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Nicolas Batum's All-Star season has transformed the Hornets' offense

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The emergence of the former Blazer has the Hornets offense clicking and the team back in the playoff hunt.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

We're more than a month into the season and the Charlotte Hornets, amazingly, own the league's third-best offense. Last year, Steve Clifford's crew played like one those ugly offenses from the mid 90s. This year's Hornets move the ball, jack up threes and score at a rate better than juggernauts like the Hawks, Cavaliers and Spurs.

The offseason trade for Nicolas Batum is the move that jumpstarted that transformation. Batum is doing everything Lance Stephenson was supposed to do last year, and the Hornets have become a factor in the East because of him.

The 26-year-old Batum is averaging a career high 17.2 points to go along with his usual five assists and seven rebounds. More notably, though, he's improved his outside shooting, nailing 52 percent of his shots and 40 percent of his three-pointers, a steady increase over the 32 percent he shot from deep last season.

His shooting and playmaking inject more punch and spacing into Charlotte's attack. The Hornets no longer rely on Kemba Walker isolations or All Jefferson post ups. They now have much-needed diversity instead of resorting to one-on-one play. It's no accident that the Hornets are scoring 105 points per 100 possessions when Batum plays and just 100 when he sits.

"It's just really simple," Clifford said to SI.com in November. "When he catches the ball, he makes simple, quick plays, and he's usually right. So, if he's open, he shoots it. If he's defended, he passes and cuts."

In his seven years in Portland Batum was never more than a fall-back option. While his ability to do a little bit of everything was valuable, his role was to fit in, space the floor and leave the heavy lifting to LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Brandon Roy (before his injury). Only 15 percent of Blazers possessions ended with the ball in Batum's hands last year. This year, that number is up to 23 percent, right in line with Walker and Jefferson.

The Hornets still play at a methodical pace, but they've also reconstructed their offense. Gone are the stagnant half-court sets and hesitancy from behind the arc. Charlotte is taking eight three-pointers more per game this season, and the 6'8 Batum, with his quick trigger, long arms, high release and canny understanding of how to cut off the ball and around screens, has been the catalyst for that change.

Now, thanks to Batum's versatility and intelligence, Clifford can unleash his inner mad scientist and design plays to keep opposing defenses befuddled. Very few players can set a screen, cut and hit a three on the move within a matter of seconds.

Batum is always moving himself or the ball in search of the best possible shot. He rarely slows the ball and ranks towards the top of the league in catch-and-shoot attempts per game (five) and percentage (46), per NBA.com.

But the Hornets' new weapon is far from a catch-and-shoot robot like Anthony Morrow or J.R. Smith. Batum can also put the ball on the floor and pull the defense towards him to free up a cutting teammate. Sometimes, that can mean an easy and obvious pass to an open player. Other times, it means anticipating Jeremy Lin's backdoor cut and slipping this impossible pass in.

"He has the size, exceptional skill level, and passing ability to deliver passes from really anywhere, Clifford said to SI.com. "He's a really talented player. He actually plays, to me, a lot like Tracy McGrady played. Great size, excellent vision, and the ability to deliver passes also off the dribble."

That makes Batum so dangerous. He's an intelligent player interested in making intelligent plays. Efficiency -- in shots, in movements, in decision -- is his game.

Combine that desire with his length and height, and he becomes incredibly difficult to defend. Guards can't deter him from shooting or match him in the post.

Most big men can't keep up with him as he darts around screens or cover him in open space. Even those who do soon realize that being able to keep up with Batum doesn't prevent him from finding the bottom of the net.

Batum isn't the only reason the Hornets are 11-8 and in sixth place in the East, but he's certainly a major one. He's helped transform the Hornets' offense from stodgy to speedy. His shooting numbers may drop at some point this season and one would think it's unlikely Charlotte finishes the year as at top-5 offense.

Still, there are only a handful of players in the East in better form than Batum. He's the main reason the Hornets have surprised and should earn serious All-Star consideration for his effort.