The Charlotte Hornets played four months of basketball that showed hope for the future of the organization, pieces to build around, and the signs of progression towards becoming a contender.
In the last month, much of that optimism has vanished, as the Hornets’ season finished with a whimper. Charlotte lost 10 of its final 13 contests, including six straight, culminating with Tuesday’s 144-117 loss to the Pacers in the first game of the NBA Play-In Round.
To be fair, this team had its fair share of injury attrition throughout the season, with LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges & Devonte’ Graham all missing key stretches. Charlotte also had to endure the loss of high-priced forward Gordon Hayward, who didn’t play in the final 25 games of the season. The Hornets slumped to an 8-17 mark without him in the lineup.
LaMelo Ball will probably win the Rookie of the Year for his play he showcased before the injury. He was averaging 20 points-per-game, putting up numbers we’ve never seen from a teenager in the NBA & providing nightly highlights that put the Hornets on center stage in the NBA. His injury in late March became the landmark for when things began to unravel for the Hornets.
Ball returned to the lineup from a broken wrist on May 1st, and while his points-per-game upon return fell just five points from his peak of the season, his shooting stroke never regained his pre-injury prowess. Ball made just 13 three-pointers in 11 games since he came back into the lineup, with his shooting percentage dipping to a decimating 25% from beyond the arc.
While different players being out in key situations certainly affected the rhythm, you can’t fault James Borrego for constantly innovating to find the right mix. Against his better wishes, he inserted Miles Bridges into the starting lineup after Hayward’s injury while fearing the loss of his energy off the bench. He used a small-ball lineup at times to try and compensate for the gaping hole at center that has plagued the team since took the helm three seasons ago.
Despite the tinkering, the problems mushroomed. The team’s three-point shooting as a whole started to stagger. Terry Rozier went into a shooting slump that only recovered on nights where he had no help. The team also struggled defending the three all season, choosing to protect the lane instead in a “Sophie’s Choice” made by Borrego because of the team’s limitations on that end of the floor. And lastly, the clutch performances that defined them through the first 2/3 of the season waned to disappointment, in a cruel market correction that came at the most inopportune time.
It’s hard to see the forest for the trees at a time like this.
Borrego preached endlessly down the stretch that this experience was invaluable for this team, it’s also a sharp reminder of how much is left in this process. While the criticisms of the man in charge have started, I do not believe all of them are warranted. Asking this outfit devoid of experience to go through the land mines they trekked through was a hard ask for anyone.
This upcoming offseason is a vital period of time for the rebuild of this franchise. This team obviously needs an overhaul in the frontcourt, but also needs to answer which parts are worth building around LaMelo Ball and which are expendable. General Manager Mitch Kupchak said repeatedly this season that they felt they were ahead of schedule, but this fanbase won’t accept another season of stagnation.
The Hornets probably weren’t as good as the team that reached as high as fourth in East, and probably not as bad as the team that stumbled to 10th place and a play-in blowout ouster.
Next season, they need the results to prove it.
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