Coming into the franchise’s 33rd season in Charlotte, the Hornets held their Media Day on Monday, Sept. 26, which gave team officials and players a chance to address some of the issues of the day — as best they could, at least — including whether LaMelo Ball can lead this team to the promised land (or at least the playoffs), if new coach Steve Clifford will bring some defense back to the Spectrum Center, and how the team plans to approach the troubling situation with Miles Bridges.
The Eastern Conference is as strong as it’s been in a long time, and a new coach is in place after former head coach James Borrego failed to make it past the play-in tournament during his four seasons.
The team hasn’t made the playoffs beyond the play-in tourney since 2017, and asking them to do so this year appears to be a stretch, but here’s what new coach Steve Clifford, who is both Borrego’s predecessor and successor, had to say about low expectations at Media Day: “This is what I told them this morning: ‘Let’s not put any limits on how good we can be, and let’s not set a goal for today of what success is for our team.’”
Any improvement for the Hornets starts with the star of the team: LaMelo Ball. Superstars elevate their teammates and, in the last two years, two contemporaries with similar games to Ball — Trae Young with Atlanta and Luka Doncic with Dallas — took their teams to their respective conference finals.
Commenting on Ball and what it’s going to take for his ascension, Clifford said, “Not that much. He’s terrific at getting to the rim and does not get fouled a lot. That is one of the things that we have watched film on, and we have been working with an ex-NBA official who is working with him now. If he can attempt three more free-throws per game, that would be a game-changer for him and our team.”
“I need to be more aggressive and attack more,” Ball added. “Pick your spots and when you can attack, definitely attack.”
Miles Bridges’ future still uncertain
The arrest of Miles Bridges on domestic violence charges on June 29 was an unexpected game-changer that threw a wrench into the teams’ playoff hopes. It brought calls from some loyal fans to release him immediately, though it appears the team isn’t ready to pick a side just yet.
“It’s a legal issue and I’ve been told to not speak about any aspect of it,” Clifford responded when asked about Bridges’ arrest and pending court case.
Some players spoke a bit more on Bridges’ situation, though not in depth. Guard Terry Rozier responded to one such inquiry, “I’ll send him my prayers but I’m worried about the Charlotte Hornets and starting tomorrow, shit, we’re here.”
As for Ball, who has connected with Bridges both on and off the court — pairing for viral alley-oops and hanging out in their freetime — he said he misses Bridges and talks to him day to day to keep up. He added that he hopes Bridges returns to the team before stating that he’s “not really trying to throw the negative energy … Just keep it positive.”
The Hornets tendered Bridges a qualifying offer to retain his rights in July, giving the team the opportunity to match any offer he might have received during the free-agency period that started Aug. 2, but no offers came and both Charlotte and Bridges recently allowed the team’s qualifying offer to expire.
Bridges’ future hangs in the balance as his case was continued for the fifth time on Oct. 7, this time until Oct. 12. Even if he were to be found not guilty, he would likely face discipline from the NBA, and there is no guarantee the Hornets will re-sign him. While losing his services hurts the team on the court, keeping him might affect them even more in the court of public opinion.
While the allegations against Bridges go beyond the basketball court — his charges include one count of injuring a child’s parent and two counts of child abuse under circumstances or conditions likely to cause great bodily injury or death and could face up to 12 years in prison — the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Hornets franchise, as the June incident occurred after the NBA Draft and left the Hornets without a lot of options during the free-agency period.
Where the Hornets need to improve
Without their leading scorer from last season, one of the most improved players in the league, the Hornets would likely struggle to even qualify for the play-in tournament.
Improvement likely has to be internal, from intangibles like improving the defense and cultivating a sense of veteran leadership to more tangible goals like keeping Gordon Hayward healthy and making up for the points lost by Bridges’ likely exit.
The Hornets are a much better team with Hayward in the lineup, but he’s missed 61 games since coming to the team two years ago. He’s ready for the challenge.
“Rehabbing is not one of the things you want to be doing,” Hayward said at Media Day. “I pushed myself to be in the best shape I could to be ready for this year.”
“We’ll look at the whole load-management thing,” he added. “I really trust this training staff and we’ll figure out the best moves for rest and figuring how I can be playing come April.”
Hayward’s struggles to stay on the court in recent years have left him with the feeling that he has something to prove.
“I think I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I want to prove I am still the best player that I know I am and no matter what age I am now I can still play.”
Following Media Day, Hayward missed the Hornets’ first three preseason games with a left knee contusion but was able to clock 12 minutes of playing time during the Hornets’ Oct. 10 game against Washington.
Another player Clifford needs to step up this season is PJ Washington.
“[Washington] is going to be a big part of this team, and if we are going to become a legitimate playoff team, he is going to be on the floor 28 to 30 minutes and he is going to be a big part of it,” the coach said at Media Day.
With one of the youngest rosters in the league, balancing the spread of minutes and competing for the playoffs is a tough mix. James Bouknight and Kai Jones barely saw any action in their rookie seasons last year.
Bouknight was candid (kind of) at Media Day when asked if the change in the coaching staff was a good thing for him, stating “Yea, I think so,” but then refused to elaborate, saying he didn’t want to get into it as he would rather focus on the year to come.
Clifford is a coach known to prioritize his veterans, but it will be a balancing act in the coming season to effectively develop the young guys while keeping his veterans happy. He said he’s liked what he’s seen so far with some of the younger players during Summer League.
“I think there are a bunch of guys that can emerge,” he said. “Mark Williams is made for the NBA game because he is a rim protector. James Bouknight had a really good end of the summer. He has positional size, can play off the dribble and can play both in transition and in the half-court. I could go on and on.”
Locking down on defense
If the Hornets are going to improve their standing, much of that work will have to come on the defensive side of the ball. Clifford thinks the offense is potent with or without Bridges, and although the defense’s inadequacy was undeniable, there were some aspects he liked that he wants to capitalize on this year.
“I know that defense wasn’t great, but there were things that they did do defensively. We were fifth in steals and second in converting steals into fastbreak points,” he pointed out. “When you’re playing the good teams, those are the relief points you need to get over the top and not a lot of teams can do that, so that has to be part of our defense.”
As an example, Clifford pointed out a couple of bright spots in Ball’s defensive game.
“He has two real strengths defensively people never talk about: He steals the ball a ton and is an exceptional defensive rebounder. Those are two things that not many point guards do,” Clifford said before acknowledging that he will have to push Ball and the rest of the team to work on the especially weak defensive areas: guarding the ball, helping teammates, and getting back in transition, among other things.
Expectations for the upcoming season
The Hornets wrap their preseason schedule on Wednesday, Oct. 12, with a game in Philadelphia. They’ve gone 0-4 to this point, for whatever value you put on preseason records.
As of now, the starters look to be Mason Plumlee in the middle, Washington and Hayward in the frontcourt and Ball and Rozier in the backcourt. Nick Richards is backing up Plumlee, but Williams should see action in the middle; he will need to if this defense is going to improve.
Cody Martin, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Jalen McDaniels will be among the first three off the bench. How the rest of the minutes are spread will depend on how the players look during the pre-season and first few weeks, and who steps up and earns the coaches trust among the young players.
The Hornets have never made the Eastern Conference Finals or won their division, but it’s the beginning of the year, when all teams have a clean slate and hope is high for everyone.
“We’ll be in the mix,” predicted Hayward. “We have to be better on the defensive end. We have to be more consistent on that end of the floor and the best teams do both [offense and defense].”
When asked if he’s motivated by last year’s embarrassing play-in loss to Atlanta, Ball made it clear that he’s looking past that point in 2022-23.
“I feel we shouldn’t even be in that type of game,” he said. “We all have to step up as a team and individually.”
Rozier agreed, saying he hopes low expectations from the media carry over to the Hornets’ opponents and help the team fly under the radar.
“We pray that every night when they come in to play the Hornets that they think it’s a game won,” he said. “We want to keep it that way.”
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