The Charlotte Hornets are in the playoff hunt and perhaps for them, this is relatively unfamiliar territory. Over the past decade, they have been frequent attendees of the NBA draft lottery and during that span have only made the playoffs twice. Both have unfortunately been first round exits, with the last one being five years ago against the Miami Heat.
Currently, the Hornets have already surpassed preseason expectations with their 30-30 record. They remain in the thick of the play-in race and are currently eighth in the Eastern Conference. However, things remain in flux, as they are 1.5 games behind both the sixth-place Boston Celtics and the seventh seed Heat. They are also only a game ahead of the ninth seed Indiana Pacers and three games ahead of the surging (and 10th place) Washington Wizards.
Charlotte recently improved their postseason chances with a 125-104 win over the Celtics. It was a balanced effort as six players finished in double figures, with Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, Terry Rozier, and PJ Washington each scoring at least 20 points. The Hornets only trailed for 15 seconds as they led by double-digits for most of the game and also limited Boston to 38.6 percent shooting, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown missing 24 of their 38 shot attempts.
Charlotte’s resurgence this season has been marked by improvements stemming from the three years of work Hornets head coach James Borrego put into the team. His ability to adjust to what has been a tough season for his team health-wise, coupled with the integration of the likes of Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, and rookie LaMelo Ball goes to show that he has laid the foundation for what could be a promising future for his squad.
What has also been working for the Hornets has also been the next-man-up mentality that has allowed them to make up for injuries to key players. Ball, Graham, Hayward, and P.J. Washington have all missed at least seven games this season due to a myriad of injuries.
Thankfully, the likes of Bismack Biyombo, sophomores Caleb Martin, and Jalen McDaniels, and rookie Vernon Carey Jr. have been among the players that have stepped up to the challenge during certain points this season. Martin and McDaniels took turns shouldering the offensive load left by the absence of Hayward and Ball, while Carey Jr. scored 21 points in a spot start against the Brooklyn Nets.
Among the five-man Hornets lineups recorded on the NBA’s website, their most frequently used lineup was that of Graham, Hayward, Washington, Rozier and Biyombo. Through 258 minutes (in 26 games), it had an offensive rating of 99.2 and a defensive rating of 109.2. This lineup struggled mightily on offense, as it also registered an eFG% of 49.6 percent (well below the league average of 53.7 percent.
One of the Hornets’ better lineups, however, was having Graham, Hayward, Washington, Terry Rozier and Bridges. This more agile and offensively potent lineup had an offensive rating of 118.8 and an eFG% of 58.9 percent. It’s net rating of 30.4 seems too good to be true, but it is much better than the previous lineup’s net rating of -10.0.
The effort has always been there, regardless of who is on the court, but the changes in personnel due to injuries has made it difficult for them to establish a solid rotation. Moving forward, it is best for them to stick to their strengths, which lean toward more switch-friendly lineups. That way, opposing teams will find it harder to exploit mismatches against them.
Another development that has allowed them to remain competitive has been the acceleration in the growth of Ball. Critics and fans alike would have to agree that he has exceeded expectations and improved the spotty draft record of team owner Michael Jordan, who drafted him with the third overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
He has also developed a nice chemistry with Bridges, who has become an eager recipient of his lobs and nifty passes. However, Ball has missed 19 games so far and the Hornets have gone 10-9 without him. He is slated to return soon, and this could bode well for Charlotte in terms of building momentum towards the playoffs.
Regardless of the outcome of this season, the Hornets have all the pieces to remain competitive for the foreseeable future. Of course, they can still get better and are perhaps two players from becoming a dangerous perennial playoff contender.
Postseason experience will definitely complement the burgeoning culture Borrego has built and both will become the foundation of what could be the start of something new within Charlotte.