ESPN likes to do these NBA future power rankings that take into account things like current roster, payroll, draft assets, etc. They’re supposed to measure how well a team is set up to perform over the next three seasons (though they often more resemble current roster power rankings). The Charlotte Hornets have ranked 30th out of 30 in 13 out of the 18 editions that have come out. That includes the most recent version that was published in October 2019. Some of the criticisms in those pieces are valid. Some are lazy nitpicks at the easy target that is Michael Jordan the executive. A lot of it has to do with a small market team that has never done anything to draw national attention to itself, either on the court with good play or with splashy offseason moves.
The first half of the 2019-20 season should change that narrative. The Hornets aren’t winning a lot of games, especially lately, but that’s okay. Some would even say it’s good. More important are glimpses of the future that give Hornets fans something they haven’t for awhile—hope.
Head coach James Borrego has installed a modern offensive system that generates the type of looks NBA teams covet. Nearly 92% of the Hornets shots come either at the rim or from behind the three point line. That gives them the fifth best shot profile in the league, up from 12th in Borrego’s first season and 23rd in former head coach Steve Clifford’s last season running the team. The defense needs to catch up, but that’s to be expected of a young team.
Kemba Walker’s departure was supposed to ruin the Hornets. In the lens of a single season viewed by wins and losses, it has, but the big picture looks better. It was made known in the hours before Kemba Walker’s free agency that he’d be bolting for Boston. The front office wouldn’t let him walk for nothing and orchestrated a sign-and-trade that brought Terry Rozier back to Charlotte, where he signed a 3-year $57 million contract. The move was almost universally panned as a massive overpay for a career backup. Rozier has quelled that noise by averaging close to 18 points per game and canning nearly 40% of his threes. At just 25 years old, he’s proven he’s a key long-term asset and that the contract isn’t as bad as originally thought.
A team like the Hornets needs to catch lightning in a bottle in the draft to give themselves a viable chance to build a competitive team. It’s an added bonus if they can find that after the lottery. Devonte’ Graham has been that lightning. He’s a top candidate for the Most Improved Player award thanks to his meteoric rise from third string point guard to one of the league leaders in both 3-pointers made and assists per game. There are still warts in his game that need to be cleaned up, namely his interior scoring, but the rapid improvements in other parts of his game suggest he’s up to the task.
PJ Washington has been the thunder to Graham’s lightning. There was a rather tepid reaction to the Hornets selection of the two-year Kentucky Wildcat at 12 overall. He was seen as a good player that lacked the high ceiling that Hornets fans craved out of that selection. After missing the Summer League, he all but fell off the map, but a strong preseason earned him a spot in the starting rotation, and he hasn’t looked back since. He’s been one of the best rookies in the league this season and looks he has the star potential so many thought he was lacking.
They’ve contributed to a Hornets team that won a whole lot more games than expected early in the season. Las Vegas over/unders had them pegged around 23 wins. They were on pace to smash that over before their recent losing streak. They were the 8 seed in the Eastern Conference as late as December 20th. The wins showed that the young guys have gusto. They aren’t afraid of big moments and can execute in the toughest of circumstances. The rate at which the team was winning was never sustainable this season, but the traits that led to those wins are.
Those close wins have turned into losses and the team is tumbling down the standings, but that’s a good thing long term. We’ve already seen that there are future pieces here. More wins aren’t necessary to prove that point. With the increase in losses comes an increase in ping pong balls at the NBA Draft Lottery, where the Hornets will be awarded a high pick to add to this young core.
There are nits that can be picked. Miles Bridges has put up some awful advanced numbers despite a positive jump in box score stats. Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon haven’t quite taken the leaps that many had hoped for, but the sudden emergence of Graham and Washington along with a number of surprising wins have masked that in a way. The Hornets have a good starting point from which to build, which means they shouldn’t be at the bottom of those future power rankings anymore.