There are 13 games remaining for the Charlotte Hornets this season, and sitting four games out of the 8th seed, even running the table at this point feels like it wouldn’t be enough. Barring a late season push from the New York Knicks, the Hornets will likely finish 11th in the Eastern Conference, which if you’ll recall, is exactly where they finished two seasons ago after finishing 33-49. At this point, they are starting to emulate the even year San Francisco Giants, expect the even years end in a first round playoff exit. Seriously guys, if you’re going to miss the playoffs every other season, at least win a championship the seasons in-between.
Snark aside, the Hornets haven’t created a lot of optimism in 2017, which is why many are hoping the team continues to slide down the standings to increase their chances in the lottery, because unlike the Hornets, the lottery offers a glimmer of hope. Like all lotteries though, its a mirage, and if there’s anyone out there thinking a few more ping-pong balls could vault the Hornets into the top three, then clearly they’ve forgotten about the 2012 draft lottery.
Last night’s win over Washington was a break from what has become the norm — leading by three heading into the fourth quarter, Charlotte avoided a late game collapse. While their defense carried them before the fourth, it was their offense that kept them in it in the final 12 minutes. It was a bit refreshing, but it didn’t change anything, as they remain four games back of Milwaukee, and no closer to a high draft pick.
This no-win scenario has made the Hornets unwatchable of late, and its why I held on to the hope of the playoffs for longer than most. If I had to choose between a first round playoff exit or a late lottery draft pick, I’m taking the playoffs every single time. I enjoy the spectacle of national TV pundits attempting to talk about a team they haven’t watched all season, and even if its over in four or five game, ultimately its another season that ends with a playoff berth rather than a trip to the lottery. The mantra of championship or bust often gets pushed as the only acceptable line or reasoning, but Charlotte could really benefit both now and in the future from making the playoffs four or five years in a row, even if it doesn’t end with a championship.
The draft pick, on the other hand, doesn’t excite me. Assuming the Hornets end up with something between the 9th and 11th pick, (they currently hold the 11th worst record in the NBA), the players any of us actually want will be gone, and they’ll end up taking a solid player who puts up solid numbers, and we will all criticize the team for not picking the guy taken 12th.
“But that’s why we should tank” is what you’re screaming at this point, but here’s the thing, barring running the table in the other direction, the Hornets aren’t likely going to slide much further down. Again, unless the Knicks suddenly play well, they aren’t falling further down the East, which means they’ll have to rely on a number of teams out West to jump ahead of them.
Currently, the Pelicans, Kings, Timberwolves, and Mavericks sit below, but within one to three games of the Hornets, meaning a continued downward spiral could see them slip underneath all of them and end up 7th, a much better spot to be in. However, only one of those teams, Dallas, has a winning record in their last 10 games, while Minnesota has lost two straight, and New Orleans and Sacramento are in a fight to see who can come up worse off from the DeMarcus Cousins trade. It seems unrealistic that the Hornets will finish off anywhere worse than 8th, which in all likelihood still keeps them outside of picking a really good player.
Given this, its hard to root for losses. Others may be more optimistic that Charlotte will continue to plummet, but I don’t see it. As things stand, they aren’t bad enough to tank, and the players on the roster aren’t showing indications they are ready for it to be over. Fourth quarter collapses aside, the Hornets have looked more like the Hornets of late 2016 since the All-Star break.
But at the same time, I acknowledge how important drafting a top player would be, particularly entering an offseason where they have little room at all in the salary cap. Drafting a star could vault them out of mediocrity, and my god, wouldn’t it be nice to draft that player without having to go through another three to four year rebuilding project? In that sense, I get the appeal of tanking the rest of the season, but I don’t believe it will make much of a difference at this point.
So if they’re damned either way, what’s left to root for? Ultimately, its the little things. They have a few younger players with untapped potential that could use some extended playing time, and as long as they give the required effort when they’re on the floor Steve Clifford will give them a chance.
As he said of Briante Weber recently, “I don’t know how good he is, but he’s tough, and he’s confident.”
So far, Weber has been solid, and is coming off eight points and two assists against the Pacers. He reportedly signed a two year contract with the team, and he’ll likely be the backup point guard the rest of the way.
The team obviously likes Johnny O’Bryant III as well, having signed him to multi-year deal. Hopefully he can get healthy soon and put together a few more performances like he did against Denver. Also mixed in the front court is Christian Wood, who has played hard, particularly when rebounding. While he needs to add strength, he’s shown a flash of potential.
None of these players are the star Charlotte needs, but any development they make the remainder of the season is the kind of thing worth rooting for. Even if they only marginally improve the team in the long run, seeing young players develop can bring a bit of life and energy into a franchise when they are in a bad spot. Plus, they’re young and inexperienced, which will lead to mistakes, leading to points on the other end, leading to more losses, and hey, I’ve just appeased everyone wanting to tank the season.
Beyond those three, I’m rooting for the return of February Frank Kaminsky. How bashful he was, how little did he care whether his shot went in or not (spoiler, it usually did). He was arguably the hottest player on the team before he got hurt, so having him playing like that again could create a lot of optimism.
And that’s ultimately what I think any of us what — to feel good about this team again. Making the playoffs would’ve brought a few warm feelings before the Cavaliers snatched them away in four games. The prospect of a high lottery pick will feel good too until they end up with the 11th pick, or another lottery team jumps ahead of them and lands a top three pick (looking at you, Chicago). Either scenario makes the prospect of watching the team pretty dreadful, but rooting for the small things — player development, a healthy roster, and a style of play that is at least fun to watch — can possibly improve the viewing experience in these final weeks.