A Franchise in Futility
The Charlotte Hornets have not been good for a long time. More honestly, the current iteration of the Charlotte NBA franchise has never been competitive. Since being reintegrated (as the then-Charlotte Bobcats) for the 2004-05 season, they have made just three playoff appearances. Those teams have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs all three times. Twice they were the 7th seed and got swept in their first round series. In their third, and most recent, playoff appearance, the Kemba Walker-led Hornets finished 6th in the East. That team took the Heat to a Game 7 before ultimately falling in their first round matchup. Since then it has been five consecutive losing seasons for Michael Jordan’s team.
But this year’s team looks, and feels, different. As of March 17th, they sit at 20-18 on the season. Charlotte currently holds the 5th seed in the cluttered East, but they are within a game of 4th place. No one is mistaking this year’s Hornets team for a championship contender. But as the season goes on it is becoming clear that they are not a punching bag anymore. The Hornets look like a dangerous team lurking at the bottom of the East. While they may not have the firepower to knock off any of the big three teams in the conference, the Hornets should be a formidable first round matchup for whichever team they face in the playoffs, provided they get there. They are not a lock to clinch a playoff spot, or to avoid the new play-in round, but this is a team that has been trending up for much of the season. The Hornets are playoff contenders at last, and there is reason for optimism in Charlotte.
The Budding Superstar
The headline for the Hornets in 2021 is obvious: LaMelo Ball. Ball is the runaway favorite to be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. He has wasted no time in making himself the biggest name the franchise has had on the floor since their rebirth in ‘04. Until now, all the franchise’s star power was located in the owner’s box. Ball is currently second among all rookies in scoring, behind only Anthony Edwards. He is first among rookies in steals, assists, and rebounds. Despite being the third overall pick in this year’s draft, and being the most famous member of the roster before ever stepping on an NBA court, Ball was forced to earn his way into the starting lineup. He did that and then some, in quick order. LaMelo’s last game off the bench came on January 30th, when he led the Hornets to a big win over the powerhouse Bucks, dropping 29 points and 9 assists.
Since then, LaMelo has started every game for Charlotte. The Hornets are 11-7 in those games after starting 9-11 with him coming off the bench. As a starter, Ball is averaging nearly 20 points per game (19.8) to go along with 6 assists and 6 rebounds. He only seems to be improving, rapidly, as he gains more experience. While he is unlikely to emerge as a true superstar this season, LaMelo has all the potential to become one of the league’s very best within a few years. And if the Hornets are lucky, Ball will prove to be a relatively easy player to build around. His skillset as a playmaker and a facilitator should make him the type of player who elevates those around him.
Big Free Agents
And speaking of building around LaMelo, it is unfair to his teammates to suggest that the Hornets’ success is entirely on the rookie’s shoulders. The Hornets made one other headline-grabbing move this past offseason. But when Charlotte signed Gordon Hayward to a 4-year, $120 million contract this offseason, the response was less positive. Many mocked or questioned the move, and not for no reason. Hayward was coming off an inconsistent, injury-marred tenure in Boston. He is now 30 years old, and his lone All Star season was four years ago. At the time of the signing, it looked like a short-sighted move for a franchise going nowhere.
But Year 1 of the Hayward deal is going very well for both parties so far. Hayward is averaging over 20 PPG for the first time since 2016-17 while shooting over 40% on threes. And he has missed just four of the team’s first 34 games, while averaging nearly 35 minutes per night. The Hornets so far are getting exactly what they had hoped for when they signed Hayward. Not only is he their leading scorer, but he also represents a strong veteran presence, both on the floor and off, to help ease the burden on LaMelo Ball as he navigates his rookie season. The Hornets drafted a potential superstar in Ball, and now he finds himself in a winning culture immediately upon entering the NBA. That likely does not happen without Gordon Hayward’s consistent contributions.
In terms of a “Big 3” in Charlotte, the third member of the Hornets’ main trio would be Terry Rozier. Rozier has had a bit of a resurgence in his second year in Carolina, averaging a career high 20.4 PPG and 43% on threes. The Big 3 of Ball, Hayward, and Rozier isn’t as intimidating as the likes of Harden, Durant, and Irving, but it’s a trio that can keep pace with any other offensive unit in the league on most nights.
Room to Grow
The Hornets’ problems this year will continue to be a lack of depth, unfortunately. But given their relative youth, as the league’s third youngest team, that may not be a major concern looking toward the future. Some of their young pieces have shown promise this year. Malik Monk has vastly improved his offensive game from a year ago. P.J. Washington has made steady improvements as well. Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham have regressed a bit this season, but still show enough promise to be capable NBA players after strong years in 2019-20.
And yet, Charlotte is not in the best long-term position possible. The big contracts handed out to Rozier and Hayward each of the last two off-seasons could easily become more problematic down the line. If Ball fulfills his potential, the Hornets will need to surround him with talent in order to maximize his ability. Hayward is a quality starter now, but given his injury history it is reasonable to question if that will still be the case a few years from now. Rozier can score, but is he good enough to be a starter on a contending team? Charlotte’s run of annual high lottery picks could be over as well, meaning they can’t bank on potentially drafting another superstar in next year’s draft.
But, for the first time in at least a decade, the Charlotte Hornets feel like they have a bright future. At the very least, LaMelo Ball is a player who will attract excitement and national media attention. Whatever happens from here, the Hornets and their fans have reason to be optimistic. For the first time in half a decade the Hornets are playoff contenders; a couple of years from now, we may be looking at them as championship contenders.