Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford is blunt about the challenge facing his team: They just don't look, on paper, like contending teams of recent vintage.
"We don't have a roster where we're going to be a top-five offensive team," Clifford said following a recent shootaround by Charlotte. "You see Cleveland, Golden State. We just don't have that. But that doesn't mean, by the end of the year, if we're playing super-well defensively, that we won't have a chance to beat those teams."
That is where the Hornets find themselves at the dawn of 2017. Last season's 48-win campaign earned the Hornets a six seed in the East, very much an afterthought in the pursuit of the Eastern Conference title.
But entering Thursday's games, the Hornets, at 20-16, find themselves among a group of nine Eastern Conference teams with between 16 and 20 wins. The worst of these finishers will miss the playoffs. But the best of them will finish with the three seed in the East, very much in the conversation for a chance at facing LeBron James and the Cavs in the conference finals.
Still: What is a realistic ceiling for a team whose identity is so tied to the defensive side of the ball?
"I'm still not sure," Hornets point guard and lone superstar Kemba Walker said. "We're trying to win as much as possible, get back to the playoffs. And from there, we can start thinking about other things. But we need to get home court advantage in the playoffs."
Their pathway to that is an interesting one.
Consider that Clifford wants them to be a top-five defensive team. That certainly seems plausible. The Hornets finished ninth in defensive efficiency last year, and through 37 games they rank sixth.
Moreover, they've managed to improve so far despite some significant turnover in their rotation -- most notably, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin are gone, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert are in -- and with each passing game, the rust is harder to spot on any aspect of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's game after he missed all but seven games last year due to injury.
To understand how fully reliant the Hornets are on their defense, consider this: 11 players have logged at least 400 minutes so far for Charlotte. Eight of them have accumulated more defensive win shares than offensive win shares. For comparison, just three of Cleveland's top eight in win shares (and none of the big four) provide more defensive than offensive value. Same with just three of Golden State's eight players above 400 minutes played (and in each case, values are virtually even). And for the Raptors, currently the East's two seed, it's one of their top 10 players in minutes played, and the tenth man at that, Pascal Siakam.
All of which would suggest that should the Hornets find a way to improve their offense, they'd bring an impressive, hard-to-counter matchup into a playoff series this spring.
On that end, it starts with Walker.
"What he did last summer is what he's done every summer since he's been here, and probably his whole life: He's gotten better," Clifford said of Walker. "He picks two or three things to work on, and he's a very serious-minded player. That's what the best players do. So it's great shooting, it's pick-and-roll game, and he's put himself in a place where he's viewed as one of the top point guards in the league."
Walker's a career 40.9 percent shooter overall, but he's up to 46.9 percent so far this season. And even this understates how much more efficient he's gotten. He's taking the most threes of his career, and his percentage from beyond the arc is up sharply from last year's 37.1 percent and his career 34.4 percent. And while the number of shots he's taking around the rim jumped from 25 percent last year to 34.2 percent this season, his overall accuracy is up slightly as well, from 59.8 to 60.5 percent.
Add to that his assist percentage of 29.6, up from last year's 25.7, and every aspect of Walker's summer work is already borne out by the results on the court.
And yet: The Hornets, ninth in offensive efficiency last year, are just 12th this year. Part of that is missing Jefferson and Lin at the offensive end. It also comes despite some significant offensive growth in places like Cody Zeller's midrange game (his accuracy from 3-10 feet is up to 51 percent, and he's at 62.5 percent from 10-16 after putting up 43.9 percent and 22.2 percent, respectively, from those distances last year).
But a player like Marvin Williams -- who shot better than 40 percent from three and 50 percent from two last year -- has seen those percentages drop so far this season, perhaps in part because of all the work he's putting in on the defensive end.
"In our system, the four position is a different position, because you have to see everything," Williams said. "You've got to make sure you're in the right position, but then you have to make sure to help out the other guys to be in the right position, too. Guys like Kemba and Nic are guarding primary scorers all the time, so if I'm able to see something developing, I can help those guys out."
It all makes for a heavy lift, given Charlotte's roster. Clifford wants them to finish top-10 offensively, and that may well happen. It's also a pretty decent gameplan to keep playoff games close and look to Walker to finish them late -- that's a recipe that won Connecticut a national title back in 2010.
"Our offense is going to come," Williams said. "We have a lot of guys who can score the basketball, a lot of guys who can really shoot. Offensively, I think we can really play well. But defensively, if we're top five, I think we've got a chance."