The Charlotte Hornets are on the path back to relevance. With the additions of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, along with development from Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier, the Hornets saw real improvement last season. They still have the longest active playoff drought in the Eastern Conference (five seasons), but with Ball (the eighth rookie in the last 25 years to average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists) leading a young core that includes two top-20 picks from the 2021 Draft, they’re moving forward.
The Hornets have said goodbye to Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk, along with franchise mainstay Cody Zeller. In addition to the two rookies, they’ve added Kelly Oubre Jr. (still just 25 years old) and Mason Plumlee. Oubre gives them more small-ball versatility (they had success with P.J. Washington at center last season) and insurance for Hayward, who missed the final 24 games of the regular season and the Hornets’ Play-In loss in Indiana. This team saw the league’s biggest jump in pace last season and, with additional athleticism and Ball the full-time starter from Day 1, could play even faster this year.
Will they switch things up defensively? The Hornets were an improved defensive team last season, but they gave up a lot of the most efficient shots on the floor. Only two teams allowed their opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots from the restricted area, and the 4.5 corner 3-pointers the Hornets allowed were the second highest opponent mark in NBA history. They played the most zone in the league and their zone defense ranked highly. But overall, it was a feast-or-famine situation on that end of the floor, too often allowing uncontested layups or corner 3-pointers.
The development of the Hornets’ young core and (assumed) better health for Hayward offer reasons for optimism in Charlotte. This team will be ridiculously athletic and fun to watch, and the goal should be to reach the playoffs via a higher Play-In seed than they had last season (10th). But there are similar reasons for optimism with the teams that finished around them in the Eastern Conference standings, particularly with the team — the Chicago Bulls — the Hornets edged out for that final Play-In spot. Progress isn’t always linear, and the Hornets may have to settle for continued development without a huge leap in the standings. Predicted finish: 37-45.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
LaMelo Ball: Infectious energy. Daring passer. Shot just 38% as Hornets went 3-8 upon his return from wrist injury.
Terry Rozier: Sixth season was his best scoring-wise (20.4 ppg) and his most efficient (true shooting percentage of 57.5%).
Gordon Hayward: Hornets were 24-20 when he played last season. Size vs. guards and wings gives them a half-court go-to.
P.J. Washington: Could be stronger inside. Shot just 54% in the restricted area and rim-protection numbers were sub-par.
Mason Plumlee: Strong finisher inside and creative/willing passer. Defense took a step backward in Detroit last season.
Ish Smith: Hornets are his 12th team in his 12th season, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable. Will push the pace.
James Bouknight: No. 11 pick in 2021 Draft is more of a scorer than a shooter. Should play right away behind Ball and Rozier.
Miles Bridges: Ball’s primary lob catcher. Saw effective field goal percentage jump from 49% in 2019-20 to 60% last season.
Kelly Oubre Jr.: Not a very effective shooter (33% from 3 over his career), but could flourish on the break alongside Ball.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Hornets have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
47.4% — Terry Rozier has shot 46-for-97 (47.4%) on clutch 3s in his career, the best mark (by a healthy margin) for any player with as many attempts in the 25 years for which we have clutch data. He’s ranked second in clutch 3-point percentage (minimum 25 attempts) in each of the last two seasons, shooting 15-for-33 (45.5%) in 2019-20 and 14-for-31 (45.2%) in 2020-21.
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