Can Hornets Go from "Worst" to First in the Southeast Division?

Hornets try to climb the ranks of the southeast division after a disappointing season
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
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As if last season wasn’t disappointing enough as is, the Hornets (21-61) also managed to finish fourth in what is arguably the worst division in the NBA. They only came ahead of the Washington Wizards (15-67), who are still in the early stages of their rebuild. Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic (47-35), Miami Heat (46-36) and Atlanta Hawks (36-46) each had better winning records than Charlotte.

The good news is: They all proceeded to crash out in the early stages of the postseason, and now have some question marks looming around their near future. How can the Hornets capitalize off of this and what needs to happen, for the Buzz Boys to go from (second-) worst to first in the Southeast division?

Staying Healthy

In the past season, the Hornets ranked third in games missed due to injury across the league, with Mark Williams (63), LaMelo Ball (60), and Cody Martin (54) being the most absent players. The Hawks and Heat had similar struggles, also finding themselves in the Top 10 of the league-wide ranking. The major concern for Charlotte's front office: Ball and Williams were supposed to be large parts of the franchises’ young core. If the duo is once again going to miss large parts of the season, the Hornets' chances of surpassing any division rivals will take a drastic hit.

General Trajectory

Ahead of the lottery, it seemed somewhat likely that the first draft pick would end up going to the Southeast division, with the Wizards and the Hornets both projected in the Top Four. Ironically, the first pick did end up in said division but with a different team – The Atlanta Hawks. It remains to be seen if they use this opportunity to start a bit of a rebuild, or rather try to gather more firepower around star guard Trae Young via trade. If they choose the second route and improve on their already well-rounded roster, they will probably finish next season ahead of the Hornets barring any major injuries.

How about the teams from Florida?

Due to their respective first round exits, they land in the middle of the draft at 15th and 18th place. The Magic showed one glaring weakness in their seven-game series against Cleveland, being in desperate need of a guard who can produce consistent offense. Whether they decide to put their trust in a rookie or trade for someone more experienced, Orlando is one solid piece away from solving a big chunk of their problems.

Miami on the other hand is not. The Heat got manhandled in five matchups by the Celtics, albeit suffering from injuries to Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier amongst others. But even when fully healthy, it seems clear that they are not even close to the East’s elite. A good part of the roster is on the tail end of its career and the very small title window is nearing its end. General Manager Pat Riley has three options: Lure in one more big piece that completes the contender puzzle, re-tool around Adebayo and/or Herro, or completely rebuild the squad around the likes of Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Lastly, Washington's offseason will mostly be spent deciding on who they should pick at number two on draft night. Whoever that might be, he will not be able to turn the Wizards into anything more than a promising group. Dani Avdija, Corey Kispert, Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones, Bilal Coulibaly, and Marvin Bagley III all showed some flashes last year, but the team still lacks a clear foundation to build any kind of regular season success on.

In the end, this will all come down to the Hornets themselves.

Will they finally be able to rely on a mostly healthy rotation? How long will new head coach Charles Lee take to implement his ideas? Can the sixth pick provide immediate help?

As the Wizards figure out their rebuild, and the Hawks and Heat might give up on their playoff aspirations, Charlotte could very well squeak right past them if they find the answer to those questions.

So, can LaMelo Ball and Co. win the Southeast division next year? Yes. Is it a realistic goal? Probably not.

Finishing over either Miami or Atlanta would be good, trumping them both would be great. Jumping Orlando would take something extraordinary to happen, assuming the Magic manage to fix their backcourt issues.

Albert Bottcher