Inside the Charlotte Hornets’ strong start to the season.
Your Charlotte Hornets are shockingly near the top of both the NBA Eastern Conference standings as well as my own personal NBA League Pass fun rankings and look the part of a real contender after impressive road wins over the Brooklyn Nets and upstart Cleveland Cavaliers.
It would be easy to say it’s a fluke, but Charlotte has looked like the better team in every game so far, even for most of their overtime loss against Boston.
But is it real? Can they sustain it? In my experience, the only way to answer those questions is to turn on the tape and see what we find, so let’s dive in.
The first thing that stands out about Hornets games is that they’re just objectively louder than any other team in the NBA. Not because of the crowd, but because Hornets announcer Eric Collins frequently jolts you awake with screams and cheers after even the most basic of plays – and I love it.
But after you learn to adjust and turn the volume down a couple of notches whenever you flip over to a Hornets game, the next thing that stands out is their depth and versatility.
When healthy, Charlotte has a pretty well-defined 10-man rotation. It’s of course centered around LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, and Miles Bridges (who deserves his own article with how great he’s been), but it’s supplemented by high-level role players.
Because of that depth, it’s afforded coach James Borrego the ability to experiment with lineups and create a true meritocracy where players with the hot hand are rewarded with minutes, even over their most notable stars.
The most common example of this so far is with the point guard position. Borrego has already closed two close games (Brooklyn and Orlando) with Ish Smith running the point and franchise cornerstone LaMelo Ball on the bench. In both cases, Ball wasn’t necessarily playing poorly, but Ish Smith was just playing well so he was given the important minutes. How many other coaches do that with their stars?
Borrego has also leveraged their youth and athleticism into an aggressive, ball-pressuring style of defense. He’s created a system where taking aggressive risks like jumping passing lanes and trying to force deflections has become part of their culture.
Forcing mistakes and parlaying that into easy points is what they do best on the defensive end, and the numbers back up what you see on film. Charlotte leads the NBA in points off of turnovers and ranks 7th in turnovers forced per game.
In the 4th quarter of their win at Cleveland, Charlotte was able to impose that aggressive defensive philosophy to the tune of four straight turnovers, all leading into scores that put the game out of reach:
What I love about that 4th quarter stretch against the Cavs is that it sums up everything that’s great about the Hornets when they’re rolling. It’s five players with eyes on the ball gambling and flying around on defense to force turnovers, flashy and unselfish passing in the open court, and athletic finishes around the rim – all packed into about 90 seconds of gameplay.
But Vegas wasn’t built on reckless gamblers who consistently win and the NBA wasn’t either. Playing that aggressive style can jumpstart game-changing runs, but it can also open you up to getting burned:
The Pacers did a great job in the first half and early 3rd quarter of generating open looks against Charlotte’s aggressive ball pressure. Simple actions like back cuts and slips quickly forced Charlotte into rotations and led to easy baskets.
It’s not uncommon to see these kinds of breakdowns from the Hornets’ defense when they aren’t able to get deflections and turnovers. It’s a unit that doesn’t have a lot of high-end individual defenders, and can often struggle to contain the simplest of actions. That weakness was on full display during Boston’s 4th quarter comeback when they pick and rolled Charlotte to death to force overtime:
There’s a reason the Hornets rank 21st in defensive efficiency, and clips like that make it easy to understand why. However, they supplement their defensive shortcomings in a few different ways. One of those ways is by getting out and running even off of opponent makes, which is something they do as well as any team in the NBA:
There is a clear emphasis on taking the ball out of the net and sprinting to the offensive end, where they often take advantage of teams jogging back and/or not communicating or getting matched up in time.
But forcing turnovers, playing zone (Charlotte played more zone than anyone in the NBA last season), and running after makes are all just band-aids to their real issues on the defensive end and something that will continue to be a work in progress as the season moves along.
Of course, you can’t always live in transition, but the Hornets aren’t leading the NBA in offensive efficiency just because they get a lot of steals and dunks. They’re also a dynamic half-court attack and one of the best passing teams in the NBA (3rd in assist/turnover ratio), relying on their cast of high-IQ players to make spontaneous cuts, screens, and passing reads that lead to high percentage chances:
In a league where a lot of teams run a “your turn, my turn” offense with limited off-ball movement, it’s always nice to see teams thrive with more ball and player movement. It only works when you have secondary creators, which the Hornets have in spades, and it’s absolutely necessary for teams that don’t have a Luka Doncic, LeBron James type of offensive engine.
In fact, during the rare stretches of this short season when Charlotte hasn’t looked good offensively, it’s usually because they get away from those ball and player movement principles and become stagnant. We already went over their defensive struggles late against Boston, but they amplified it with an uncharacteristically sluggish offense:
If there’s a positive to letting a game like the one against Boston slip away it’s that it reinforced everything that Borrego is trying to do. It showed that they absolutely have to play offense with pace and movement, especially when they’re struggling to get defensive stops, which happens pretty often.
Ultimately, the Hornets are a team whose energy and effort defensively seem directly tied to whether or not shots are falling on offense. It makes for some big runs but also leads to some ugly droughts when things aren’t going their way. And while that’s not totally uncommon, they’ll have to be able to grind out ugly half-court games on the defensive end if they intend to be a real contender in the Eastern Conference.
So to answer the original question that I asked myself and took too long to answer about whether or not it’s sustainable, it really depends on what your definition of “sustainable” is.
If it means they maintain a spot at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, the answer is an easy “no.” I expect some of the individual offensive numbers to regress a bit which will only shine a brighter light on their very real defensive struggles.
But can they keep themselves in the mix with the Knicks/Bulls/76ers group of middle-class Eastern Conference teams? I don’t see why not. They may have overachieved to start the season, but they’re still a deep, young, athletic, well-coached team with a clear identity on both ends – none of that is going away any time soon.
So no, I don’t expect them to take that leap up to the top tier of the East this year, but just from watching the handful of games they’ve played this season you can clearly see what is building there. It’s not a finished product but it’s getting there, and until that time comes, it’s at least fun to watch.