Hornets’ offense continues to be historically balanced

Charlotte coach James Borrego has preached exploiting mismatches

Kelly Oubre Jr. has been one of the NBA's best sixth men this season and a key part of the Hornets' balanced offensive attack. (Rusty Jones / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — If their scoring averages remain intact throughout the rest of the season, the 2021-22 Charlotte Hornets could make NBA history as one of the most balanced scoring attacks the league has ever seen.

The selfless offensive approach that the Hornets (26-21) have utilized under coach James Borrego has been largely effective by relying on players finding the open man on the court, no matter who it might be.

Charlotte is the only team in the NBA this season with five players averaging above 16 points: Miles Bridges (20.1 points), LaMelo Ball (19), Terry Rozier (18.5), Gordon Hayward (17) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (16.3).

While the 1957-58 and 1959-60 Boston Celtics each had five players eclipsing these averages by a small margin, the last team in the modern era that effectively utilized this fluid style of play was the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors, who had five players (Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Gary Trent Jr.) that each scored over 16.1 points.

As the season’s midway point, it appears the Hornets generated one of the best free agent signings of the offseason in Oubre, who is gunning for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award with his scoring — he is shooting 45.2% from the field and 36% from 3-point range — supplemented by four rebounds a game.

If his scoring numbers hold, Oubre has a chance to pass former Celtic Frank Ramsey to become the highest-scoring fifth option in NBA history among teams who had those five players play most of the season.

Earlier this month, Oubre had one of the best games of his career, notching 32 points on 10-for-16 shooting (including 9 for 14 from 3-point range) in Charlotte’s 140-111 victory over the Detroit Pistons. The 2015 first-round pick out of Kansas exploded in the game’s fourth quarter, knocking down eight 3-pointers in a span of eight minutes.

“I hope he feels at home here. I hope he feels that we trust and believe in him, number one. Do I believe he’s in that sixth man category? I do,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “I don’t have all the numbers and all the candidates, but if I had a vote I’d vote for him. There are a number of players out there that are capable of winning this award. There’s a lot of talented sixth men out there, but Kelly has got to be right there in the mix. He’s having a heck of a year and he makes our offense so much more dynamic.”

All five of the Hornets’ top scorers have had 30-plus point games this season, with the most recent belonging to Bridges on Jan. 17. The 23-year-old’s career-high 38-point effort silenced a New York Knicks crowd that saw its home team crumble late in a 97-87 loss to Charlotte.

Bridges’ ceiling has already grown exponentially this season.

He has had seven games with 30 or more points after achieving that feat just three times combined in his first three seasons. Even still, the fourth-year player says that his team thrives when it’s spreading the ball around the court and disregarding a hero-ball style of play that focuses on one or two players.

“When everybody’s touching the ball, that’s when we’re at our best,” Bridges said. “I’m just taking what the defense is giving me, just reading the game. Our coaching staff does a great job of having us read the game on closeouts or isolations. We’ve been doing a great job of going at mismatches and making the right play.”

Along with Ball, Bridges has a chance to be named to the Eastern Conference’s roster for the 2022 NBA All-Star Game, which is set for Feb. 20 in Cleveland. In the fan vote, Ball’s 958,717 votes landed him in fifth place among Eastern Conference guards, while Bridges’ 330,372 votes placed him in ninth place among Eastern Conference frontcourt players.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry (Western Conference guards), Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant (Eastern Conference frontcourt), Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan (Eastern Conference guards) and Los Angeles’ LeBron James (Western Conference frontcourt) are the top vote-getters at their respective position groups.

Team starters, including the two team captains, will be revealed on Jan. 27 and team reserves will be revealed on Feb. 3. In the NBA’s All-Star system, fan voting accounts for 50% of the formula for naming starters, while the players and media members each have a 25% say.