Aidan C. (@dubdubsports)
After a heartbreaking 132-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2022 Play In Tournament, the Charlotte Hornets entertaining season came to an end. The Hornets finished the 2021-22 season as the 10th seed with a record of 43-39. This marked the most wins for the franchise since the 2015 season when the Hornets fell to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
After the season, it seemed as if the Hornets would continue their upward trend towards success and a winning culture. Until the dominos started to fall.
Injury after injury, legal case after legal case, and loss after loss. The Hornets identity soon shifted from the team fans loved and rooted for just last season. Now, there is a whole new culture in Charlotte, and the big question is:
When does the cycle end?
Prior to the 2022-23 season, the Hornets made a number of notable changes. Some willingly, others, not so willingly.
After firing previous head coach James Borrego, who did not have too much success with this young squad, the off season seemed to spiral. Warriors assistant head coach and former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson was set to step into the head coaching job in Charlotte. Soon after, Atkinson announced he would remain in Golden State and thanked Charlotte for the opportunity.
This was right on par with a series of unfortunate events.
The Hornets then decided to bring back former head coach Steve Clifford on short notice. Clifford previously coached the Hornets, therefore he already had a relationship with Owner Michael Jordan and GM Mitch Kupchak.
Clifford previously coached the Hornets from 2013-2018. In those years, he racked up a record of 196-214. Clifford’s Hornets were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in both the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons.
Perhaps the most notorious and impactful incident the Hornets endured this offseason was the loss of Miles Bridges. Bridges pleaded no contest to a felony domestic assault charge committed on his girlfriend Michelle in front of their two children. This incident occurred shortly before Bridges was due for a payday, and his future with the team and in the NBA remain uncertain.
Bridges will serve a three year probation where he is required to complete 52 weeks of domestic violence counseling, 52 weeks of parenting classes, serve 100 hours of community service, and undergo weekly narcotics testing. If Bridges signs with a team, the NBA has the right to suspend, fine, or dismiss Bridges from play.
Last season, 24 year old Miles Bridges out of Michigan State was a key component of the Hornets increase in success. Bridges averaged all career highs, posting 20.2 ppg, 7 rpg and 3.8 apg. Bridges also shot an impressive 49% from the field, with his volume increasing by about six attempts per game compared to the previous season.
Bridges and Ball became the dynamic duo out in Charlotte. The pair became the first Hornets duo to each average 20 ppg since Larry Johnson and Glen Rice in the 1995-96 season.
The absence of Bridges has left a detrimental hole in the Hornets offense.
In the draft, the Hornets made some big decisions. After drafting C Jalen Duren out of Memphis with the 13th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, the Hornets immediately traded him to the Detroit Pistons for future draft compensation. The 18 year old Duren is having an extremely solid season out in Detroit, making the most out of his minutes. Duren is currently averaging 8.3 ppg and 8.6 rpg on 65% FG.
Shortly afterwards, the Hornets selected C Mark Williams out of Duke University with the 15th pick in the draft. Williams, best known for his length and shot blocking ability, joined big men Mason Plumlee and Nick Richards in the Hornets center rotation. Williams recently worked his way into Clifford’s rotation, showing off his elite defensive instincts and rebounding ability. The rookie is currently putting up 7.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 1.0 bpg in just 13 minutes per game.
The Hornets also selected Bryce McGowens out of Nebraska in the late second round. McGowens and Williams join the young group of Kai Jones, JT Thor, and James Bouknight who were all selected in the 2021 NBA Draft. The young group seem to take turns in Coach Clifford’s rotation, with JT Thor appearing to have the most consistent role thus far.
Who’s In and Who’s Out
The Charlotte Hornets roster underwent some small changes throughout the off season as well.
Gained: Dennis Smith Jr, Bryce McGowens, Mark Williams, Theo Maledon
Lost: Miles Bridges, Montrezl Harrell, Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith
Dennis Smith Jr started out hot for the Hornets, contributing greatly on the defensive end while providing solid offensive production. As the season continued and Smith endured an ankle sprain, he seems to have regressed greatly. On the offensive end, Smith’s jumpshot has been non-existent. The young point guard has shot a career low 20% from three point range this season, struggling to get any sort of jump shot to fall.
Rookie Bryce McGowens has spent time with both the Hornets and the Greensboro Swarm in the G League. It seems as the season has gone on, McGowens has taken the spot of James Bouknight in the rotation. McGowens has showcased great flashes of athleticism and shooting, and should progress into a very solid piece.
The losses of Montrezl and Thomas do not mean much for the Hornets. These roles have been filled, especially with both Nick Richards and Mason Plumlee improving greatly. Ish Smith’s role has been replaced by both Dennis Smith Jr and Theo Maledon.
Of those who suited up for the Hornets last season, a few players have seemed to improve a lot. As this team continues to build from the ground up, it is important players take noticeable leaps from year to year.
After changing his jersey number from his brother’s famous number 2 to his brand of MB1, LaMelo Ball has seemed to improve in a few areas. Whenever he has been healthy, that is. After suffering multiple ankle sprains and re-aggravating his wrist that he injured his rookie season, Ball has missed quite some time for the Hornets.
In the time he has played, Ball has shown great improvement from three point range. Ball is amongst players such as Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard in terms of efficiency and volume from downtown. Jumping to over 10 3PA/G, Ball has no shortage of confidence, even from 40 feet out. Once he becomes more consistent and takes smarter shots from downtown, Ball will be amongst one of the best three point shooters in the NBA.
Ball has also taken a jump in his playmaking and rebounding ability. Recently in a game versus the Milwaukee Bucks, Ball became the all time leader for triple doubles in franchise history with eight triple doubles.
The young point guard is currently averaging 23.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, and 8.1 apg on 40/35/86 shooting splits.
Ball is only 21 years old and in year three of his career, so as these areas continue to get better, expect to see more triple doubles from the young star.
At 34 years old, Mason Plumlee took one of the most unexpected and drastic leaps in the NBA. Plumlee went from struggling to put up a double double, and being in the race for bottom three starting centers in the NBA to having stints on par with the great Wilt Chamberlain.
Mason Plumlee became the first player since Chamberlain to have a 20 game stretch averaging 15 ppg and 10 rpg on 70% shooting.
Specifically, in January 2023, Plumlee recorded the greatest shooting percentage in a 20 game stretch in NBA history dating back to the 1976-77 season. Plumlee shot 77% from the field in this stretch.
Plumlee is currently averaging 12.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 3.7 apg so far this season. On top of these eye opening averages, Plumlee has been shooting an efficent 67% FG. Wow. For a center, his playmaking ability is surely above average. His leap in shot making ability has jumped with his new and improved lefty jump shot.
With the trade deadline approaching, one question surrounds Plumlee:
What do the Hornets do with him?
It is possible the Hornets decide to keep the 34 year old veteran as they rebuild the team. However, with his trade value at an all time high along with an inflated trade market, it is possible the Hornets seek a healthy return for the big man out of Duke.
Up For Grabs: Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee, Jalen McDaniels
Potential Targets: Bones Hyland (Nuggets), Russell Westbrook (Lakers), Ayo Dosunmu (Bulls), First Round Picks
The Hornets desperately need to dump the large contracts they have on their plate.
Gordon Hayward is currently on a 4yr/$120M contract and is set to make a little over $30M both this season and next season. Terry Rozier is also set to make over $20M a year through the 2025-26 season.
The trade deadline is the perfect chance to acquire future draft picks and young pieces to help this team. After the Rudy Gobert trade, prices for players have gone up. It is possible the Hornets could land a big return to help them rebuild with the right trade moves.
Looking Ahead, or up. At Wembanyama.
The Hornets have been a bottom three team in the NBA for a large portion of the season. As they likely continue to lose and secure their place in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, the Hornets need to focus on the tank war at hand. A seven footer with a firm handle, smooth jump shot and elite shot blocking ability is very rare to find.
With Wembanyama on the board, along with talent such as Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, Ausar Thompson, Brandon Miller, Jett Howard and more prospects likely to be drafted in the top ten, the Hornets should land a promising young star.
The Charlotte Hornets have spent the past decade crawling their way out of the bottom, just to fall right back. As time goes on, hopefully the Hornets can get their feet below them and start to gain and maintain their momentum towards being a playoff team.