After a disastrous 2022-23 season full of injuries, Hornets head into a critical offseason to turn things around

By Chase Whitney

April 11, 2023

Photo: Jacob Kupferman / AP

After a long and arduous 2022-23 season, the Charlotte Hornets are officially in offseason mode. The ghastly injury reports, prolonged shooting slumps, and an overall sense of being cursed by the basketball gods is finally behind us. 

Through no fault of the players or coaches, this Hornets season went about as poorly as you could have imagined. Multiple extended absences from LaMelo Ball, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Gordon Hayward exacerbated the loss of Miles Bridges and the nagging knee injury that limited Cody Martin to a mere seven games played. Once the first domino fell with Ball’s preseason ankle sprain, they just kept falling all the way until the last game of the season, when seven players were sidelined in a win over a Cleveland team that rested key players in their rotation.

Despite the frequent lulls and losing streaks, Hornets fans were treated to flashes of potential from the team’s developing young players and veterans. Ball being sidelined for the early portion of the season elevated the roles of Kelly Oubre Jr., PJ Washington and Dennis Smith Jr., allowing them to expand their game as featured members of the Hornets’ offense. Sadly, it didn’t take long for things to go off the rails with an eight-game losing streak after a 3-3 start. By Christmas Day, the Hornets held a 9-24 record, the second-worst in the league. Mitch Kupchak, Steve Clifford and the rest of the Hornets decision-makers quickly had to readjust their expectations.

On December 26, rookie center Mark Williams made his debut as a member of the Hornets rotation. With the exception of a thumb sprain that put him out for a few games, he hasn’t dropped out since. The 15th pick in the 2023 NBA Draft spent the first half of his rookie season dominating the G League with the Greensboro Swarm in preparation for his newfound role. Fans clamored for him to get minutes, and it was clear right away Williams was worth the wait. He made an instant impact, recording 17 points and 13 rebounds in his sixth appearance of the season and was inserted into the starting lineup when Mason Plumlee was dealt to the Clippers at the trade deadline. Once Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels were shipped out in early February, Charlotte’s youth movement shifted into high gear with the help of some veteran leadership.

Gordon Hayward was again limited by injuries, but he did make 50 appearances this season (the most in his Hornets tenure) and was the team’s only efficient volume scorer. In a two-month stretch from January 26 to March 26, Hayward posted 15.8 points, 4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game on 51.6 percent shooting, including nine 20-point games and a season-best 27 points and 13 rebounds in a late February win over Minnesota. Heading into the final season of the four-year contract he signed back in 2020, Hayward could begin to transition into a smaller role over the summer.

Perhaps more than any other player, Terry Rozier’s season as an individual embodied the entire franchise’s experience in 22-23. An ankle injury derailed his season early and sent him into a season-long shooting slump. Between the months of December and April, Rozier’s best stretch was 38 percent on 9.1 threes per game in January– apart from that, he shot below 32 percent in every month and finished December and March below 30 percent. Despite the shooting slump, Rozier gutted it out and finished the season with a career-best 21.1 points and 5.1 assists per game, often operating as the team’s lead guard with Ball out. 

After missing almost two months due to hand surgery, Oubre re-entered the lineup and shouldered the load as a leading shot creator while emerging as a leader in the locker room, and member of the Charlotte community. If not for the numerous missed games from Oubre and Dennis Smith Jr., the two veterans may have gotten some All-Defense buzz. Oubre was tied for eighth in the NBA with 3.2 deflections per game, Smith was 20th with 2.6, and they both averaged 1.4 steals on the season. Oubre landed in the 81st percentile among wings and Smith in the 95th percentile among guards in steal percentage, per Cleaning The Glass. 

On an expiring contract, Oubre has endeared himself to both the organization and the city, and Smith quite literally revived his NBA career after signing a non-guaranteed deal in training camp. Looks like the NFL is gonna have to wait if he re-signs with the Hornets. Smith told the New York Daily News in October of 2022 that he was gonna transition to football as a defensive back if things didn’t work out in the NBA.

It became clear once Bridges was out of the picture that PJ Washington would see an uptick in usage this season. Career-lows in efficiency from deep and a subpar field goal percentage make his season look worse on paper than it may have really been. Washington appeared in 73 games this season, an admirable feat for this year’s Hornets squad. He also expanded his arsenal as a shot creator, taking a career-high 5.9 triples per game and shooting 37.3 percent on pull-up threes, his best mark in that category since his rookie season, on considerably higher volume.

While many teams around the league were shamelessly tanking and putting their players in position to lose, the Hornets were trying to win every game. All but locked into the fourth-best lottery odds for nearly a month to end the year, Steve Clifford got remarkable buy-in from the rookies and sophomores that were thrown into the rotation. The Hornets briefly held the league’s best defense post All-Star break (highlighted in an excellent article by Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan), and finished with the eighth-best defense over the last 22 games of the season. Oubre’s playmaking as an off-ball defender, Smith hounding ball-handlers at the point of attack, and the energy provided by Williams, Nick Richards, JT Thor and Kai Jones kept the Hornets competitive late in the season, helping them to a 12-12 record from February 13 onward.

We’d be remiss to gloss over the impact of James Bouknight, Théo Maledon, Bryce McGowens and Svi Mykhailiuk down the stretch. Each and every player on the Hornets roster this season– even late-season acquisitions Kobi Simmons and Xavier Sneed– made contributions. 

Bouknight was about as far away from an NBA rotation as a former lottery pick could be– from New Year’s Day to March 24, he appeared in two games and logged just over 10 minutes played, spending nearly every game with the Swarm. It appears the extended stay in the G League unearthed something within Bouknight; in the last six games of the season, he averaged 12.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 25.1 minutes per game. His confidence as a scorer stood out as he shot 38.1 percent from deep on 42 total attempts during that stretch. With a team option coming up this summer in the fourth year of his rookie-scale contract, Bouknight may have come on at the right time.

McGowens became a full-time member of the rotation following the conversion of his Two-Way deal to a four-year NBA contract. He exhibited why the Hornets traded up to select him 40th overall in the 2022 draft with his first-step quickness, streaky shooting, and penchant for drawing contact on drives. Maledon was the de facto backup point guard as long as the 50-game active limit on his Two-Way contract didn’t pose a threat to his availability. He ended up being listed active for 45 games this season. Both Maledon and Smith have shown promise as Ball’s future backup, though Maledon offers much more offensive versatility as a budding floor-spacer and solid pick-and-roll commander. It’ll be interesting to see if the Hornets keep one or both of them around this summer.

Anyone who had “two 25-point games from Svi Mykhailiuk in the final week of the season” on their Hornets bingo card needs to try their luck at the slot machines in Las Vegas. Viewed as a trade deadline throw-in as part of the Jalen McDaniels trade, Mykhailiuk scored a career-high 26 points against Toronto, 25 against Houston, and put up double figures in eight of the last nine games of the season. He also dished out a career-high eight assists twice as the Hornets secondary playmaker when the team sat veterans towards the end of the season. 

Charlotte’s 27-55 record gave them the fourth-best odds at the May 16 NBA Draft Lottery. If the Hornets are lucky enough to land Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, or even Amen Thompson or Brandon Miller, the organization’s immediate and long-term outlook changes drastically. If that happens, the Hornets are armed with the veteran contracts and bevy of draft capital necessary to make a franchise-altering trade. Eventually, we’ll get news on Bridges’ status as an NBA player. If he returns, Bridges would bolster the on-court product, public optics aside.

The NBA Draft Lottery will take place on Tuesday, May 16, 2023 at 8:00 p.m. Rest and reset, because the most critical juncture in the recent history of the Hornets franchise will be here shortly. 

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