It’s tough to call the Charlotte Hornets’ start to the season a major surprise, not in a year when the New York Knicks are the No. 4 seed for the playoffs in early March. Still, Charlotte must be considered at least a mild stunner as the Hornets flirt with a playoff spot and .500 record, neither of which has been accomplished by the franchise in five years.
After Monday’s loss, the Hornets were two games below .500, at 16-18. That’s a three-game improvement over Charlotte’s record after 34 games last year.
If the season ended today — which, during a pandemic, is always at least a possibility — the Hornets would be headed to the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the East. Just as impressive, Charlotte is currently one game out of first place in the Southeast Division. While a divisional title wouldn’t help with playoff positioning, it’s also something the Hornets have never accomplished in the history of the franchise.
The Hornets have gotten a boost from their top offseason pickups. Gordon Hayward, signed to a generous contract by the team, leads Charlotte with 21.2 points per game.
No. 3 overall draft pick LaMelo Ball has also had a strong rookie season. Ball averages 15.7 points, third on the team, to go with 6.0 rebounds, also third, and a team-high 6.4 assists. He’s also shooting a better-than-advertised .367 from three.
The team’s fast start has come even though the Hornets have been without one of their few post players in Cody Zeller, who has missed 16 of the team’s 34 games with injury.
The Hornets’ playoff hopes are bolstered by the NBA’s expanded playoffs, in effect for this season.
While an eight-seed would usually mean that the Hornets are clinging to the final spot, this year, Charlotte has a little bit of extra breathing room. A total of 10 teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason this year, with seeds seven through 10 participating in a unique “play-in tournament” round to determine the final two teams in the eight-team conference quarterfinals.
The No. 7 and No. 8 teams will play each other in one game, with the winner entering the next round as the seventh seed. At the moment, that would mean that the Hornets play the Raptors in that game.
Meanwhile, the No. 9 and No. 10 teams will play each other in a one-game “loser goes home” showdown. The winner advances to play the loser of the 7-8 game to earn the No. 8 seed.
Get all that? It means that, if the Hornets are in the No. 7 or 8 spot, they need to win one game in two tries to advance to the playoffs. The 9 and 10 teams need to win two straight to get in.
At the moment, a game and a half separate the No. 5 and No. 10 teams in the standings. The first teams out of the play-in round — Atlanta and Washington — are 1 1/2 games behind that group. So the Hornets are a hot week away from avoiding the play-in altogether, and a cold week away from being on the outside looking in.
So, which outcome would best suit the Hornets? Does making the playoffs, at the risk of a one or two-game exit, benefit the franchise, or would Charlotte be better served by getting into the draft lottery again?
Obviously, bouncing to a six seed or higher would be the ideal outcome for Charlotte. If the Hornets can get a pass into the eight-team round, in a year when the East is wide open, anything can happen. Charlotte could get bounced in the first round, as has happened the last three times the Hornets have made the playoffs, or it could make a Cinderella run to the conference finals.
The benefits of a play-in spot are a little hazier. With Toronto and Boston potentially standing in the way, there’s a very good chance the Hornets’ playoff run would be one or two games. Would the “blink and you missed it” playoff experience really help accelerate the development of the team’s young players?
Memphis, who had a similar experience to start last season’s Bubble playoffs, doesn’t appear to have gotten much of a boost from its quick trip to the postseason. The Grizzlies are currently No. 10 in the West.
Missing the playoffs also doesn’t seem like it gives the Hornets a chance for a quick improvement. The odds of winning the lottery and getting a top-three pick would be extremely slim, and the players available in the late teens — David Johnson, Daishen Nix, Terrence Shannon, Sharife Cooper — don’t seem demonstrably better than the ones mocked for the early 20s — Usman Garuba, Jared Butler and Greg Brown.
Our verdict: The team landed a lottery pick more recently than it’s tasted the postseason. A trip to the playoffs, no matter how brief, will help energize the fanbase, earn the team some space in the national spotlight, and the odds of success with the other Eastern teams seem higher than with the pingpong balls.