We’ve reached the homestretch.
Now that All-Star Weekend festivities have wound to a close, the only thing standing between now and the most exciting part of the NBA schedule — the playoffs — is a 22-game sprint to wrap up the regular season.
Obviously, our dear Charlotte Hornets will not be a part of the playoffs, even though that was the main objective at the beginning of the season. All is well, though, because there at least a few things to look forward to as we inch towards the finish line. I’m serious. It just takes a healthy bit of perspective and a fly pair of teal-colored glasses.
What the end-of-season rotation looks like, where the Hornets’ odds will land in the lottery landscape, how the young players perform when given opportunity, and general improvements and adjustments from the veteran players and coaching staff are all worth monitoring over the next two months despite the results of individual games affecting very little apart from lottery positioning. After all, most fans got what they wanted at the trade deadline; fewer veterans in the way of young prospects on the depth chart. Two others, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cody Martin, are still sidelined, and in Martin’s case, it seems like he might eventually be shut down for the year (not reporting that, just reading the tea leaves).
From here on out, the LaMelo Ball-Terry Rozier-Gordon Hayward-PJ Washington-Mark Williams lineup will start every game when healthy. So far, that lineup has performed well together offensively, and not so well defensively. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Hornets score 121.1 points per 100 possessions with those five on the floor; the only problem is that they allow a whopping 135.4 points per 100 possessions, placing them in the 1st percentile in the NBA. That’s not good, but it’s a small sample size still with only 147 possessions, plus the Hornets have been poor defensively all year and rookie centers rarely impact defensive metrics in a positive manner. Flashes of potential in the way game-sealing highlights will suffice for now.
Mark Williams turning defense to offense in crunch time @hornets in front late on the NBA App!— NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2023
Watch now ➡️ https://t.co/qZ7mIYNC8r pic.twitter.com/1OaRC75pNV
We’ve talked about this a couple times now, but it seems all but certain the Hornets end the season with the fourth-best lottery odds. Charlotte is sandwiched between Orlando and Detroit; the Magic have won 24 games to this point, putting them seven-and-a-half games ahead of the Hornets. Given both teams’ performances this season, that’s likely too big a gap to close before mid-April. On the other hand, the Pistons have won 15 games, two fewer than Charlotte.
There’s a stronger chance the Hornets bottom out and slide into third than they go on a run and end up fifth, but the Detroit/Houston/San Antonio trio is so awful that it’s tough to see the Hornets overtaking them — and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Not playing embarrassing, despicable basketball and finishing a tough season on a high note by competing and winning a handful of games does more for the organization than increasing the chances at lottery lucky by 1.5 percent. The Hornets will be relying on luck to land Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson regardless; is there really a point in being terrible on purpose?
Also, there are more than two high-quality prospects in this draft class. Amen Thompson is an athletic freak with two-way ability, finishing craft and the pick-and-roll command of a seasoned veteran while standing at 6-foot-7. Amen’s twin, Ausar, is a defensive playmaker with smoother jump shot mechanics than his brother while also being a freakish athlete. Both of the Thompson Twins are elite athletes, dogged defenders and fit well alongside LaMelo Ball positionally.
Dialing up an "Amen Thompson has the best first-step since Michael Jordan" take pic.twitter.com/vSpkcsHpzZ— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) December 23, 2022
Brandon Miller is a freshman putting up 18.7 points per game shooting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc and Cam Whitmore’s combination of athleticism and shot-making in a 6-foot-7, 232 pound frame are enticing as well. There’s also Jarace Walker, a big that can toggle between acting as a creation hub or play-finisher offensively while offering supreme defensive versatility. We’ve got plenty of options to choose from, and all of them are good.
Cam Whitmore turns defense to offense and gives @NovaMBB its first lead!— BIG EAST MBB (@BIGEASTMBB) February 18, 2023
We've got a good one on @CBBonFOX. pic.twitter.com/Q4X0drlvXO
The draft content will really start pumping out once the NCAA basketball season ends and At The Hive undergoes a few slight tweaks (more on that later, just give Jonathan some time), but I’m excited to turn the page here. With the deadline and the All-Star break in the rearview, the light at the end of the tunnel is coming into focus and it feels like we can begin to draw some conclusions with the rotation/depth chart at hand. If LaMelo Ball keeps putting up a triple-double every two weeks or so, there won’t be all that much to complain about, apart from continuing to beat horses that have been dead since October. That’s always fun.