The Charlotte Hornets just won their fifth straight game, but it comes under somber circumstances.
LaMelo Ball, who scored 18 points on six 3-pointers in the Hornets’ 117-106 win over the Detroit Pistons, fractured his right ankle in the third quarter. It was an unfortunate non-contact injury that came at the worst possible time.
Ball’s season has, sad to say, been defined by injuries. He missed the first 13 games of the 2022-2023 regular season due to a Grade 2 left ankle sprain. The 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year then came back but then re-injured the same ankle later in the season and missed the next 11 games. With 19 games left on Charlotte’s schedule, Ball will likely be done for this season.
Ball’s injury, though, was perhaps the tip of the iceberg for the Hornets.
As of this writing, Charlotte is 24.5 games behind the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks and almost 10 games behind the 10th-seed Washington Wizards. This gap came as the Hornets had three losing streaks of at least seven games, with the recent seven-game losing streak coming prior to Charlotte’s run of 5 consecutive victories.
Up and mostly down may be apt to describe the Hornets’ season, part of which came due the injuries to Ball and other members of the squad. As Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford is going through the first season of his second tour of duty with the Hornets, he has had to deal with a roster of revolving players. All but one player from Charlotte has played in 60 games (PJ Washington), with the likes of Ball, Hayward, and Kelly Oubre Jr. each having played less than 40 games.
As a result, the Hornets’ offense has suffered. Ranking in the bottom half of the league in terms of points scored, field goal percentage, and 3-point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage, Charlotte’s shot quality has taken a hit, likely more so when their main contributors are sidelined. The rest of the squad also feeds off the likes of Ball, Hayward, and Oubre Jr., so the lanes get more clogged and the opportunities disappear.
However, all is not lost. The Hornets’ current five-game winning streak is their longest thus far this season, and that has come as Charlotte has upped their scoring since the All-Star break (115.3 points per game post-All-Star versus 112.5 points per game pre-All-Star). Offense has been a thorn on the Hornets’ side, but their defense has been solid. Apart from being top-10 in rebounds, steals, and blocks for the season, Charlotte has limited their last three opponents to under 110 points per game, which is below the 112.6 points per game they allow for 2022-2023.
Part of the credit can go to the development of Mark Williams, who has emerged as the primary center for the Hornets, who were so satisfied with his progress that they were willing to ship Mason Plumlee, who himself was playing well prior to the trade. His rim protection has been critical, with the former Duke Blue Devil also emerging as a valuable offensive option in the paint.
Of course, the ongoing development of Ball as a shooter has been a boost, but when it comes to him and the rest of the squad, it’s all about getting healthy. Load management, as controversial as it is, may be an option, but it may better adjust rotations so as to give more opportunities to the younger players on Charlotte’s roster.
After all, it may be better to have an eye for next season by making the most out of the current one. Williams is a testimony to that, as his performance this season so far will only cement his status as the main center on the squad. As early as now, an evaluation of the roster can be done by seeing who can still show up even when there is nothing to play for.
With a postseason appearance or even the play-in tournament off the table and LaMelo Ball likely to be out for the season, it’s fair to say that this is a lost season for the Charlotte Hornets. A deeper dive into their season, though, will reveal some gains, but for those to even be fully realized, the Hornets must get things right health-wise.