The Charlotte Hornets roster has undergone a massive transformation since James Borrego was hired as the team’s head coach on May 10, 2018. There are currently two players on the roster that have been here for all 31 months of Borrego’s tenure—Cody Zeller and Malik Monk.
With the overhauling of the roster has come shifting expectations. In his first season as head coach, the Hornets chased a playoff bid with Kemba Walker playing at an All NBA level surrounded by veterans like Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, and Marvin Williams. After falling short of the playoffs, there was an exodus of talent from the Queen City, which included the departure of the team’s franchise player. The team shifted its focus to developing its youth and shepherding in a new era. Winning was clearly not a priority. Holdovers like Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were bought out midseason, while Nicolas Batum spent most of his season on the bench. By the end of the 2019-20 season, the Hornets were playing six first or second year players as part of their regular rotation.
The 2020-21 season brings another new set of expectations that probably lies somewhere in between those of the 2018-19 season and the 2019-20 season. The surprising signing of Gordon Hayward during the truncated offseason looks like a clear push for the playoffs on the surface, but the Hornets are still the youngest team in the league. After the 30-year-old Hayward, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo are the team’s next eldest statesmen at 28 years old. Eleven of the Hornets projected 15-man roster are 25 years old or younger.
Borrego is aware of where this team is at. He has dodged questions in press conferences that have brought up playoff expectations. He is steadfast in his commitment to player development and always shifts the topic to that arena when reporters try to prod a win total goal out of him. His noncommittal answers suggest that the team doesn’t view this season as playoffs or bust, but rather another stepping stone to their ultimate goal. This team is still not a finished product—few teams in the NBA are—but it’s inching towards the team that Borrego and General Manager Mitch Kupchak have envisioned since their arrival in Charlotte.
It’s difficult to project where the Hornets will finish the 2020-21 season. They finished 23-42, which ended up being the ninth best record in the East after the Washington Wizards made a mockery of the Orlando bubble. However, the team’s point differential was more representative of a team that belonged closer to the NBA’s cellar. Internal development by the team’s youth could easily be canceled out by a regression to the mean in wins and losses relative to point differential, making the team look stagnant. That was more likely to be the case without any big additions. But the Hornets did make some big additions. Hayward brings star power and a veteran presence. The Hornets also struck gold in the draft lottery and landed LaMelo Ball, who many believe has the most star potential in the 2020 class. He may take time to adjust to the NBA, but he can reasonably be expected to elevate this team’s ceiling.
With all of that in mind, the Hornets should be somewhere in the playoff mix at season’s end, especially given the new format that could potentially allow the ten seed to earn their way into the playoffs if they can win two play-in games. Other teams in the Hornets’ tier have improved—the Hawks made a bevy of offseason additions to bolster their defense and wing production, and the Wizards replaced a perpetually injured John Wall with Russell Westbrook. But other teams have either fallen off (the Pistons) or done little to improve (the Bulls and Magic).
The Hornets probably aren’t quite ready to compete with the established playoff teams like the 76ers, Pacers, Raptors, etc. For this season, they’ll probably battle with the Magic, Hawks, and Wizards for the eight through ten seeds. There is a path to finish higher than that if Hayward is integrated seamlessly and the Hornets young players take significant strides in their development, but it’s probably unfair to make that a benchmark for success.
Borrego will be tasked with fitting Hayward and Ball into a group that developed a terrific chemistry by the end of last season. The new additions will take the ball out of Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier’s hands a bit and change the way the duo gets a lot of their production. Hayward will probably push Miles Bridges to the four for more minutes while PJ Washington plays more minutes at the five. Borrego’s ability to quickly get all of those parts moving in sync will determine the ceiling of this team. If everything clicks quickly, the Hornets might be able to sneak into the playoffs without the help of the play-in games. If not, they could be looking at yet another year watching the playoffs at home. The most likely outcome is probably somewhere in the middle. While being a fringe playoff team is often seen as NBA purgatory where no team wants to be, if the Hornets can make it there with the youngest roster in the league, it should be seen as an accomplishment and provide a launching pad for future seasons.