Nearly a third of the way through this truncated 2020-21 NBA season, we still are in a holding pattern in terms of evaluating a number of teams. The Lakers, for example, appear to be sleep-walking most nights, testing the limits of how little effort can be given while still winning games (ex: see back-to-back overtime wins over the lowly Pistons and Thunder). The Clippers, Bucks, Sixers, and Jazz, meanwhile, exist in a state of constant “prove it in the playoffs,” where skepticism will remain almost no matter what they do during the regular season.
As such, the NBA regular season is often about finding the pleasant surprises and simply enjoying the teams that are fun to watch. This season, that means the suddenly red-hot Sacramento Kings, the Denver Nuggets whenever Nikola Jokic is on the floor, and, before the Larry Nance injury, the young and energetic Cleveland Cavaliers. No team has been as consistently fun to watch this season, however, more than the Charlotte Hornets.
Entering this season, expectations were low for the Hornets on a national scale. They gave Gordon Hayward a monster contract that raised eyebrows and led to a lot of ink spilled on what an overpay it was for a player who wasn’t likely to raise their overall profile all that much. There were questions of how Terry Rozier and DeVonte’ Graham would mesh in the backcourt with LaMelo Ball, the hopeful future of the franchise as the third overall pick in the 2020 Draft, and whether Rozier would become trade bait before the deadline. The rest of the roster have yet to show much in the way of consistency and don’t have much name recognition with the average NBA fan.
And yet, every night the Hornets play, I seem to find myself gravitating to this 12-13 team like a moth to the flame. Hayward is having a career year, quieting contract debates with his early performance by providing a steady hand to a team that is otherwise bursting with energy. Any concerns their backcourt couldn’t work together has been quieted by the play of all three, as Rozier is enjoying the best shooting season of his career, embracing more of an off-ball role and often letting his young teammates initiate the offense. Graham, currently out with a groin injury, hasn’t been as efficient as his breakout season a year ago, but is a tremendous creator and has cut his turnovers in half.
While the Hornets are solid no matter the combination in the backcourt, it is, to steal Clyde Frazier’s favorite term, the precocious neophyte Ball who makes them must-see TV. The rookie guard is averaging 14.2 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.9 rebounds in just under 27 minutes per game, and since entering the starting lineup five games ago after Rozier was out with injury, has taken his play to another level.
In those five games as a starter, Ball is averaging 22.6 points, 6.6 assists, and six rebounds in 34.2 minutes a night, and at this point, it would seem impossible for the Hornets to ever go back to bringing him off of the bench. His shooting, long the chief question for his offensive game, has been tremendous in the last five, hitting at least three three-pointers in each game, headlined by a 7-for-12 night from distance in Monday’s win over the Rockets.
Whether he’s hitting shots or not, Ball has injected so much life into this Charlotte team with his pace and vision that everyone on the floor is engaged in what’s happening all the time. He’s an elite rebounding guard and when he grabs a board the entire Hornets team takes off in hopes that they might be the one to get his outlet pass for an easy basket. Just look at the highlights from the win over Houston, namely how many times he is pushing the tempo and bringing his teammates with him.
— NBA (@NBA) February 9, 2021
He has unlocked the best in teammates like Miles Bridges, who has teamed with Ball to form one of the league’s best lob tandems. Ball is willing to throw it up from just about anywhere, confident Bridges will haul it in and throw it down.
Bridges is enjoying his most efficient start to a season of his career, hitting 37 percent of his three-point attempts as his shooting stroke was obviously a focal point for him during Charlotte’s long offseason. On top of what appears to be a more comfortable shot form, the way the ball is moving on the Hornets this season is keeping those shooters and secondary creators more engaged. When that happens, shots tend to go in more often because they’re more ready for the ball to come their way. That is evidenced by their overall team three-point percentage, which at 37.8 is ninth in the NBA, a significant improvement from their 19th ranked 35.2 percent mark from a year ago, per Basketball-Reference. The biggest changes have been the addition of Hayward, an excellent spot-up shooter, and Ball, but as important as new personnel is the style of play they have embraced, which is to the credit of coach James Borrego.
Charlotte is first in assists per game at 28.1, as Ball, Graham, Hayward, and Rozier are all doing a great job initiating the offense. Their bigs are also getting involved as P.J. Washington, Cody Zeller, and Bridges all top two assists per game. It is a style of basketball that is extremely enjoyable to watch, as the ball rarely stagnates and they take advantage of the various playmakers on the floor, all of whom are happy to share the limelight with their teammates. Add in one of the most entertaining broadcast teams in Eric Collins and Dell Curry, who match the team’s energy on the floor in the booth, and you have a recipe for one of the NBA’s true League Pass gems.
There are better teams in the NBA, of that there is no doubt, but you’d be hard pressed to find one that is more enjoyable on a nightly basis. The Hornets seem likely to at least make the play-in tournament in the East. Because they sit in sixth place, they have a shot at an outright playoff berth, although they’ll have to hold off teams like Toronto, Miami, and Atlanta, all of whom figure to get healthier and better. There’s plenty of time to be concerned about their playoff prospects later, though, because right now they’re simply a joy to watch, and in a long regular season where the stakes of each game are relatively low, that is something to cherish.
This season is one Hornets fans (and NBA fans as a whole) should embrace, because you only get one real season freed from the burden of expectations. Once you’ve become the pleasant surprise of the league, you’re expected to take the next step, which doesn’t always come and usually isn’t quite as fun. But this year is something truly joyful, a young team playing a tremendous brand of basketball with some quality veterans holding it all together while their star rookie is free to explore all of his talents and put them on display each and every night, regardless of the outcome.