The Eastern Conference is more competitive this year than it has been in a long time. There are 13 different teams who could legitimately end up in the play-in, and in turn, the playoffs. Luckily, this also happens to be the year that the Charlotte Hornets are looking to make a jump. However, the competitive balance means that they are going to be forced to fight that much harder to earn their first playoff appearance in five seasons.
The last time Charlotte reached the postseason, LaMelo Ball was in high school, Nicolas Batum was playing 35 minutes a night, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shot 42.9 percent from three (yes, you read that right). Fast forward five years and the team is seemingly set up perfectly for the future. They have a franchise cornerstone in Ball, an elite young wing in Miles Bridges, and a great team around those two. Unfortunately, the playoffs were much easier to reach back then.
In the 2015-16 season, the Hornets finished with a 48-34 record. While this record will likely be good enough to make the playoffs in the current year, it’s not nearly as easy to put together that many wins. The eighth seed in 2016 was a Detroit Pistons team led by Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, and a 23-year-old Tobias Harris. This year, teams in the 8-10 range of the playoffs include the Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers, the Trae Yong-led Atlanta Hawks, and the Julius Randle-led New York Knicks. Not exactly the same thing.
After Charlotte’s most recent win over the Washington Wizards, head coach James Borrego spoke at length about playing hard night in and night out. He made note of the current state of the Eastern Conference, touching on how stiff the competition is this year.
“We got to just continue to compete against this Eastern Conference. Every single night we’re stacked up against a very good team. There’s not one night out there where you can take a night off.”
If Charlotte wants to secure a playoff spot, they will have to get gritty. Despite the crazy amount of competition, the Hornets have been stringing together some impressive wins lately. They took down the almighty Golden State Warriors and beat the Wizards (who have remained near the top of the East) twice.
Nothing is going to be handed to the Hornets this year. Their defense has shown a lot of improvements as of late, and it’s that sort of hustle that will help them earn a playoff spot. Borrego also commented on the need for that sort of energy after their latest victory over the Wizards:
“I think that the group’s starting to understand what it takes to win in this league. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re taking steps in the right direction. Number one, it starts on the defensive end… As the game went along, this group pulled together and figured out a way to go get those plays, and make those plays. And a lot of times in this league, it’s going to be a tight race all the way through the 82 games. It’s going to come down to a couple possessions every single night. If we can find ourselves on the front end of that we’re going to win a lot of these games. We got to fight and claw every single night, every possession to go get extra possessions. Great confidence boost here tonight against a very good team on the road.”
Charlotte handed Washington their second home loss of the season behind some great play from their stars. Terry Rozier ended with 32 points, while LaMelo Ball had 28 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists. Those two combining for 50 really helped the Hornets push through a very talented Wizards squad.
This is still a super young Hornets team. There are going to be growing pains. It’s hard enough for a team to make a push for the playoffs, but for a team led by a 20-year-old sophomore-year player to do it is nearly unheard of. As amazing as Ball is, what he’s trying to do this season is not something that a lot of 20-year-olds can do.
Their offense has looked great, and the defense is improving, but the real key to victory is playing with energy, grit, and heart. Borrego made that very clear, and it’s up to the Hornets to deliver.