Hornets stung by poor defense in ’20-21 

Charlotte failed to make the NBA playoffs for the sixth straight year

Hornets forward Miles Bridges took a step forward this season, leading Charlotte in scoring, but the team will need to build around its core players if it wants to end its six-year playoff drought. (Lynne Sladky / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — The Hornets’ 2021-22 season saw key players make notable strides as the team increased its win total by 10 games from last year.

However, Charlotte (43-39) still failed to make the NBA playoffs for the sixth straight year after losing 132-103 to the Atlanta Hawks in the 8-9 game of the Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament on April 13. It was the second straight year in which the Hornets have been blown out in must-win games with their season on the line.

The team’s subtle improvements but persistent struggles make for a questionable future for both the current roster and coach James Borrego.

That said, Charlotte still proved to be one of the league’s most consistently entertaining teams, powered by the energetic trio of Miles Bridges, LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier.

While Bridges was not a finalist for the NBA Most Improved Player Award, he was certainly a contender. The 24-year-old former first-round draft pick improved in all aspects in his fourth season, raising his scoring from 12.7 points per game to a team-best 20.2 points while also narrowly increasing his rebound and assist outputs.

Ball was another player who did not disappoint this season, avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump a year after winning the Rookie of the Year Award. The 6-foot-7 point guard improved his scoring from 15.7 to 20.1 points without sacrificing the generational court awareness that he displayed in his first season.

Rozier slightly regressed in his seventh season, averaging 19.3 points from 20.4 a year ago, but he still proved to be a confident 3-point shooter for the Hornets in many games down the stretch.

Much like last season, the Hornets built their offense around the 3-point shot as they ended the season as the sixth-most efficient long-range team in the league with a 36.5% accuracy from behind the arc.

With a fourth-ranked 115.3 points per game, Charlotte had no problem putting the ball into the basket this year, especially with role players like Kelly Oubre Jr. (15 points per game), P.J. Washington (10.3) and midseason newcomer Montrezl Harrell (11.4) all capable of explosive performances.

The ultimate downfall of the Hornets was their often-terrible defense. Only five teams in the league allowed more points than Charlotte’s 114.9, and opposing teams had no trouble lighting up the Hornets from behind the arc or in the paint.

Mason Plumlee (6.5 points, 7.7 rebounds) provided some help as Charlotte’s new starting center, but opponents often exploited Plumlee’s lack of athleticism as a defender.

As a whole, Charlotte’s roster struggled to defend, particularly when trying to prevent opponents from getting to the rim, an issue that should be the focus for the Hornets’ front office in the offseason.

Another question mark for Charlotte is the all-too-common absence of Gordon Hayward. The injury-prone small forward (15.9 points) played just 49 games this season and ended the year with a lingering ankle/foot injury. He’s played just 93 games in his two seasons with the Hornets, making his four-year, $120 million contract feel like a mistake at its halfway mark.

Some good news arrived for the Hornets on April 18 in the form of a first-round pick in the 2022 draft thanks to the New Orleans Pelicans making the playoffs. The additional pick, which is slotted at 15th overall, stems from a three-way trade clause last summer. If the Pelicans had missed the playoffs, Charlotte would have instead received a pair of second-rounders in 2022 and 2024.

With the Hornets also projected to get the 13th pick in the draft, it will be the first time since 2005 that the team will enter draft night with multiple top-15 picks. Charlotte also owns the 45th overall pick in the second round.

The extra pick should help general manager Mitch Kupchak in his quest to fill Charlotte’s holes and weaknesses — if he returns. With his four-year contract expiring, the veteran GM has been rumored to possibly be on the way out, which would also put Borrego’s future in question.

On the court, Bridges has earned a big payday and Ball is the most untouchable player on the roster. But players like Washington, Hayward, Oubre and Harrell could be playing somewhere else soon, and even Rozier is not a lock to stay in the Queen City.

While 2021-22 was another small step in the right direction for the Hornets, the team will need to provide a stronger supporting cast for its core players to finally get over the playoff hump and emerge from the franchise’s history of mediocrity.