February 22, 2022
Photo: Matt Kelley / AP
For the sake of all fans, let’s hope that a week without basketball-related obligations has served as a reset period. A reset period for every player except LaMelo Ball, who made his first All-Star appearance last weekend. Ball’s All-Star game performance was particularly notable, producing a couple of highlight-reel plays and finishing with 18 points, three rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
The Hornets went 3-11 over the last 14 games heading into the All-Star break. Before the slide, they sat comfortably in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 26-20. As we exit the All-Star break and enter the homestretch of the season, they’re 29-31. Thankfully, the bottom-four teams in the East aren’t good and the risk of falling out of the play-in tournament is small, but it exists nonetheless. Another 3-11 stretch would likely put them out of the playoff picture.
What’s ahead for the Hornets?
Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and San Antonio are up next for the Hornets. Not a murderers’ row, but three of those five teams are battling for seeding in the East along with Charlotte. At least the first two are at home, adding a few extra days of no travel to the week-long All-Star break.
The Raptors have been steadily climbing up the standings thanks to first-time All-Star Fred VanVleet and forward Pascal Siakam. They sit four games ahead of the Hornets in seventh place, and their +1.8 point differential is the sixth-best in the East. Prior to the break, they were 9-2 in their last 11 games, including an eight-game winning streak that the Hornets were a part of; Toronto beat Charlotte 116-101 on February 7 (the night Gordon Hayward suffered his ankle injury).
The singular win the Hornets have earned in the month of February came against Detroit on February 11. Turns out, a drubbing of the East’s second-worst team is not a cure-all for offensive issues, which has turned into the main culprit for this skid. Over the last 14 games, the Hornets rank 16th in defense and 27th in offense after spending most of the season as a top-five offense in the NBA. If the Hornets fall to the Raptors after the break, this could be another pick-me-up game.
Charlotte begins a two-game road trip in Milwaukee on February 28 and will look to take the season series with the fifth-place Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is slowly but surely working himself into the MVP conversation as he leads the league in scoring at 29.4 points per game, adding 11.2 rebounds, 6 assists and some of the league’s best defense on a nightly basis.
Arguably the most surprising story to come out of the East this season is the consistent success of the Cavaliers. For a team that relies heavily on third-year All-Star guard Darius Garland and rookie center Evan Mobley, Cleveland plays a winning brand of defense. They’re fourth in defensive rating on the season and can set impenetrable barriers around the rim using the length and athleticism of Mobley and Jarrett Allen. If the offense can hold up, the Cavs are going to be a tough out in the postseason.
The Spurs are in a weird spot. Dejounte Murray is an All-Star, but outside of Murray they don’t have much developed talent after Derrick White was traded to Boston. Keldon Johnson has been solid and Jakob Poeltl was a hot name on the trade market, but ultimately stayed put. On the positive side for the Spurs, Zach Collins is back from injury after missing the entirety of the 2020-21 season. Gregg Popovich is just three wins away from becoming the all-time winningest regular-season head coach in NBA history. Ideally, the record-clinching victory won’t come against the Hornets, but hopefully it happens soon so the NBA community at-large can celebrate Popovich in what could be his last hurrah.
What to watch for
We’re back to monitoring the injury report, though this time it’s for actual bodily injuries instead of health and safety protocols. Hayward is still likely weeks away from returning, but hopefully we’re nearing the returns of Cody Martin and Jalen McDaniels. Down three rotational wings, including two of the team’s most efficient shooters in Hayward and McDaniels, the offense has suffered tremendously.
Montrezl Harrell has been a great addition for the Hornets so far, providing a much-needed interior finisher that can handle his own as a pick-and-roll partner for Ball. Defensively, it’s going as expected, but that wouldn’t be much of a problem if the team’s offense was up to snuff. The only players shooting above 35 percent from deep over the last 14 games are Ball and JT Thor. That kind of ineptitude is so far out of the ordinary for a team that’s been elite offensively and especially potent from beyond the arc.
It’s bound to revert back with some improved shooting luck. However, that may not happen until Hayward and McDaniels return. Until then, Borrego, Ball, Bridges, Rozier, and the rest of the crew will have to keep this ship afloat or else a top-six seed could become mathematically unattainable sooner than fans would like to imagine.
Check out the remaining 2021-22 Charlotte Hornets schedule.