There’s a buzz around Charlotte.
After the Carolina Panthers made a surprising run to Super Bowl 50, the city’s fans thought perhaps they would have to wait until August to get excited again.
Not so fast. The buzz is still in the air — and it’s coming from the Charlotte Hornets.
The Hornets are flying under the radar as one of the surprise teams in the NBA this season, sitting in a three-way tie for the third seed in the Eastern Conference with Atlanta, Boston and Miami.
On Monday night, the small-market squad put the whole league on notice, overcoming a 23-point deficit to beat Western Conference power San Antonio. They followed that performance with a gritty win in Brooklyn on Tuesday, improving to 41-30 on the season.
Yes, the buzz is back. To quote Biggie Smalls: “If you don’t know, now you know.”
Behind the stellar play of Kemba Walker, do-it-all forward Nic Batum and a resurgent Marvin Williams, the Hornets are 17-4 since Feb. 6 — third best in the NBA behind the Spurs and Golden State.
The success starts with Walker, who has blossomed into one of the league’s top scorers, continuing to make the case that he was snubbed from an All-Star selection. The four-year pro has recorded 12 30-plus point performances this season — fourth most in Eastern Conference — and has earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors twice.
Barring a late collapse, head coach Steve Clifford has the Hornets positioned to make their second playoff appearance of his three-year tenure. Prior to his hire, Charlotte only had one postseason berth in its previous nine seasons.
Hornets owner Michael Jordan has caught flak for his leadership over the years, and for good reason, but it seems he’s finally figured out how to build a winner.
The Hornets have quietly assembled one of the league’s best collections of depth and versatility this season, transforming from a defensive-heavy team into one of the more balanced teams in the NBA, boasting top-10 ratings in both offensive and defensive efficiency. There’s also a competitive edge that’s been missing over the years.
Offensively, it’s a completely different team. Shooting-wise, the Hornets weren’t just the worst team from 3-point range in the NBA last season at 31.8 percent. They had one of the 10 worst seasons from long range in the past decade.
With 12 games remaining this season, the Hornets are averaging 10.5 made 3s per game. The franchise record for 3s made in a season is 591, set back in 1996-97. With 746 treys this season, Charlotte has already obliterated that mark.
With five players averaging double figures, Charlotte has found a variety of ways to get buckets, even when Walker is having an off night. Jeremy Lin has thrived as of late, dropping 29 points on the Spurs and 21 against the Nets.
With Courtney Lee added at the trade deadline as an additional shooting threat, Cody Zeller’s continued improvement, Al Jefferson’s acceptance of a reserve role, and the emergence of rookie Frank Kaminsky, the team has found its identity.
The Hornets may not have the talent to match Golden State, San Antonio or Cleveland on a consistent basis. But they’re more than capable of a buzzworthy performance once the playoffs arrive.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.