It’s early, just a week into the first 82-game season the NBA has had in a couple of years, but if there’s one thing we know with absolute certainty, it’s this: The Charlotte Hornets are good.
Like really good.
Charlotte is 4–1 after beating the Magic in Orlando on Wednesday. Miles Bridges, the fourth-year guard who is quickly putting a stranglehold on the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, scored 31 points, the third time this season the 23-year-old Bridges has posted 30-plus. Gordon Hayward, who the Hornets tossed $120 million at in 2019, scored 24. Jalen McDaniels, one of several draft picks Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak has hit on, added 16.
We should have seen this coming. Why didn’t we? The Buzz were playing .500 ball in mid-March, when injuries to Hayward and LaMelo Ball crushed any hope of a high playoff seed. That team had Ball orchestrating a feverish offense headlined by perimeter weapons like Bridges, Hayward and Terry Rozier. This team has picked up right where that one left off.
“That was the idea,” Hornets coach James Borrego said in a telephone interview. “That was my mindset going into the summer; that’s who we are. That was the buy-in, and then I saw a ton of work this summer. As we headed into the preseason, I knew this team and still believed [in] this team.”
There’s no secret sauce in Charlotte. Its good players are progressively getting better. Take Bridges. Bridges showed potential as a rookie in 2018, but, says Borrego, “I’m not sure any of us could have seen this type of growth.” Bridges has just worked. The Hornets made some minor tweaks to his jump shot, and Bridges spent untold hours working on it in the gym. “When he came in, he was not a shooter,” says Borrego. “Now it’s one of his strengths.” If there was a silver lining to last season’s injuries, says Borrego, it was that with Ball and Hayward out, Bridges was thrust into a bigger role.
“In that period, he started to find that confidence and belief in himself that he could do this,” says Borrego. “That he could score consistently from multiple levels. I trust him with the ball now. I trust him to make plays for himself, for others. There's a real confidence about him right now. He believes that he could get to the rim at will. He can make catch-and-shoot threes. He can make off-the-dribble threes. There was an opportunity there for him last year. He took full advantage of it.”
And what about Ball? The talent in Ball is undeniable. His playmaking skills are elite. But Ball has worked himself into becoming a high-level shooter. He’s attempting 7.4 threes per game and connecting on 45.9% of them. Defensively, he’s developed a knack for playing the passing lanes, collecting two steals per game. Borrego calls Ball “a real student of the game” and says the hype around him has made him work only harder.
“When players get talked about a tremendous amount, they can lose perspective on the purity of the game, on why they’re playing the game,” says Borrego. “They get caught up in the noise around their game, and they can lose the love for the game. I’ve not seen the love loss at all. I see a hunger. He sits in the front row every film session. He talks more than anybody in a film session. He asks more questions than anybody in the film session. He’s fully engaged, and I don't have to reel him in every day to learn and be better. To me that’s what’s standing out right now. There’s a curiosity about him right now that I love.”
The Hornets love Ball. And Ball seems to be enjoying Charlotte. Just ask Jay-Z. On Sunday, the cameras caught the rapper—and ex-Nets minority owner—talking to Ball on the floor. Lip readers quickly transcribed Ball telling Jay-Z, “I’m good in Charlotte.” Jay-Z replied, “you want to be there forever?” LaMelo nodded his head, and walked away.
Charlotte took some heat when it signed Hayward in 2019. But they needed a steady scorer. Hayward has been that, averaging a shade under 20 points in his first two seasons—and ranking fifth in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring this season. They needed a secondary playmaker. Hayward’s 5.2 assists this season are tied for a career high. After three snakebitten seasons in Boston, Hayward has rediscovered his All-Star form.
Everything is working for the Hornets right now. Mason Plumlee and Kelly Oubre Jr., unheralded offseason acquisitions, have brought toughness and (more) athleticism to Charlotte’s rotation. Through five games McDaniels is shooting 75% from the floor. The offense, ranked in the bottom third in efficiency last season, is the NBA’s second-best. More help is on the way with Rozier, a 20-point-per-game scorer last season, nearing a return after missing four games with an ankle injury.
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There’s excitement in Charlotte. Not since Baron Davis was running point in the early 2000s have the Hornets been this talented. Not since Larry Johnson was dressing up like a senior citizen have the Buzz been this much fun to watch. They will have rough stretches. All young teams do. But this team isn’t going anywhere.
“There’s a belief about our group right now,” says Borrego. “There was a confidence there as we went into the summer that we could do something special this year. It wasn’t just going to happen. I saw a full commitment to work, to be together all summer working towards a common goal, which is ultimately to win. That’s being driven by a number of people. It’s not just one person driving the whole ship. There’s five or six players that are consistently pushing this thing forward and not allowing us to settle and pushing the belief that this could be not only a good team but a special team.”
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