The Charlotte Hornets have been stuck in purgatory for a while. They’ve made the playoffs exactly three times since the Charlotte Bobcats brought basketball back to the city in 2004-05, with all of those spells ending in a first round defeat. That might remain the case at the end of the 2021-22 campaign, but right now, there’s hope in Charlotte that the Hornets can potentially be something going forward. Following a 33-39 season that looked promising before both Gordon Hayward and Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball got hurt and ended with a loss in the play-in tournament, there looks to be an infrastructure in place for playoff basketball to no longer be an occasional one-off. This team’s job is to keep building that infrastructure, and if it ends with a first postseason berth since 2015-16, well, you can probably guess no one in the Queen City will be too unhappy.
Arnoldas Kulboka (two-way)
Scottie Lewis (two-way)
Projected Vegas Win Total: 36.5 wins
Biggest Addition: Mason Plumlee/Kai Jones
Charlotte’s center spot is a major, major question mark. The logic here appears to be that Plumlee, who has long been a respectable frontcourt option for a handful of teams, can keep things steady while Jones, the No. 19 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and a freak athlete who needs polish, gets minutes on occasion and develops into the team’s center of the future. If that happens, the team’s biggest concern on the roster is solved. If it blows up, perhaps Charlotte will find itself in the market for someone barring Jalen McDaniels blowing up.
Biggest Loss: Devonte’ Graham
Graham blossomed into a really nice guard option during his time in Charlotte. He was able to parlay this into a good payday from the New Orleans Pelicans — after acquiring Graham in a three-team deal, the Pels rewarded him with a four-year, $47.3 million contract. The Hornets will assuredly miss his ability to hit threes and initiate the offense, although it’s a safe bet that they’ll be happy to give the lion’s share of these responsibilities to LaMelo Ball.
Biggest Question: Can LaMelo Ball avoid a sophomore slump?
Ball is that dude, the kind of potential building block for longterm success that the franchise just has not had. Even if he had not shot the ball better than anticipated, Ball’s total control of the game was so far beyond his years that you’d be totally in your right to wonder if he was a teenager. Some rookies have had better numbers — 15.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 28.8 minutes a night while connecting on 35.2 percent of his threes — but Ball was as impressive as any first-year player in recent history.
Now the question is whether or not he builds on this or falls into a dreaded sophomore slump. He is good enough that he can propel himself into All-Star consideration right now, but what happens if things don’t come as easy to him now that defenses are keying in on him, or he struggles with his shot, or any of the other million things we’ve seen with second-year players who can’t quite make their second act as memorable as the first? He’ll still be a good player, of course, but there’s a difference between that and what Ball can be.
What Makes This Season A Success: Taking the next step. Things went well for Charlotte last year, but now, it’s time to build on that and go from a team that barely makes the play-in tournament to, health permitting, a team that is firmly in the tournament, perhaps even pushing for an automatic playoff berth (although this would likely be a stretch with how deep the Eastern Conference is). Beyond the above question about Ball, guys like Miles Bridges and PJ Washington will get chances to more firmly entrench themselves as starters, while Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier can continue their successful post-Boston careers by continuing to produce big numbers and, in Hayward’s case, staying healthy.
What Makes This Season A Failure: Stuck in neutral or going in reverse. How many times have we seen a team look feisty one year and then fail to do much the next year? Hell, how many times have we seen Charlotte do that? The good news is that this is a young, fun team, with a few veteran players sprinkled in that should be able to help fend off complacency. But more than any win-loss record, the Hornets have to be building towards something, and while there’s enough here to make them think they will, there’s no guarantee that happens.