The Hornets are a hard team to read.
They're 8-6, and they appear to be humming along as planned despite losing Jeremy Lin and our very own Courtney Lee this offseason. Both of those guys were somewhat important cogs for a Charlotte team that won 48 games last year. Charlotte let them go, brought back their key guys (Nic Batum and Marvin Williams), and decided to run it back.
So far, it's unclear to what degree that plan has been successful. They're on pace for 47 wins, but their early schedule has been pretty weak. Of their 8 wins, only 2 have come off teams currently over .500 -- Utah (without George Hill; the Knicks would have also beaten the Jazz if Hill hadn't played) and Atlanta (just beat them as well).
What we DO know is that the Hornets are a well-coached team, with cogs that make sense, thus serving to enhance the other cogs within the system. Basically, the anti-Pacers. Charlotte doesn't like to crash the offensive glass; instead, they focus on getting back in transition and matching up properly. A smart strategy -- doing so prevents transition opportunities AND issues caused by cross-matching (i.e. Jennings pushes the ball hard up the court, MKG has to pick him up, Kemba has to pick up Melo, ISO, double team, open 3).
Combined with strong execution from the guys they throw out onto the floor, and a LOT of effort...you get a top 10 defense despite mostly average personnel. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has already been immortalized in Knicks history thanks to the hottest game of Carmelo's career, is a stellar defensive player; outside of him, it's a bunch of average guys playing their asses off. And that should not be underestimated.
They don't turn the ball over. They play hard. They shoot 3's, and they spread the floor. They force you to execute in the halfcourt. This is the exact (theoretical) formula for beating the Knicks. Some of those things are improving, but when you get punched in the mouth, it's easy to revert to bad habits.
I feel like I say this every game, but more than ever, defense will be the key to beating the Hornets. Right now, Kemba Walker is a surefire All-Star; he's led them in scoring in all but two of his games, and he's doing it on a career high 25 PPG on an also career high 56% eFG. A far cry from his previous inefficiencies on offense. He presents a huge challenge for Rose (and therefore the Knicks entire defensive scheme), as Walker can truly do it all. He's like a particularly agile cricket off the dribble, and he can also pull up from 3. It's a treat to watch him when he's not shredding your team of choice. Rose has been pretty solid defensively all things considered, but it might not matter with Kemba.
Nic Batum is a super glue guy who plays smart, keeps the ball moving, and scores when necessary. MKG is basically what you would get if you took Marcus Smart, removed all the infuriating cockiness and shameless flopping (i.e. all the Boston) from him, and made him a couple inches bigger -- dude just makes plays despite not really having much of an offensive game. Marvin Williams should be a really great test for Porzingis, as he's pretty physical on the defensive end and combines shooting prowess and ball skills on offense (PLEASE CONTINUE TO STAY DOWN ON PUMP FAKES, KRISTAPS).
If the Knicks can get stops (fortunately, this one is at home), they won't have to worry much about the defensive glass (a good thing, as they're 27th in defensive rebounding % at the moment). There's enough talent on this roster to get by on offense, even when the transition opportunities dry up. The bench will be a good barometer of the Knicks' success in this one, though -- they've thrived in transition all season long. Can they execute in the halfcourt well enough to challenge the Hornets bench, one filled with many stalwarts of the All NBA No-Defense First Team (Frank Kaminsky, Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions, and Spencer Hawes)?
Speaking of Hawes, he might be the guy we see the most at the 5 tonight. Cody Zeller is questionable, and their only other true center is...*exhales slowly and tries to forget*...Roy Hibbert. Does Melo try to dunk on him again? Will he flashback to 2013 as Hibbert inevitably contests one of his shots at the rim, which misses badly, leaving him shook for the rest of the game? Hibbert is kinda washed at this point, but he might be able to stay on the floor when Joakim Noah is out there, and he's still an imposing rim protector when he's in position.
Hawes himself is a good set shooter, and a low-key good passer, but he moves like he rocks concrete shoes that are stuck in mud that in turn happens to be stuck in a massive tar pit that happens to be stuck on a planet with gravity 10 times stronger than Earth's.
Some of you may have figured out the point of this -- I WANT TO SEE KP AT THE 5. A LOT. Asking Hawes or Roy freakin' Hibbert to chase Porzingis around on the perimeter would go about as well as changing their team name to the Bobcats (they only own the worst winning percentage in league history, no big deal). They may be forced to try Marvin Williams at the 5 if KP is hot, and that's good. As noted before, Charlotte don’t care about the offensive glass, so one of the biggest weaknesses of NYK small ball is rendered irrelevant. Who knows if we’ll actually see it for an extended period of time.
Without Zeller, the Hornets team defense will probably be subpar. The Knicks offense should be fine, and KP at center will remain the ultimate failsafe. The defense, particularly on Kemba, will determine this game. As usual.
We know what Charlotte does. Let's see how the Knicks adapt.
Prediction: All four bigs combine for 35+ rebounds. KP confirms that he hates Charlotte thanks to his waved-off game winner should have counted last year and drops 30+ for the third time in 10 days. Kemba continues his hot streak and shreds New York's often pitiful pick and roll defense to the tune of 35+.
Knicks lose, 110-101.