In 2020, the Charlotte Hornets experienced draft lottery magic, jumping up five spots to the No. 3 position, where LaMelo Ball was waiting there for the taking after the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors passed on the guard. The pick immediately energized the Hornets and their fanbase.
Over 700,000 fans attended Hornets games in 2022, putting them squarely in the middle of the pack in the NBA attendance race at 15, a big jump up from 2020 when only the Timberwolves saw worse average attendance than the Hornets before COVID shut the season down.
However, if you want to keep that energy you have to win, which is why the Hornets fired head coach James Borrego in April following another disappointing loss in the play-in tournament: getting blown out by the Atlanta Hawks after experiencing a similar fate in 2021 against the Indiana Pacers. Their first over-.500 finish since 2015-16, with a record of 43-39, wasn’t enough to save Borrego’s job.
After an extensive search, they seemed to find their man in Warriors assistant and former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, but in a bizarre turnabout on June 18, Atkinson reneged on the four-year contract he had agreed to and announced he would stay on board as the Warriors’ lead assistant, leaving Charlotte high and dry in their coaching search.
That’s just a part of the trouble the Charlotte Hornets have experienced in recent weeks, as star player Miles Bridges, a restricted free agent who recently received a qualifying offer from the team, was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with felony domestic violence. Bridges pleaded not guilty to the charges and his next court date is August 19.
All domestic violence allegations deserve to be taken seriously, but the brutality of the claims against Bridges was made especially clear when his wife posted pictures of her injuries on Instagram along with hospital paperwork that stated her injuries as diagnoses by emergency room doctors: “Adult victim of physical abuse by male partner; Assault by strangulation; Brain concussion; Closed fracture of nasal bone; Contusion of rib; Multiple bruises; Strain of neck muscle.”
Bridges was up for a huge payday with the likelihood that the Hornets would match any offer he received on the open market, but this news could change that and might even cause the Hornets to rescind their initial offer. They haven’t said anything about it yet other than they consider the charges against him serious.
A goal to advance
On the coaching front, it was thought the Hornets might hire Mike D’Antoni, but in a surprise move announced on June 24, the team hired Steve Clifford, who preceded Borrego as the Hornets head coach for five years before he was fired in 2018. His previous experience with the organization and familiarity with Hornets president of basketball operations and GM Mitch
Kupchak is apparently what landed him the job.
Kupchak has high expectations for the team and said the goal isn’t just to make the playoffs. “My goal is to not only get this team in a position to make the playoffs but advance in the playoffs, and at some point, the Eastern Conference Finals should be realistic,” he said during a press conference following the Clifford hiring.
Among other reasons (see above), Clifford was hired because of his reputation as a defensive coach. The Hornets are going to have to play better D if they are going to come close to Kupchak’s goal after ranking No. 23 in defensive efficiency last year. The team finished as high as sixth and never below 17th in defensive ratings during Clifford’s five seasons as their coach.
What’s been missing more recently is a man in the middle who can defend the basket but is mobile enough to challenge shots at the perimeter. The Hornets are hoping they solved that problem with the 15th pick in the 2022 NBA draft: center Mark Williams from Duke.
Williams was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best college defenders in the country last season. He’s a key piece to solidifying the Hornets’ defense, but they have to buy in as a team to be effective on that end of the court.
Small forward Kelly Oubre Jr. was a good addition last year. P.J. Washington has contributed and provided a threat from the 3-point line, and veteran Terry Rozier has provided an offensive spark alongside Ball in the backcourt.
Hits and misses
Not all of the young talent had an opportunity last year to grow; the Charlotte Hornets’ two first-round draft picks in 2021, James Bouknight and Kai Jones, barely saw the court. It will be interesting how Clifford incorporates them into the mix along with Williams to nurture their growth while still competing for a playoff spot in a much tougher Eastern Conference than when he was coaching Charlotte.
Clifford said he will be watching a lot of film to learn the players’ strengths and weaknesses, and that right now is the biggest part of learning exactly what he has to work with.
“It’s a young roster with a lot of potential and a lot of room for growth,” Clifford said, “so I think there’s the opportunity here to do something exceptional.”
The team has been quiet since restricted free agency opened on July 6, though the Hornets did re-sign restricted free-agent Cody Martin over the weekend. It was important to keep Martin if the Hornets want to shore up the defense, as he is one of the team’s best perimeter defenders.
The Hornets have the $10,490,000 non-taxpayer mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception of $4,105,000 available to spend on free-agents, according to Sportrac, but most of the attractive candidates have already been scooped up by other teams.
There is still one possibility out there that has intrigued Hornets fans. The talk is Kemba Walker might have a reunion with the team he spent the first eight years of his career in the NBA on — and where he had the most success. Outside of Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are lacking experience in the backcourt and Walker would fit that bill and could provide needed offense off the bench.
There’s also talk of Isaiah Thomas Jr. potentially returning to the team. He played well for them last year in limited minutes, shooting .397 on 3.4 attempts a game from 3-point range and averaging 8.3 points in just under 13 minutes a game. Both players can help, but neither are defensive stalwarts and their additions might again limit Bouknight’s minutes.
There’s not a lot else the Hornets can do as they are capped out with available money to spend due to some ill-advised contracts, such as the $61.6 million left on Gordon Hayward’s deal.
Hayward was a good get when Charlotte signed him, though it was considered an overpay at the time and has proven to be just that in the time since. In the Charlotte market, however, that’s just the way it goes: The team will have to overpay to land star players.
When Hayward is healthy, he’s been a good contributor. He’s only played 93 games the past two years for the Hornets, however, so he’s out almost as much as he is available.
Something else that feels important: Hayward was nowhere to be seen when Charlotte lost to the Hawks in that play-in game. He was out with a foot injury, but normally in a situation like that, players are there to support their teammates even if they can’t perform, so the question is if his heart is still in Charlotte … and if not, can the Hornets find a taker for what’s left of his salary?
Questions for Steve Clifford
With Bridges’ future in serious jeopardy, and rightfully so, the key to any success Charlotte has relies on how high LaMelo can ascend. Over the last two seasons, the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks have made their conference finals thanks to the leadership of young stars Trae Young and Luka Doncic, respectively. Melo is a player on a similar level who can elevate his teammates with his exceptional play. The question now is this: How will Clifford get the most out of him?
When asked what type of offense he plans on running this year, Clifford said the team will play to the strengths of their best player. He mentioned Ball’s flair for playing well in the open court and how he wants to take advantage of that. Clifford likes the way the Hornets moved the ball and said that will lead to good 3-point shooting while opening up driving lanes to the basket.
On how LaMelo can improve, Clifford talked about Kevin Durant’s time in Brooklyn, where Clifford worked as a consultant. He said nobody worked harder than Durant, then mentioned that he can share stories that hopefully will help his new team with clarity of vision and work ethic.
“If we’re going to have playoff success, we don’t just have to improve the defense,” he added. “We need to improve in all areas. We need to get maybe top 5 or 6 in offense and improve the defense and that will give us a chance to win.”
With not a ton of hope for free agency, fans will be keeping an eye on what’s happening with Bridges, though plenty of supporters have already taken to social media to denounce him.”
“I never want to see @MilesBridges on my team or in the league ever again,” tweeted Scotty Kent, co-founder of Crown Club, the Hornets’ biggest fan group. “I would also like to see the @Hornets release him and offer fans the opportunity to trade in his jersey for percentage off a new one.”
Bridges was considered a key part of the franchise moving forward, and with that now in question, the team’s entire plan for the future is also in question. Clifford has his work cut out for him, but he’s been here before.