Both the Atlanta Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets are having a terrific start to the season, despite changes, doubts and some question marks.
The Hawks are 7-2, looking like the wounds of another sweep-exit in the playoffs while losing Al Horford and Jeff Teague didn’t really have any effect. The Hawks might have had some weird ownership drama not too long ago, but the organization remains competitive through almost a decade by planning ahead. The Hawks knew Horford was looking to leave, so they signed Dwight Howard. Teague was on the trading block for a long time, with Atlanta always looking to make way for Dennis Schroder.
In Charlotte, a lot of changes happened too. They lost Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson, while making additions that didn’t seem to cover up what was exposed by the departures. Roy Hibbert was good in his three games, and Marco Belinelli exactly what you’d expect from a good sixth man although obviously, it’s too soon to tell if everything both teams have done will end up having a long-term, positive impact.
Dwight Howard, maybe most importantly, seems happy. He can’t stop praising Mike Budenholzer, and with more touches compared to last season (his usage rating has risen by 3 percentage points), he isn’t the distraction many paint Howard as. Things haven’t been perfect, as the Hawks are 10.5 points better per 100 possessions when Howard isn’t playing, but he has a +4.4 net rating in 28.7 minutes per game. He’s shooting 63% from the field, averaging 15.2 points and 12.4 rebounds, playing a big part in the Hawks second best defensive rating so far this season, allowing only 98.7 points per 100 possessions, while ranking 11th in offensive rating.
Kemba Walker has been the story for the Hornets. Walker gives a team one thing: Scoring. He isn’t a good defender, he isn’t too much of a passer. He simply relies on his teammates to cover for him, and for Nicolas Batum to be the playmaker. It’s been working so far, as Walker is averaging 25.9 points per game. His shooting has been exceptional at 48.9% from the field and 43.3% from beyond the arc. It might be fool’s gold to play the kind of offense the Hornets run, which means the moment Walker hits a cold shooting streak it means trouble, but the Hornets are counting on their defense (4th best in the league so far) to help the team through that.
The Hawks are winning games through defense, finding easy shots and doing an incredible job on the offensive glass while constantly forcing turnovers. The Hornets are shooting way better than anyone expected them to at this point, don’t turn the ball over and do a great job of getting to the line. There were plenty of expectations suggesting these two teams will struggle compared to last season coming out of the gates, but for now they seem to have the advantage of relative familiarity with the roster and system, while playing the right kind of basketball to make the most of their rosters’ strengths, usually a very good thing to do when you don’t have a superstar to lean on.