The 2020-21 season was encouraging for the Charlotte Hornets in myriad ways, ranging from the star potential of LaMelo Ball to a berth in the NBA’s inaugural play-in extravaganza. Though the Hornets didn’t make any gigantic moves in advance of the 2021-22 campaign, internal development led to optimistic projections, including many forecasting another postseason visit for Charlotte. After a strong start at 13-8, the Hornets experienced a swoon in late November and December, losing nine of ten games to slip below the .500 mark. Since then, however, Charlotte has found its stride, posting an 8-3 record and climbing within 1.5 games of the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Offense has carried the Hornets throughout the season, scoring more than 1.12 points per possession. Charlotte plays at a blistering pace, the second-fastest tempo in the NBA, and James Borrego’s team leans on its youth and athleticism. Charlotte isn’t shy about hoisting from long range, ranking in the top six of the league in three-point attempts (38 per game) and accuracy (37.3 per game), and the Hornets have top five marks in assists (27.1 per game), turnovers (13 per game), and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.09).
Charlotte has several quality options on offense, but the breakout of Miles Bridges is perhaps the most prominent reason for the team’s explosion. Bridges is averaging 20 points and 7.3 rebounds per game as restricted free agency looms, and he has been able to increase usage while maintaining a strong true shooting mark of 57.5 percent this season. The former lottery pick has a career-best 14.9 percent rate with only a 9.4 percent turnover rate, and the Hornets are nine points per 100 possessions better with Bridges on the floor, the largest gap on the roster. Bridges’ early-season performance was already turning heads, but the hyper-athletic forward produced a headline-grabbing performance against the New York Knicks on Monday, putting up a career-high 38 points to go along with 12 rebounds and five assists. Elsewhere, Ball is continuing his strong trajectory, averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game, and the two-man combination of Ball and Bridges has many buzzing around the league.
For the full campaign, Charlotte’s defense has been bothersome, and the team’s lack of true rim protection and interior resistance is notable for both the present and future. However, the Hornets have allowed only 106.5 points per 100 possessions in the last 11 games, creating 16.9 turnovers per contest along the way. Charlotte is in the top five of the NBA in turnover creation for the season and, while the mark from the last 11 contests almost certainly won’t sustain, the Hornets are at least taking advantage of aggressiveness and speed to minimize overall damage.
In glancing at the standings, it may be a stretch to flat-out project the Hornets as a team that will avoid the play-in tournament. After all, five of the six teams ahead of Charlotte are fully established, and the sixth (Cleveland) is playing exceedingly well in the first half. However, the No. 7 spot isn’t a bad place to be, and Charlotte has ever reason for long-term optimism.
Where do the Hornets slot in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a look.
1. Phoenix Suns (34-9, Last week — 1st)
The Suns are 4-0 on a five-game road trip, with the final game looming in Dallas on Wednesday. Phoenix is a clear No. 1 at this stage, with the best record in the league, the best recent form, and the second-best net rating (+7.9) as the halfway point moves to the rearview mirror.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (31-15, Last week — 2nd)
Memphis finally lost a game this week, falling flat in a 27-point loss to Dallas. On cue, the Grizzlies bounced back with a very nice win over the shorthanded Bulls on MLK Day, and Memphis is riding high with the third-best record in the NBA. Now, they begin this week with an intriguing road test in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
3. Golden State Warriors (31-12, Last week — 3rd)
This ranking is out of deference to the full-season profile, but the Warriors are 2-5 in the last seven games. Draymond Green will be out for a little while, Steph Curry has cooled, and Golden State’s offense is truly scuffling. It’s not at the panic point or anything, but the Warriors aren’t playing like they were in October and November.
4. Utah Jazz (29-15, Last week — 4th)
With the Warriors slowing, the Jazz were in a strong position to jump, but Utah is also battling issues. The Jazz are 1-5 in the last six games and, while Rudy Gobert’s return helps the defense immediately, Utah lost to the previously aimless Lakers on Monday.
5. Dallas Mavericks (25-19, Last week — 7th)
Right after a glowing picture in this space, the Mavs flopped in New York. Dallas did pick it up from there, though, with three straight wins and a 9-1 mark in the last 10 games. Dallas also crashed the top five of the NBA in defensive rating, allowing only 1.07 points per possession for the season.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers (27-18, Last week — 11th)
Cleveland was always going to cool off at some point, and that happened in late December and early January. In a credit to the Cavs, they’ve bounced back with five straight wins, including four on the road, and that run was capped by a nice win over Brooklyn on Monday. The Cavs have a road test against the Bulls on Wednesday, but there are friendly spots on the schedule the rest of January to keep racking up wins.
7. Miami Heat (28-16, Last week — 10th)
This might be too low for Miami with how they’ve played. The Heat are 5-1 in the last six games, sweeping a set with Atlanta and beating both Phoenix and Toronto. Miami will also benefit from the return of Bam Adebayo, and five of the next contests are at home for the Heat.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (25-18, Last week — 6th)
The Sixers are 10-3 in the last 13 games. That speaks for itself, but Joel Embiid has 31+ points in 11 of those 13 games, and he is out of his mind right now. The Ben Simmons situation still looms over everything, but Philadelphia has proven to be a good basketball team without him as long as Embiid is on the floor.
9. Charlotte Hornets (24-20, Last week — 13th)
Charlotte is rolling, and the Hornets have a chance to showcase that on national TV in Boston on Wednesday. After that, Charlotte has some home games against Oklahoma City and Atlanta, and the Hornets don’t play a top-tier team (at least by record) until February.
10. Chicago Bulls (27-15, Last week — 5th)
Injuries have played a part, but the Bulls are on a four-game losing streak. Granted, all four losses came against quality opponents, but three came by double digits and a couple weren’t competitive at all. One of the themes this week is good teams scuffling, and that applies to the Bulls.
11. Brooklyn Nets (27-16, Last week — 9th)
Kevin Durant is going to be out for a few weeks with a knee issue, and that might spell trouble. The majority of the next couple weeks is on the road for Brooklyn, paving the way for Kyrie Irving to play, but the Nets are a different (read: worse) team without Durant and they’ll need to be in the mode to simply stay afloat while he’s out.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (27-19, Last week — 8th)
Jrue Holiday has missed the last six games and the Bucks are 2-4 in that stretch. He may return on Wednesday but, with Brook Lopez already out, Milwaukee isn’t its full-strength self, and the results have wobbled a bit. There is a level of respect the Bucks command as the reigning champs, especially when Giannis Antetokounmpo is firing on all cylinders, but they haven’t dominated.
13. Boston Celtics (23-22, Last week — 16th)
As noted above, the Celtics have a national showcase on Wednesday against Charlotte. Prior to that game, the Celtics are 5-1 in the last six games, and a win over the Hornets could put the Celtics in a better position in the play-in chase.
14. Toronto Raptors (21-20, Last week — 12th)
Toronto is 1-3 in the last four games, but they are also 7-3 in their last ten. You can see what you want to see, but the Raptors did knock off Milwaukee on the road this week.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (22-22, Last week — 15th)
The .500 mark isn’t a huge deal for a lot of franchises, but the Wolves being 22-22 in mid-January is a big deal. Minnesota’s defense remains in the top ten for the season, and they are frisky, if nothing else.
16. Denver Nuggets (22-20, Last week — 19th)
Denver beat Los Angeles so badly that LeBron James had to apologize for the Lakers’ effort. The Nuggets couldn’t rise too much in the rankings after losing the next night to Utah, but that was a heck of a performance.
17. Los Angeles Lakers (22-22, Last week — 14th)
Frank Vogel may have saved his job with a win over the Utah Jazz. That doesn’t make a ton of sense when you look at the way the Lakers were constructed from a roster standpoint, but the existence of reporting that he is really on the hot seat paints a dire picture.
18. L.A. Clippers (22-23, Last week — 18th)
Word broke this week that the Clippers are “open for business” on the trade market. That makes sense as they navigate this stretch without Paul George and, with Kawhi Leonard still on the sideline, it’s tough to project L.A. to make a huge run. Still, they are hanging around.
19. Washington Wizards (23-21, Last week — 20th)
Washington is 4-1 in the last five games, and that helps a lot. Three of the wins came over Orlando and Oklahoma City, which won’t impress anyone, but they walloped the Sixers on Monday in an encouraging performance.
20. New York Knicks (22-23, Last week — 17th)
Tom Thibodeau’s team went 2-2 this week, beating Atlanta and Dallas and losing to Charlotte and Minnesota. That feels like an embodiment of the Knicks this season.
21. Atlanta Hawks (18-25, Last week — 21st)
The Hawks somehow lost 10 (yes, 10) straight home games before finally winning on Monday. It was a nice victory over the Bucks, but Atlanta is one of the more disappointing teams in the league to this point. Fortunately for Nate McMillan and company, the Hawks have the talent to right the ship as they did last season.
22. Portland Trail Blazers (18-25, Last week — 24th)
Credit to the Blazers. With Damian Lillard sidelined, it felt like doomsday, but Portland is 4-1 in the last five games. Anfernee Simons is having a heck of a stretch, and Portland would be in the play-in if the season ended today.
23. New Orleans Pelicans (16-28, Last week — 22nd)
New Orleans has been better than most of the play-in adjacent teams in the last couple of months. They are basically just hanging around the .500 mark since they were 3-16, but they’ll need a run to crash the party in a serious way.
24. San Antonio Spurs (16-28, Last week — 23rd)
The Spurs are 2-10 in the last 12 games, giving back the gains they made earlier in the year. Perhaps that is why the notoriously conservative Spurs made an in-season trade on Tuesday evening.
25. Sacramento Kings (18-28, Last week — 26th)
It was a winning week (2-1) for the Kings. Of course, Sacramento did lose at home to Houston, but they’ll trade that loss for a win or two. Much of the attention on the Kings has been on the trade market, but the Kings badly want to make the play-in by all accounts, so the standings still matter to them.
26. Indiana Pacers (15-29, Last week — 25th)
The Pacers just keep losing. Indiana is 1-10 in the last 11 games and on a four-game losing streak. Most of the losses have been at least somewhat competitive, but it feels rudderless in Indianapolis. Making matters worse, Myles Turner will miss a couple of weeks, right as the trade deadline approaches.
27. Detroit Pistons (10-33, Last week — 27th)
Detroit had a nice win over Toronto this week, but the headline-making event of the last few days was Cade Cunningham getting ejected against Phoenix. It was definitely a ref show, but it also says a lot that it was the most notable happening for the Pistons.
28. Houston Rockets (13-32, Last week — 29th)
The Rockets picked up two nice wins this week. Houston may sell in the next couple of weeks, as they probably should, and Eric Gordon is a name to watch. The veteran is shooting more than 49 percent from three in his last 14 games, including 31 points on 10 (!) field goal attempts in a win over San Antonio.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder (14-29, Last week — 28th)
For a team with unsightly peripherals, Oklahoma City does have some nice wins. The Thunder went 1-2 this week, but OKC did throttle Brooklyn on the road. The Nets weren’t at full strength, but James Harden played and the Thunder looked good in that spot.
30. Orlando Magic (8-37, Last week — 30th)
In the last two months, the Magic are 4-26. Orlando actually beat the red-hot Hornets this week, but followed that up with double-digit losses to Dallas and Portland. Ho hum.