There are two months left in the season, and the Charlotte Hornets are still sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Even over halfway through the NBA season, and with 32 games remaining, seeing the Hornets firmly in the playoff picture is startling. It’s not something many of us were quite ready for. It’s not quite as jarring as seeing Kyle Korver in an All-Star game a few years ago, but something to that effect. Still, less than six games separate the four-through-11 seeds in the east. And the Hornets’ current stretch of games may determine the rest of their season in either direction.
If you said that Devonte’ Graham’s production would get considerably worse from last season and that the Hornets would be better anyway, that would’ve been challenging to foresee, but that’s what’s happening in Charlotte. Graham’s productions dropped from 18.2 points and 7.5 assists on 38/37/82 shooting splits, landing him fifth in Most Improved Player voting, to just 13.3 points and 5.3 assists per game on 36/36/78 splits.
But in place of his emergence has been a blossoming, unlikely trio of two outside All-Star candidates from earlier this month, as well as the likely Rookie of the Year. Free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier are both averaging 20.4 points per contest, with Rozier adding 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists, and Hayward recording 5.5 boards and 4.1 assists. Rozier’s shooting splits are career-highs across the board (other than free throws) at 48/42.5/84, while Hayward’s at 48/40/87, giving him a distant but possible shot at the lauded 50/40/90 category.
And, of course, there’s LaMelo Ball.
Ball led all rookies in scoring for a good portion of the season before being overtaken by Anthony Edwards, but still leads his class in assists and is second in rebounds. He’s currently averaging 16.0 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.9 rebounds, with shooting splits of 45/38/80, easing concerns over his jumper leading up to this past year’s draft.
But the real challenge for the Hornets lies within their current stretch of games. As of this writing, they’re currently wrapped in a five-game road trip, of which they began 0-2 after losses to the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. Tonight, they’ll face the Clippers, followed by the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. They’ll get a two-game reprieve in location only between March 26 and 28, but they’re hosting the playoff-bound (and championship aspiring) Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns.
And then, the real shit arrives.
Between March 30 and April 9, the Hornets will endure six consecutive road games. (During a pandemic, in case we’re just disregarding that element entirely these days.) And the six games are as follows: Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Milwaukee Bucks. We’re likely to see at least half of those teams in the playoffs, with the Wizards and Pacers likely at least remaining in the mix all season long. Since the beginning of March, the Hornets have been 0-3 against likely playoff teams, with a four-game winning streak being put together against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, and Sacramento Kings.
And that’s not a bad thing either, but these are the kind of teams the Hornets now have to defeat to remain where they are. It’ll mean they’re ahead of schedule, and more importantly, it’ll give the Michael Jordan-owned franchise more optimism if they could make the playoffs built around a newly acquired free agent, an overachieving veteran, and the rookie of the year.
Keep your eyes on them between now and the trade deadline, too.