News & OpinionSports

Hornets Wrap Disappointing Season, but Rebuilding Process in Full Swing

Search for new head coach precedes draft and free agency

Hornets newcomer Tre Mann hits the floor during a battle for the ball during the Hornets' last game of the season
Hornets newcomer Tre Mann hits the floor during a battle for the ball during the Hornets’ last game of the season. (Photo by Nick Cammett w/ Getty Images via Charlotte Hornets)

The Hornets wrapped another forgetful year on Sunday, winning just 21 games and finishing with the third worst record in the Eastern Conference. Not the goal going into the season, clearly. 

Optimists could view this past season as one for rebuilding, however, as can be seen in the timeline, which saw major changes at all levels of the organization. 

The season started with new ownership, as Michael Jordan sold the team to Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall, ending a particularly bad period in a history of bad periods. Then came word in February that Mitch Kupchak, the team’s GM and president of basketball operations since 2018, would step down, though he would stick around in an advisory role. 

The next month, Jeff Peterson came on as executive vice president of basketball operations after serving in the league for 11 years. He had formed a relationship with Schnall as assistant GM in Atlanta, where Schnall was a minority owner before selling his stake to buy the Hornets. 

On April 3, Steve Clifford announced he would step down from coaching at the end of the season, opening the way for new blood and a new voice to join what hopefully will be a new era for the Hornets. He too will stay on in an advisory role. 

With Kupchak and Clifford both stepping down but sticking with the team, it raises the question whether they were simply dodging a less consensual decision from up top — or if working in any position for as long as they had without finding success simply gets tiresome at a point. Clifford said as much at the press conference announcing his decision. 

“I think that there’s a certain energy level that you need to have to have a chance to coach effectively in this league,” he explained. “I think the last couple years, with the losing, has been a factor in it, but as we have been meeting and discussing things, I’m just not comfortable that I’m ready right now to give the players what they need from a head coach in order to play well every night.” 

Plagued by injuries

In my preseason column, I predicted this team would win 33 games, though I did mention that health would be the key to even get that far. Once again, the injury bug reared its ugly head, as both LaMelo Ball and Mark Williams suffered early injuries and never really returned.

Ball, arguably the team’s best player, injured his ankle in late November and, despite an attempted return in January, was quickly removed to continue his rehab work, only stepping on the court for 22 of 82 games. Williams left in early December with a back injury and never returned, playing just 19 games. Cody Martin, who coaches hoped would be a key contributor, played in just 28 contests. 

We asked Clifford how the injuries have affected the team in his two years since returning as head coach and if that’s something he feels the training staff could have helped with. 

Coach Steve Clifford sits behind a microphone at a press conference
Head Coach Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets talks to the media during an introductory press conference in June 2022. (Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)

“Listen, this wasn’t a lot of pulled groins or calves, and stuff; these were broken bones. These were significant injuries,” he responded. “I don’t think you can blame anybody for that. It’s just part of the league. A lot of it is just luck.” 

But the question remains: How do you change the narrative? Because you certainly have to try. Both Ball and Williams have missed significant time since joining the Hornets. Ball has played in less than half of the team’s games in each of the last two seasons, while Williams has played just 43 and 19 games, respectively, in his two seasons since being drafted in 2022. 

While discussing what it will take to turn the Hornets into playoff contenders, health was a major factor for Clifford, perhaps not surprisingly, as he’s been burned so badly by injuries during his return stint. 

“You’ve got to have a lot of things, everybody pulling in the same direction,” he said. “You also have to have health. I think right now we’re like 28th in games missed by rotation players. Last year, I think we were 29th.” 

Is it just bad luck, as Clifford insisted, or can something be done in the team’s conditioning programs to keep players on the court rather than in street clothes? 

The bright spots in a dark season

It wasn’t all bad this season. Rookie Brandon Miller, booed by many in the Spectrum Center and elsewhere when Charlotte drafted him over Scott Henderson in June, averaged over 17 points per game and changed many a mind in the Queen City over the season. 

Miller’s game grew as the season progressed, going from a tentative player as the season kicked off to one who looked outright dominant at times near the end. Impressively, Miller took home NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors for all of the last three months in the season. 

He’s a three-level scorer, able to score at the rim, from midrange and behind the 3-point arc. He was also good defensively, for a first-year player, not shying away from contact. There’s still a lot of room for growth, with a need to improve from outside and finish better at the basket while also learning to run the offense the way he did at Alabama, though that will take time. 

Brandon Miller goes to the hoop during the Charlotte Hornets' penultimate game of the season against the Celtics
Brandon Miller goes to the hoop during the Hornets’ penultimate game of the season against the Celtics. (Photo by Getty Images via Hornets)

We asked him after an early-April Portland contest what he’s looking to improve on moving forward. 

“I think one thing is I just want to win. Everybody in the locker room wants to win and our goal is to hold up the big trophy. That’s our goal,” he responded. 

When we followed up, asking him about his individual game, he held to the script, repeating the winning mantra while seeming reluctant to discuss himself. 

Another high note this year involved a couple of trades made at the deadline that shed some dead weight and gave fans something to feel good for following a one-win December and helped snap the team out of a 10-game losing streak that ran from Jan. 24 to Feb. 9. 

On Feb. 8, Deadline Day, the team traded Gordon Hayward for guards Tre Mann and Vasilije Micic as well as forward Davis Bertans, then traded P.J. Washington for Grant Williams, Seth Curry (both Charlotte high school grads) and a 2027 first-round pick.

The new arrivals helped rejuvenate the squad, picking them out of a low point, and with all of them still under contract, there’s a realistic chance they can grow as part of the Hornets’ future. 

Miles Bridges had a good comeback season, returning in November after missing last year due to a domestic violence case (his charges were dropped in February of this year). 

He averaged 21 points and 7.3 rebounds a game, but is a free agent heading into the offseason. 

While he’s talked plenty about wanting to stay in Charlotte, “staying and winning” with the team, whether he has the chance to return will depend on whether management wants him back and, if so, what they’re willing to spend to make it happen. 

With a new basketball czar making decisions, we don’t know what he’s thinking or looking for at this time, though he did give an idea of what he’s looking for in a new head coach. 

The search for a new head coach 

“I’m really excited to initiate that process,” Peterson said regarding the search for a HC. “In terms of what I’m looking for, I want guys who are going to be a true partner with not only the front office but ownership.

“Obviously someone who can hold the players accountable, relate to the players and get the best out of them, communicate with them and teach them effectively,” he continued. “Someone who’s competitive. Those are a few of the traits I’ll be looking for as I approach this next process.” 

Jeff Peterson was brought on in March. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hornets)

Boston Celtics assistant coach Charles Lee has emerged as a front-runner in recent days, mentioned alongside 10-year Miami Heat assistant Chris Quinn.  

Quinn has coached under Eric Spoelstra, who I think is the best coach in the league, for the entire decade he’s been with the Heat. Miami always seems to be good regardless of how they look on paper, and have proven excellent at developing players who weren’t thought of highly into top-notch NBA players. 

Watching Miami outperform their talent year in and year out, knowing Quinn has learned from the best in player development, he’s a favorite of mine, though I’m not doing the hiring. 

When asked what makes the Hornets job appealing, Peterson answered immediately by citing Schnall and Plotkin. 

“That was a huge reason that I took the job — as individuals, as people, their vision and values with us being aligned. I think whoever we bring in here will certainly fit into those visions and values, as well,” he said. “Of course … being on the court with this roster — with Brandon, Miles and those guys — there’s a lot to be excited about. I think all of those factors will be attractive to whoever we decide to hire as the next head coach.” 

Regardless of who comes on as coach, there’s no telling what the roster will look like next season. There are still many questions about who’s staying and who’s going, and how those pieces will fit together, (though maybe Peterson gave a look at his intentions with that mention of Miles as an attractive part of any job offer).  

A hometown kid to consider in free agency

If Peterson isn’t thinking about bringing Bridges back — or even if he is — there’s a restricted free agent available who could be a good fit for this growing Hornets team. 

Patrick Williams, a Charlotte native and graduate of West Charlotte High School, would add to the talented, young roster. Drafted in 2020, Williams is already a four-year veteran at just 23 years old. 

Williams is a career 41% 3-point shooter and a rugged defender who has guarded some of the best wings in the league, including LeBron James and Jayson Tatum. His offensive game hasn’t yet hit its stride, but he hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to shoot the ball or play his position of choice: the 3 spot.

Patrick Williams Charlotte
Patrick Williams (left) guards Lebron James during a 2021 game. (Photo courtesy of NBA)

If Miller and Bridges remain with the team next year, Williams could find himself stuck at power forward, as he has been with Chicago, but the cost to sign him shouldn’t be outrageous, especially for a young player with his potential. 

The Bulls also might not be inclined to match the offer, as they’re currently dealing with some salary cap issues. Williams, however, has also had his share of injuries already in four years, something that could send Hornets management running, but it could turn out to be a home run addition at minimal cost. 

With free agency starting in late June and a to-be-determined lottery first-round pick in the Hornets’ possession for this year’s draft, there’s still a lot that can play out. What has been established is that it’s an entirely new regime making the decisions. 

Hornets fans are hoping the new blood will generate new results.

SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *