The 2019-20 NBA season went on hiatus on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The season is tentatively set to return on July 31 and NBA.com's writers are taking an updated look at each of the league's 30 teams.
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Record: 23-42, No. 10 in Eastern Conference
Season summary: The aftermath of the Kemba Walker era in Charlotte was every bit as choppy as expected. All of the warts on the Hornets’ roster were exposed after the longtime face of the franchise having moved on to Boston in free agency. That left coach James Borrego with the task of reshaping the franchise without a star player -- and that's no offense to Terry Rozier (who replaced Walker via a sign-and-trade deal) or second-year surprise Devonte’ Graham. The Hornets struggled to put the right pieces around Walker and had little in the way of structure to lean on in 2019-20. Their lack of offensive prowess (they're 25th in Offensive Rating with Graham on the floor) served as Borrego’s biggest problem. The franchise reset that didn’t commence over the summer got underway as the reality of what the Hornets’ struggles would be this season. Veterans Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were finally liberated from their situations and the organization embraced its new look. Youngsters Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington stepped into more prominent roles, but there's still more to be done in terms of roster reorganization.
Breakout player: Graham, a second-round Draft pick in 2018, is like a young NFL quarterback pressed into service on a franchise-friendly salary. He played his way into the job, shining time after time when the Hornets needed someone to step up. The fact that he and Rozier, who has been good but far from the consistent force his predecessor was, fit so well together had to be a relief for Borrego. Graham’s bid for the Kia Most Improved Award was bolstered by the massive strides he made from last season (from 4.7 points and 2.6 assists per game as a rookie to 18.2 ppg and 7.5 apg in 2019-20). Graham’s ability to adapt to the changing personnel and to find a way to be as effective as possible remain his greatest traits.
Statement win: Rozier hit the tie-breaking free throw with 2.1 seconds to play on Feb. 28 in Toronto to lift the Hornets to a 99-96 win agianst the reigning NBA-champion Raptors. It proved to be a momentum-churning win that would fuel a nice flourish during what turned out to be the final stretch of the Hornets' season. Bismack Biyombo worked his former team for 13 points and 11 rebounds, Graham scored nine of his 18 points in the fourth quarter while Rozier (18), Bridges (17) and Washington (15) made sure that all five starters finished in double figures. At the time Borrego called it “probably our best win of the season … it was a big-time win for us.”
Most exciting game: On March 7, the Hornets welcomed the Rockets’ small-ball cobra unit to the Queen City and promptly outplayed James Harden, Russell Westbrook and crew, winning 108-99 behind Rozier’s 24 points and 23 from Graham. Washington added 22 points, taking advantage of the small-ball matchups in ways that few rookies could against a seasoned crew like the Rockets. But he’d played out of position consistently in his two seasons at Kentucky, giving him some insight into how to be effective against the Rockets.
Memorable moments: Washington kicked off the season and his career in grand style, going off for 27 points and sinking seven 3-pointers in a season-opening win against Chicago on Oct. 27. Not bad for an undersized power forward whose biggest weakness was supposed to be his outside shooting. As for Graham, he served notice early on that this season would be something different when he torched the Pacers for 35 points and six assists in a Nov. 5 home win over Nate McMillan’s playoff-bound crew. He also showed off his touch from deep, nailing 10 3-pointers and finishing with 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in a win over the Warriors (who played without the Splash Brothers, of course). Before the season hiatus hit, the Hornets fought off the Southeast Division-leading Heat on their home floor in their final game before the shutdown, winning 109-98 behind Graham’s 30 points as the Hornets rallied from an early 20-point deficit.
Team MVP: Graham and Rozier could share the honor, given their tag-team backcourt work most nights. But Graham’s season-long work gives him a slight edge. The Hornets struggled to put it all together this season anyway. Can you imagine how tough things would have been without Graham’s steadying influence? While Rozier need time to adjust to his new surroundings, Graham served as the ideal bridge from the Walker era to whatever is next. The Hornets have so many unknowns and their roster needs some serious attention. The one thing they don’t have to worry about is Graham. The more comfortable he gets on and off the floor as a team leader, the better.
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