New year, some new Hornets storylines

Kemba Walker and the Hornets are aiming for a strong second half.

Marco Belinelli almost pulled off the unthinkable on Thursday night in Auburn Hills. With half a second remaining on the game clock, the savvy Italian inbounded the ball off the back of a Detroit Piston, caught the deflection and heaved a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. No, the shot wasn’t released in time, but it was still one of the coolest desperation heaves I’ve seen in a while. The 25-foot attempt ricocheted off the glass and fell through the net milliseconds late, with the Charlotte Hornets dropping their third game since New Year’s Eve in the process.

(watch Marco almost make magic happen here)

The Hornets have been playing with their usual brand of energy and grit, but a tough schedule paired with slow starts have doomed them over the past week. In all three of their losses since December 31, Charlotte has trailed after the first quarter, including Thursday when a 44-point explosion in the fourth wasn’t enough to climb out of the hole they had dug themselves. Below is more buzz surrounding the Hornets, who will attempt to right the ship versus a daunting upcoming slate of opponents.

1. No one is really discussing it, but slow starts are sort of becoming a thing for Steve Clifford’s group, who rank 19th in first quarter scoring at home and 17th in first quarter point margin. These are glaring numbers considering this is a team with aspirations of truly contending in the East this year.

2. The potential for scoring issues were well documented after the departures of Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee this past offseason, but the script hasn’t gone exactly as expected. The Hornets still rank 8th in points per game on the road, but have had trouble generating the same offensive firepower in the friendly confines of the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they rank 19th in total points per game. That’s definitely a head-scratcher for coach Clifford and crew.

3. The last week has been a tough one for Charlotte, dropping a tight one to the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers then falling to Jimmy Butler and his 52 points in Chicago two days later. An impressive win over the triple-double robot named Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder was a nice respite from this arduous week, which culminated Thursday on the failed heroics of Belinelli.

4. Not to be a “Debby downer”, but the upcoming schedule isn’t getting any easier for the guys in teal and purple, either. The Hornets play the next four on the road, including games versus the 3rd ranked team in the East (Boston) and the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams in the West (San Antonio and Houston). Kemba Walker and the Hornets will need to start faster than your grandmother’s beige Buick Regal if they expect to give themselves a chance to win.

5. If the Eastern Conference were a condo building, the Cleveland Cavaliers would own it and all other teams would merely be tenants renting out 1-bedroom studios. The Boston Celtics are an exciting, balanced team who contend every night behind the bright mind of Brad Stevens, but it really does feel like we’re just in another waiting game for the Cavs to face-off versus the Golden State Warriors again in June. Charlotte is definitely a few pieces away from being in the conversation of deep playoff runs, and until then will remain stuck in their 1-bedroom apartment that smells like cats.

6. I wrote about some dream trade scenarios recently, but blockbuster deals of this magnitude are pretty unlikely. The Hornets can clear over $11M in salary this offseason if they don’t keep journeymen Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert around, and may want to consider targeting a scoring forward like Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap or Rudy Gay to fortify their offensive attack (all free agents with player options available). There’s still way too much pressure on Kemba Walker to put points on the board. There is one other impending free agent that could bolster the Hornets lineup in 2017. He’s from Charlotte, and his name rhymes with Ref Blurry.

Christopher Kreider | @krydr1