Entering the 2016-17 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, and maybe Atlanta Hawks figured to be the class of the Eastern Conference.
It very well may still turn out that way, but early on, another team is making it clear that they want to sit at the cool kids’ table.
Behind a 6-1 start, the Charlotte Hornets are tied with the Cavaliers for the best record in the East. Kemba Walker has looked better than ever through seven games, averaging 23.9 points and 5.6 assists per contest.
Before we get too excited over the hot start, it’s certainly worth noting that the Hornets’ six wins have come against some pretty weak competition. Let’s take a look at the teams they’ve defeated: Milwaukee, Miami, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Indiana and Utah. Not exactly a murderer’s row.
When the Raptors head to North Carolina on Friday night, it will represent the stiffest test Charlotte has been presented with thus far. A win might get the league to really take notice. On the flip side, this early matchup gives the Raptors an opportunity to let the Hornets know they’re still a tier below the top dogs.
Here are three storylines to follow as the action unfolds.
Will the Threes Keep Dropping?
It’s been a horrendous start to the year for the Raptors when it comes to three-point shooting. Toronto sits 29th in the league in terms of threes made per game as well as three-point percentage. Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll have not been able to find a consistent rhythm, and Terrence Ross is dealing with a finger injury on his shooting hand.
The Raptors managed to at least temporarily break out of their slump from beyond the arc against the Oklahoma City Thunder, connecting on 11 of their 25 attempts. Keeping that success going will be essential for Toronto to keep driving lanes open for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Battle at the Point:
For the second straight game, Lowry will have his hands full with his counterpart. Walker has never made an all-star team in his first five seasons, but he seems poised to change that. One of the players he will likely have to jump in order to earn that honour is Lowry, the two-time incumbent. The biggest difference for Walker so far this season has been his improved efficiency. The 26-year-old is shooting 47 per cent from the field overall, including an outstanding 44 per cent mark from three-point territory.
Bebe or Poeltl?
Following Wednesday’s win over the Thunder, coach Dwane Casey refused to commit to a starting centre for however long Jonas Valanciunas is out. Lucas Nogueira turned in an impressive performance last time out, but rookie Jakob Poeltl has shown flashes of promise in his first handful of NBA games. Casey inferred he will roll with whichever big has the hot hand on any given night. If Valanciunas is unable to go, it will be interesting to see which player Casey inserts into the starting lineup.
Where to watch: 7 p.m. ET, Sportsnet One