hornets than just these two players, but even without there being an actual rivalry, they do overlap each other, which makes the role/position debate a lot more interesting. Personally, I do feel the Hornets can work well with Lin and Walker on the court (lineup numbers show it) with Lin playing more ball handler and Walker, who draws more attention from defenses and is the better long range shooter, spending more as the off-the-ball guard. I’m also intrigued in a super-small ball Walker-Lin-Batum-Lee lineup with Al Jefferson (or if you want all shooting, do it with Frank Kaminsky or Spencer Hawes), but I’m not sure we’ll actually get to see it happen for more than a few seconds. That’s Steve Clifford’s mess to sort out and hopefully find the answer to. I’m pretty sure he’s not looking up Sports sites for answers and advice.