The Charlotte Hornets ended the 2020-21 NBA season with a bitter taste in their mouth -- a 144-117 beating at the hands of the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference's 9-10 play-in game. At Media Day on Monday, many of the Charlotte players talked about that defeat motivating their offseason workouts as they enter the new season with a clear expectation of making the playoffs.
"No more being one foot in the door," said Terry Rozier, who added that anything short of a postseason berth would be "an absolute fail" for a Charlotte team that is indeed talented but is also up against a much deeper Eastern Conference than we've seen in recent years.
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Here's a look at Charlotte's roster along with five keys to its 2021-22 season.
Charlotte Hornets roster
1. Lamelo Ball's next step
Ball was very good overall and electric over a six-week stretch en route to winning the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year. From the start of February, when he was inserted into the starting lineup, through late March when he went out with a broken wrist, Ball averaged just under 20 points per game to go with 6.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 46 percent shooting, including 42.6 percent from 3.
That did not feel like an outlier stretch. It felt almost inevitable as you watched the progression of Ball's game and season. Even when he was just getting his NBA feet wet, it was clear how easily the game comes to him. The 3-point shooting was better than expected from the start, and when it turned the corner into becoming a legit strength, Ball's presence as a dual-threat point guard went to the next level as the Hornets found themselves in honest range of a top-four seed fairly deep into the campaign.
If Charlotte is going to take the best of what it showed last season and make that its consistent level, Ball has to take another step in the direction of solidifying himself as an All-Star-level player.
What does that mean? Keep the shooting up, cut down on turnovers and get to the free-throw line more. Ball put on a noticeable amount of muscle over the summer, and that should help him finish with more consistency at the rim (His 54 percent rim clip last season, per Cleaning the Glass, registered him in the 27th percentile among players at his position).
LaMelo, like his brother Lonzo Ball, could really use an in-between game as well; floaters, runners, pull-ups in the lane, etc. He shows flashes of a variety of shots. People like to loosely describe LaMelo as a 6-foot-8 Trae Young, but that's a long way off at present; until Ball finds an elite floater game and works his way to the line like Young does, there's no comparison.
Defensively, Ball was also better than his draft skeptics warned. He impacted a lot of possessions, but not in a terribly disciplined way. Overall, he's still not a good defender. He leaves his man chasing big plays, which he doesn't land often enough to warrant the wandering. But the instincts and size are there.
Ultimately, while Gordon Hayward might still be Charlotte's best player, this is LaMelo's team. He's obviously young and raw, and we all have to be careful about the expectations we place on a second-year 20-year-old. But there's no denying the goods are there for Ball, and perhaps by extension the Hornets.
2. Gordon Hayward's health
Reasonable minds can argue about whether a healthy Hayward remains Charlotte's best player, but the only word that really matters in that sentence is healthy. Hayward, who missed 28 games last season, has to stay on the floor consistently and operate at or near an All-Star level for the Hornets to have any real shot at cracking the postseason.
There is optimism on this front, as Hayward went into this offseason healthy. The last time Hayward enjoyed an injury-free offseason, during which he could simply work on his game and get his body and mind right absent any kind of rehab, was 2016, and he wound up making the All-Star team the following year.
Hayward was spectacular at times last season. He wound up averaging just under 20 points per game on better than 41 percent 3-point shooting, per CTG. Despite that borderline elite conversion rate, Hayward attempted fewer than five 3-pointers per game last season (just 29 percent of his overall attempts, placing him in the 16th percentile among wings); I think we could see a significant uptick in Hayward's 3-point attempts this season as he perhaps sticks more to a perimeter-based game in an effort to stay healthy.
3. Terry Rozier's continued efficiency
When Rozier came to Charlotte via a sign-and-trade with Boston in the summer of 2019, he was widely regarded as a highly overpaid consolation prize for the Hornets losing Kemba Walker. He promptly outplayed that contract. Rozier was Charlotte's most consistent player last season from start to finish, and now he has a four-year, $97 million contract extension to show for it.
Once again, people are wondering whether Rozier is worth the money he's getting paid. There's context to the deal. The 2022 free agent class is relatively thin, and the Hornets aren't a team that's going to lure a big fish anyway; they have to develop from within, even if it means a slight overpay here or there.
Rozier averaged career highs in points, assists, steals and effective field-goal percentage last season. Like Ball, however, Rozier doesn't do much damage at the rim and he hardly ever gets to the line (this is a real problem for the Hornets, who registered 24th league-wide in free-throw attempts per game last season and still lack a guy who can draw fouls in the post or consistently create downhill leverage).
Still, Rozier is a 20-point scorer who connected on 39 percent of his 8.3 3-pointers per game. It's hard for me to see Rozier taking a big leap off last season, but can he maintain that level as an efficient scorer? That question will go a long way in how the Hornets' season shakes out.
4. Center(s) of attention
Cody Zeller is out, and Mason Plumlee is in. Plumlee will likely start as Charlotte's center, but Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington playing together in a small-ball unit is a much more intriguing lineup, particularly as a closing five. Washington started 61 games last season as the power forward, but my guess is Bridges, who broke out as a 20-point scorer over the 19 games he started largely over the final month of the season, replaces Washington in the starting lineup.
But again, it's about how Charlotte finishes. To keep their pace high and be as versatile as possible defensively, Washington and Bridges need to see time as the frontcourt. Last season, Bridges played so well as a starter that Washington was moved to center when he came back from a brief ankle injury, and the returns on those two playing together as a small-ball frontcourt were positive, if relatively small in sample.
The Hornets were plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions with Washington and Bridges on the court together with a 118.2 offensive rating last season. With the five-man lineup of Ball, Rozier, Hayward, Bridges and Washington, which would be the likely closing unit, Charlotte was plus-4.7 points per 100 possessions, per CTG.
Again, Plumlee likely starts as Charlotte doesn't want to play that small for that long, and the backup center situation is thin, meaning the minutes for Washington and Bridges have to be kept in check. But how those two fare together, whether for stretches of games or as a closing frontcourt, will likely be a big part of Charlotte's equation.
5. Defensive improvement
Charlotte was a bottom-10 defensive team last season due in large part to its surrendering 14.5 3-point makes per game, the second worst mark in the league; the Hornets allowed opponents to jack up just under 40 3-point attempts per game, the highest mark in the league, per CTG. They are not a good perimeter defensive team. Ball scrambles and gambles but he does not contain penetration or rotate with any kind of consistency, and he's at the head of most attacks.
Charlotte brought in Kelly Oubre Jr., who has a reputation as a good defender but really isn't all that great. He makes athletic plays, but is also an undisciplined gambler. If Charlotte is going to improve defensively, it will be because Ball takes strides, Oubre stays halfway disciplined, Hayward stays healthy and plugs holes, Rozier is a pest on the ball, and the aforementioned Washington/Bridges small-ball combo is able to cause havoc in spurts.
I personally don't see a ton of defensive upside for the Hornets, who lack even one top-shelf defender and don't have enough collective experience and/or discipline to succeed as sum-is-greater-than-their-parts unit. But if Charlotte can just make a bit of progress, perhaps into the top half of the league, its pace, passing and shooting could be enough to be a playoff team.