A new season for the Charlotte Hornets kicks off tonight, Oct. 25, at home against the Atlanta Hawks. The team is playing under a new ownership group headed by Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall. No longer is NBA legend Michael Jordan the face of the franchise, though he still holds a minority interest.
Along with the team’s new owners, the Hornets became the first NBA franchise to work out a sponsorship deal with a content creator, with the logo and brand of North Carolina YouTube phenomenon MrBeast’s Feastables company featured prominently on the Hornets jersey.
It’s an interesting tactic that might appeal to a younger crowd; an attempt to nurture future fans. Players faced plenty of questions about the new uniform patch at Media Day, but in the end, the Hornets will need to win — and more than they’ve been doing in recent years — if they’re to have any hope of winning over new or older and wearier fans this year.
Charlotte has not seen a playoff game since 2015-’16, when coach Steve Clifford was in his first tour of duty with the Hornets before returning last year. They’ve had only one other winning season since, in 2021-’22, and are the oldest franchise in North American professional sports to have never won a division title.
The talent is there
For his part, Clifford is not coming into the season with low expectations, as he’s been waving the flag for this team since workouts began.
“This is 20 something years for me in the NBA, but it’s my 10th year as a head coach,” he said on Media Day. “This is the most talented of any team I have coached as a head coach.”
Veteran forward Gordon Hayward, who’s starting the final year of his contract, agreed with the assessment. He mentioned how the team started practicing together three weeks before training camp started.
“We do have a lot of talent and guys who can do a lot of things,” Hayward said. “We have to play together as a team on both ends of the floor.”
LaMelo echoed the early buy-in. “It was big, seeing everybody here. People were dedicated and wanting to win, so having everybody early is good for the team.”
Having LaMelo, Rozier, and Hayward return, along with bringing back big man P.J. Washington, forms a solid core. Mark Williams will be in his second season manning the middle, with Nick Richards backing him up. Along with that group, the Charlotte Hornets added highly touted Brandon Miller with the second pick in the draft as well as Nick Smith, another first-round draft pick this year.
Cody Martin is expected to be a key contributor, especially on the defensive end, but didn’t play in the preseason after missing most of last season.
“Right now, the most important thing is to get to 100% and make sure when I get to that point, I’m ready to go,” Martin said.
On the day before the season opener, the Hornets signed veteran guard Ish Smith in an attempt to shore up the backcourt bench, adding experience with the 35-year-old journeyman.
Miles Bridges continues to be the team’s biggest question mark. After resigning with the team on a one-year contract, there are now questions about his return after he was charged with violating a protection order, misdemeanor child abuse and injury to personal property in October.
He had already been suspended for the first 10 games of this season by the NBA after missing the entire last season due to a previous domestic violence incident in 2022.
On Oct. 6, Bridges allegedly threw billiards balls at the windshield of a car that his children were in, resulting in the child abuse charges, while also telling his ex-girlfriend that he would withhold child support and “take everything from her.” Court documents also show that Bridges “allowed his current girlfriend to yell, scream, and kick the victims [sic] car while the children were in the car.”
The team has been quiet about the new charges since the latest incident, with no word on consequences from them or the league yet. Bridges’ first court date for the new charges is scheduled for Nov. 11.
Health is the key
Beyond Bridges’ troubling past, other stars have also struggled to stay on the court. Ball played in only 36 games last season and just 51 in his first year with Charlotte. Only in his All-Star season in 2021-’22 did he appear in more than half the team’s games (75).
Acquiring Gordon Hayward was considered a coup for a smaller market like Charlotte, a destination attractive free-agents usually don’t consider, when he arrived by trade from Boston in 2020. Since then, however, he has played in only 44, 49, and 50 games per season, respectively, with his minutes per game and point total decreasing each year.
Clifford mentioned this was the first time since Hayward was here that he didn’t have to rehab in the summer.
When Clifford was asked about the deeper roster this year enabling the team to survive injuries, he said, “I don’t care how much depth you have, if you lose your best player or your second best player, it’s hard to overcome.”
My dad used to say, “At any point in any game, whichever team has the best player on the floor, they have a decided advantage. It’s always who’s injured, and if you lose the wrong guys, you’re going to be in trouble.”
It seems obvious when you say it aloud: If the Hornets can keep their key players on the court, they have a much better chance at success. A deeper roster means nothing if your big guns aren’t available.
Clifford put it out there on Media Day: This team’s goal is to make the playoffs this season — with Ball backing him up on that, but what will that take?
Clifford has a reputation for not giving young players a lot of minutes on the court, but for this team to grow, he has to find a balance of getting Miller plenty of playing time, as well as sticking guard/forward Bryce McGowens and forward JT Thor in the rotation relatively regularly. Smith will also need some to get his feet wet.
There are other young players on this roster too, but at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be enough minutes to go around for some of those further down the depth chart.
“One of the things people don’t understand about basketball is this: People view player development as skill development — he shoots better, he can play off the dribble better. It’s a small part of it,” explained Clifford. “The biggest part of player development for the younger guys is, how does the team function when you’re on the floor? The biggest difference between college and the NBA is execution. That’s the thing the younger players have to learn and it’s hard for them.”
He added that the No. 1 thing that leads to a player’s growth is not drills or workouts but the overall environment of a team.
“If you have a serious minded team, with pro players who practice hard everyday and the younger guys have to do that, they get better,” he said.
He continued to voice his praise for Miller, as he has since workouts began.
“If you watch him play, his IQ, his ability to pay attention and learn and do stuff right away without all of this extra repetition, he’s one of the quickest learners I have ever been around in 20 plus years,” Clifford said. “You could see it in the September workouts, and I already had a number of the older guys come over to me and say, ‘He can help us right away.’”
Miller will be in the rotation, but likely won’t be starting anytime soon save for any injuries that may lead to such a decision. Clifford doubled down on his belief that a young player doesn’t necessarily need to be getting minutes to get better — calling them “minutes earned rather than “minutes played,” but Miller appears to be earning those minutes early.
“He’s far advanced compared to other guys I’ve been around in the last few years,” Clifford said. “He’s going to be on the floor right away.
Clifford termed Miller as a throwback player who’s fundamentally sound and knows how to practice.
Hayward added that he was also impressed with Miller’s ability to pick the pro game up.
“The thing that’s been the most impressive to me about Brandon is his feel for the game,” Hayward said. “He’s obviously got size, he can shoot and he can score, but I’ve been impressed with his ability to be poised in the pocket to make the right reads on pick and rolls. He doesn’t get sped up too much, which to me is rare for young players.”
Not many folks in the national media are sweet on the Charlotte Hornets going into the new season. Sports Illustrated doesn’t appear impressed, speculating that their win total will remain below 30.5 wins, finishing fourth in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference.
Here’s what an opposing scout had to say about them in the basketball preview edition of the magazine. “Charlotte is a shitshow. And I feel bad because Steve Clifford is not a shitshow. Even at the end of the year, when LaMelo Ball was out, they were so organized and solid. They just had no talent. LeMelo is a guy that will probably flame out. I just don’t think he’s super dynamic offensively — I think he’s just super dazzling. He’s the dude with the best costume.”
To be fair, this quote drew some confused reactions from a few local media members who have had a closer look at his game over the last three years.
SI was high on Williams and thought he was one of the young players on the rise. In the team breakdown, they called him a “defensive game-changer as a rookie,” noting the Hornets allowed just 112.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to 116.6 points when he was off.
Here in Charlotte, Williams drew the biggest chuckle at Media Day when he was asked if he got bigger in the offseason, responding, “Yeah, I’m glad someone noticed. I’m a lot stronger in the lower body and the upper body.”
The Athletic’s John Hollinger has the Hornets ranked 11th in the East, finishing with a 35-47 record, adding that the absence of Bridges “would further expose what is already a paper-thin Charlotte bench,” before listing out a good amount of upside.
On paper, the Hornets have a chance to be a much better team this year, but you don’t play the games on paper. Injuries are a worry for me. Can LaMelo stay healthy? Will Hayward finally have an injury-free year? Can Martin come back and be a defensive stopper in the frontcourt?
How good is LaMelo? One national perspective spoke of him in glowing terms, while the other seemed to suggest he’s not what he should be. I tend to favor the latter judgment, but I need to see more.
He has all of the flash and dazzle, but is the substance there? He can and should finish better around the rim and get to the free throw line much more. Throughout his career, he’s averaged just 3.3 attempts a game. With his skill-set, he should be among the league leaders in opportunities. He has to go harder to the rim and instead of just flipping the ball up, get in deeper and attack it. That will result in more baskets and free throw chances.
Ball takes a lot of long 3-pointers, many of which are bad shots, but that tends to open the court for drives, so I’m kind of okay with it. He needs to be smarter with some of those attempts instead of just firing them up.
His assists have improved every year, and I would like to see him take another jump this year, which he should with Miller added to the team. They should be able to play a lot of pick-and-roll ball to create opportunities.
Regarding Miller, I thought he was the right pick over Scoot Henderson, even if some Hornets fans disagreed on draft night. That being said, I haven’t seen the player I watched so much at Alabama last year.
His shot appears flat; he was 1-13 from the 3-point line in the preseason. Last year, I thought he could hit from anywhere. The distance is longer in the NBA than college, but his easy motion seemed adaptable to the farther range.
He’s losing the ball more than he did previously. I considered him almost a point forward if he wanted to be, but he’s been sloppy with the ball thus far. His handle is looking loose. I still have seen some of those passes that impressed me in the past, but he needs to be more consistent with his play.
Miller doesn’t seem as aggressive either. He was no ball hog last year with Alabama, but he averaged less than 10 shots a game in the preseason. He needs to channel that alpha-dog mentality all of the great players have, and Clifford’s plans to play him right away should help with that.
Miller has all of the attributes of a special player. His skillset and size are perfect for this game. Rookies progress at different speeds, and once he feels more confident with his place on the team, I am hoping we will see more of the player I saw last year.
Terry Rozier will be starting with Ball in the backcourt, and Hayward and Washington will be the forward tandem coming out of the gate with Williams in the middle. It’s a good starting five, but the depth on the roster is questionable, especially with so many young players. Who plays? Who sits? Who’s ready to step in and help? Lots of questions, but that’s why they play the games.
After getting crushed in the final preseason game against the Celtics, Clifford accused the team of playing soft over the last two games. “Tonight, that was not an acceptable level of physicality for a team that wants to play well.”
Clifford had previously talked about the teams’ ideal pace.
“Our team is made to run. I believe last year, we were seventh in pace, but we were 27th in transition points per possession, so we did play fast, but we didn’t take good shots, or we weren’t efficient when we played fast.”
I see this team as a work in progress and still under construction. There are too many questions to say they are a playoff team. Can they compete for the play-in? Probably. There is talent there.
If Ball can become a top-ten player in the league, if Miller can be a Rookie of the Year candidate rather than the longshot Sports Illustrated called him. If Bridges is there, or if he is even available or wanted while we wait for more details about possible consequences.
As Clifford put it, “We need the other guys to help out.”
I see the Hornets splitting the two predictions and ending up with 33 wins. It won’t get them in the playoffs, though they have a shot at the play-in. There’s renewed hope and a new ownership group, but a MrBeast patch won’t help them out of the hole they find themselves in.
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