2021 Midseason Report

2021 Midseason report: Charlotte Hornets

NBA.com takes stock of the Charlotte Hornets after the first half of the 2020-21 season.

Rookie phenom LaMelo Ball has brought a new level of excitement to the Hornets in 2020-21.

First half summary: With two big additions in the offseason, the Charlotte Hornets have taken a significant step forward. Gordon Hayward (averaging an efficient 21.5 ppg) is back to being a go-to guy offensively and LaMelo Ball (one of eight players averaging at least 15 points, six rebounds and six assists) is the clear favorite to win Kia Rookie of the Year. With the additional talent and some improvement from their young core, the Hornets have been the league’s fourth-most improved team statistically, 6.5 points per 100 possessions better than they were last season.

The bigger improvement has come on offense, where the Hornets are in the middle of the pack after ranking 28th last season. With Hayward, Terry Rozier and Malik Monk all having shot better than 40% from beyond the arc, the team ranks sixth in 3-point percentage (38.5%). With the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, the Hornets have shot 23-for-45 (51%) from beyond the arc. Their 11-5 record in clutch games has them in a fight for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference at 17-18 heading into the break.

Biggest questions going into the second half:

Can they be better defensively? Though they have plenty of speed and athleticism in their rotation, the Hornets rank 19th defensively. Their opponents have taken 79% of their shots, the league’s highest opponent rate, from the restricted area or 3-point range. They’ve allowed a league-high 5.3 corner 3-pointers per game, with the two highest totals in any game this season — Utah’s 15 corner 3s on Feb. 22 and Memphis’ 12 on Feb. 10 — having come against the Charlotte defense. The Hornets have had some success in playing the most zone defense in the league, but can be beat pretty easily by teams willing to move the ball.

Who’s coming off the bench? The Hornets have four players — Rozier, Hayward, Devonte’ Graham and PJ Washington — who’ve started every game they’ve played in. And with at least one of those four guys having missed each of their last 15 games, Ball has started all 15. So, when everybody’s healthy, a decision will have to be made, and maybe it’s to start all four of those guys and the rookie, with Cody Zeller (who’s started his last 14 games) coming off the bench. The Hornets have outscored their opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions in 102 minutes with Ball, Graham and Rozier on the floor together and by 4.5 points per 100 possessions in 445 minutes with Washington at center.

Playoffs or lottery?: Ball is 19 years old, and the Hornets have three other rotation guys — Miles Bridges, Monk and Washington — who are 23 or younger, while Graham and Rozier are each just 26. So the long-term play is the right one. But in the Eastern Conference, hanging around .500 puts you in the heart of the play-in race, and the Hornets should remain there if they stay healthy. That gives them a legit chance at ending a four-year playoff drought, though Charlotte will likely have to wait longer for its first playoff series win since 2002.

When that time comes, we could look back at this season as the start of the turnaround. Even if the playoffs are another year away, the Hornets have taken a critical step toward contention. In addition to establishing a foundation on which to build, they’ve been a lot of fun to watch from night to night.

— John Schuhmann