Ailing Hornets have dropped 11 of their last 12 games, is there still hope for the playoffs?

By Chase Whitney

November 21, 2022

Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

Unfortunate health seems to be the early-season story for the Hornets, who have now lost franchise player LaMelo Ball to an ankle sprain two separate times, along with Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin and Dennis Smith Jr. for multiple games so far this season. 

Head coach Steve Clifford gave an update on Ball’s injury Thursday, saying he didn’t “have any idea how long” he’ll be out, per the Charlotte Observer’s Rod Boone. There’s no real timeline for this injury, so we’ll just have to wait and see how long it takes before Ball is ready to take the court again.

Until then, it’s going to be difficult not to compound this losing skid with so many players either out with an injury or working themselves back into the lineup. But the Hornets are currently six and a half games behind sixth place, which is a surmountable gap given how much time is left in the season. If the Hornets can get healthy– and more importantly, stay healthy– there’s plenty of time to make a push for the postseason, even though a 4-14 record in mid-November may not inspire much hope.

Apart from health, the biggest contributor to the team’s record is a bottom-tier offense. The Hornets currently rank dead last in offensive rating (106.4) and true shooting percentage (53.1%), and 28th in three-point percentage (31.9%). Head coach Steve Clifford has instilled a generally more cohesive defense, but the team’s defensive rating (112.4) has fallen to 20th after spending the early portion of the season in the top-half of the league. On the bright side, the Hornets are a top-7 offensive rebounding team and they rank in the top half of the NBA in assist rate (61.4%), which gives the team a solid base to build on. Once Ball, Rozier and Hayward have all regained rhythm, the offense is bound to improve.

Hayward is back from a shoulder injury but it could take a few games before he’s returned to his usual self after missing time. Dennis Smith Jr. returned to the court Sunday night contributing six points off the bench in the loss against the Wizards, giving Clifford a semblance of his full-strength rotation without Ball and Martin. Smith also added two steals and two blocks, exemplifying how much better the team’s defense is with an attack dog guarding the perimeter. 

The Hornets almost caught a sliding Cavaliers team on their heels last Friday behind 34 points from Kelly Oubre Jr. and a clutch performance in crunch time from Terry Rozier. If Charlotte can stay afloat in the East while Ball nurses his injury, general manager Mitch Kupchak will at least have an opportunity to push his chips in at the trade deadline and try to guide the Hornets to their first playoff berth since 2016.

The young players; Nick Richards and Théo Maledon in particular have performed admirably when called upon this season. Richards has scored in double figures seven times already and recorded a career-high 14 rebounds against Cleveland, and Maledon has handled the backup point guard role with poise, playing 14.6 minutes per game in 16 appearances while on a Two-Way deal. Bryce McGowens and Kai Jones have flashed potential as well, though in much more limited minutes. James Bouknight has pieced together some stretches, but seems to have fallen out of the rotation as of late. JT Thor hasn’t been overly productive but can still be a versatile defender while he works out the kinks in his offensive game.

A sprained ankle suffered in Greensboro prevented rookie Mark Williams from getting extended run with the Swarm, but he’s dominated the G League in his five appearances to the tune of 22.8 points, 14.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game on 60.3 percent shooting from the field.

The Hornets will be returning to the Hive for a two-game homestand against Philadelphia and Minnesota this week, who have both underwhelmed so far. After that, Charlotte goes back on the road for one game in Boston before three games at home kicking off December.

Check out the remaining 2022-23 Charlotte Hornets season schedule.

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