Little has gone according to plan for the Charlotte Hornets over the summer, but that doesn’t have to mean there’s little hope to be had for the upcoming season.
Most teams around the league are holding their Media Day this afternoon, marking the unofficial start to the 2022-23 NBA season. Training camp begins in the following days and then the Hornets play their first preseason game this Sunday at 1:00 PM against Boston. NBA action will be here before we know it, and damn it if it’s not time to get riled up. Media Day is supposed to be fun for fans, players, media and team employees alike. Players are together in uniform for the first time since April and while basketball is the focus, personalities also get to shine. General manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach Steve Clifford will address the media, along with many players. Simply put; Hornets basketball is back.
But, even the most fervent NBA fan could admit the last couple of months have been a drag apart from those invested in Kevin Durant’s unsuccessful trade request and the successful trade of Donovan Mitchell. It’s been especially slow for Hornets fans, who have seen the team add one player (rookie Mark Williams) to the 15-man roster since the 2021-22 season ended. Apart from Cody Martin’s contract extension —which was a quality signing and shouldn’t be glossed over— its been quiet in the Queen City. We all know the reason why.
Let’s be realistic, though; there was only one player on last year’s roster that could truly be deemed “irreplaceable” going forward, and he’s due for a sizable uptick in usage coming off of an All-Star selection in his second season. Sitting a trade or two away from crystal-clear salary books, sizable draft pick capital and a stable of rookie-scale contract players with one of the most dynamic young guards in the league at the helm is a fine place to be going forward for this franchise.
Even in an improved East, the Hornets could compete if things break right. A healthy, productive season from Gordon Hayward and the emergence of any of the young players would put them in position to make a third-straight play-in tournament, which if we’re being truthful, is probably not far off from where we would’ve pegged the Hornets even if they’d lived out their dream offseason with how much better Atlanta, Brooklyn and Cleveland should be.
Armed with two open roster spots (Dennis Smith Jr.’s deal is non-guaranteed) and an open Two-Way slot, Kupchak maintains flexibility to reshape the roster, even if it’s a minor tweak, before the regular season even begins. Charlotte doesn’t have the same draw as Los Angeles or New York, but it’s a team that’s a cut above the rebuilding/tanking teams in the East with minutes up for grabs —especially for guards and smaller wings— and they could reel in a veteran that was cut loose from an unfavorable situation.
We learned long ago that Steve Clifford is a floor-raising coach, particularly on the defensive end. His Hornets teams were admittedly uncreative offensively during his first tenure, but to be fair to him Kemba Walker was the lone competent scoring option; this roster has three, and when Kelly Oubre Jr. is feeling himself that number rises to at least three and a half. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen, but Cliff has the opportunity to instill a more modern offensive philosophy while demanding accountability and effort on defense. We at least have to give him ample time to practice what he’s been preaching since he was hired before any verdict is reached.
It remains to be seen if and how much any recent draft pick will be a part of the rotation, but James Bouknight, Kai Jones, Nick Richards, JT Thor, Mark Williams and perhaps even Bryce McGowens will have the chance to earn minutes with their performance in camp and preseason. To give Clifford the benefit of the doubt again, the depth of young talent was never this strong during his first go-round along with the fact that Jones, Thor and Williams are lengthy athletes with high defensive ceilings at a position with little depth chart clarity. If any of those three are capable rotation players, the 2022-23 Hornets will have a deeper rotation with more consistency on defense than the 21-22 squad had. There’s no telling how much Cliff will get out of Nick Richards, who’s received glowing reviews this summer. Was depth and consistent defense not two of the main weaknesses of a team that won 43 games?
There’s one more big thing, too; LaMelo Ball is an incredible talent. An All-Star in his second-season that averaged 20 points, seven rebounds and eight assists per game, becoming one of the NBA’s premier triple-double threats at 21 years of age. Fans around the league —some Hornets fans included, even— are in store for a surprise at just how much of an impact Ball, an elite offensive engine and dazzling something-out-of-nothing creator, has on winning basketball games. This was the first healthy, full-length offseason of his young career, granting him the time to step away from the daily grind that is the NBA, decompress and get into the lab to work on his game for the first time in years before he comes into his third season with the opportunity to place himself among the upper echelon of point guards in the league. Heliocentric playmakers such as Luka Dončić and James Harden have thrived when given the keys to captain an offense — Ball, a similar style of player, could see the same success.
We hear this year after year in regards to the Hornets, as comfortably surpassing the team’s projected win total became the James Borrego Special during his tenure. Not to belabor the point, but Las Vegas pegging the Hornets at over/under 36.5 wins is disrespectful to me. Very few players in this league are worth SEVEN wins in a season and the player Charlotte lost this offseason was not one of them. They won 43 games last season, hired a coach that will improve the consistency of their defense, and have a plethora of young players that will find their way onto the court should they prove themselves behind the scenes. Oh, and they’ve got LaMelo Ball, and the other 29 teams in the league do not.
Games are won on the basketball court, not on the ESPN depth chart and Spotrac salary table pages. The offseason didn’t go as planned, but that doesn’t mean we can’t shift our focus to what matters to this franchise now — and that’s a fun group of prospects led by a couple of respected veterans and one of the five best young players in the game. What’s not to be excited about?