October 2, 2022
Photo: Jacob Kupferman / AP
The wait is finally over. Basketball is upon us after an offseason that dragged on for what felt like years for Hornets fans. The front office only made one new addition to the 15-man roster this summer (rookie center Mark Williams), extending Cody Martin on a four-year, $31.6 million contract. Not exactly something that’ll get the Queen City buzzing for opening night, but absent the cloud that hovered over the organization throughout July and August, there’s still lots to look forward to this year.
Will LaMelo Ball make another big leap?
Fresh off of a stellar sophomore campaign, becoming the youngest All-Star selection since LeBron James in 2005, LaMelo Ball is poised for an uptick in usage and responsibility. Ball is the lone returning 20-point per game scorer on the roster and the primary offensive initiator and playmaker. Surrounded by capable three-point gunners in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Terry Rozier, a late shot clock release valve in Gordon Hayward, and a pick-and-pop partner in PJ Washington, Ball will still have a variety of options racing down court and picking apart defenses. For the first time in his young career, Ball had a full-length NBA offseason to get in the lab and work on his game– the budding superstar is sure to showcase some new wrinkles.
Charlotte Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford, Part II
Fans will have their own, highly varied opinions as to whether or not Steve Clifford’s first tenure in Charlotte was “successful,” but his acumen and ability as an NBA coach cannot be questioned. Clifford is a floor-raising coach that squeezes nearly every ounce of production out of the roster he’s given by instilling a consistent defensive effort and patience on offense. Over the summer, Clifford spoke about playing to the strengths of the team’s best players, and it’s reasonable to say that none of the Hornets rosters he coached in the mid-2010s had a player as talented as Ball, or a second and third option at the level of Rozier and Hayward. Clifford-coached teams are known for placing an emphasis on slow-paced offense that generates a high amount of free throws, quality looks from downtown, and limited turnovers. The strengths of this team, however, involve ramping up the pace, taking lots of threes and outscoring opponents. We’ll see if Clifford shifts his strategy, or the talent of this roster and his coaching style meet somewhere in the middle.
“Offense … starts with playing to the strengths of your best players. And he’s a great talent with a passion for the game and a flair for playing in the open court. We want to take advantage of that.”
— Steve Clifford on structuring his offensive game plan around LaMelo Ball pic.twitter.com/OPQpI5nWTU
— Bally Sports: Hornets (@HornetsOnBally) June 28, 2022
Which young Hornets will emerge from the crowd?
Charlotte currently has drafted five players within the last two seasons, making up about a third of the entire roster. All of the veterans are locks for the main rotation and Nick Richards has received glowing praise from Clifford this preseason, but one of the young Hornets should rise to become a trusted member of Clifford’s rotation. James Bouknight has been meeting with Clifford for 8:00 a.m. film sessions every day, JT Thor added nine pounds of muscle over the summer, and Mark Williams has been trying to emulate the style of Boston center Robert Williams III. That’s before we even get to Kai Jones, who remains the most interesting young player on the team with his penchant for highlight-reel dunks and tantalizing open court athleticism.
How is Mitch Kupchak going to fill out the roster?
The Hornets opened training camp with 13 players on guaranteed contracts with LiAngelo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. on non-guaranteed contracts and Bryce McGowens occupying one of the two Two-Way slots. There are many routes Kupchak could take to fill out the roster. He doesn’t have to use all 15 guaranteed spots as the league minimum is 13. There’s a chance the elder Ball and Smith are the last two additions while one of the Exhibit 10 (one-year, minimum salary NBA contract) players or a roster casualty from another team slides into the open Two-Way. Maybe a familiar face in Kemba Walker will be a roster casualty in Detroit, which is currently over the maximum of 15 guaranteed contracts on their roster. The Hornets could opt for a reunion with Walker, filling a need at backup point guard, and there’s always the chance of a preseason trade, though few players that would fit with the Hornets are on the market right now.
PJ Washington finally has a clearly-defined role
Few people outside the organization expected Washington to make a franchise record seven three-pointers in his 2019 debut, but he quickly established himself as a key piece of the Hornets’ future. Since going down with an ankle injury in the midst of his rookie year, Washington’s role has often been in flux. In 2020-21, the most successful lineups the Hornets employed included Washington at the five spot, but the roster’s lack of size and rim protection forced Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller to start a combined 57 games. Primarily a backup big last year, he’ll be thrusted back into the starting lineup– only this time, he’s had a full offseason to prepare. Washington is one of the best shooters on the team and the most versatile defender with his length and switchability.
Gordon Hayward’s health
There’s no denying Hayward has been productive when he has been on the court for the Hornets, with averages of 17.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game on highly efficient 47/40/84 shooting splits. The problem? He’s appeared in just 93 games in two seasons, missing the homestretch of each season and the play-in games. Clifford said at Media Day that Hayward and the team have agreed to a plan to limit his workload in the preseason and it appears likely he’ll have his minutes managed. If Hayward is healthy at the end of the season, the Hornets will undoubtedly be a more intriguing postseason threat.
The Miles Bridges situation
The biggest question mark surrounding the Hornets is the status of Miles Bridges. Currently an unsigned free agent, the Hornets still have a qualifying offer for Bridges following a June 29 arrest on felony domestic violence charges. The case has been repeatedly continued, with the most recent date set for October 7.
“The Hornets and Miles Bridges have allowed his $7.9 million qualifying offer to expire, sources tell me.”
— The Rally (@TheRally) October 3, 2022
There are two main outcomes in this situation according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks: the NBA has jurisdiction to suspend Bridges if there is a settlement, the charges are dropped, a plea deal is reached, or if he’s found guilty. If he’s tried and found not guilty, the NBA does not have jurisdiction to suspend him and the Hornets would retain his free-agent rights through the qualifying offer, which remains on the table for Bridges. Only time will tell the fate of Miles Bridges.
If he is found guilty, the charges dropped or a plea deal is reached, the NBA then can suspend him for the foreseeable future.
In the event Bridges is found not guilty, the NBA does not have jurisdiction to suspend him. https://t.co/4OeqYIk0JU
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 20, 2022
The Hornets open the regular season against the Spurs on October 19 in San Antonio. Basketball is officially back.
Check out the full 2022-23 Charlotte Hornets schedule.