Uncertainty reigns as Hornets start season

Charlotte is looking to raise expectations after a rocky offseason

Steve Clifford, who officially starts his second tour of duty with the Hornets on Wednesday when Charlotte plays its opener in San Antonio, will begin the year without injured star point guard LaMelo Ball. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — With the Hornets opening their 2022-23 season Wednesday in San Antonio, Charlotte fans can take solace that basketball is back and the most peculiar offseason in team history is officially over.

Perhaps the Atlanta Hawks’ 132-103 trouncing of the Hornets in April’s play-in tournament could be looked at as an omen for the chaos that followed the team into the summer.


Four-year coach James Borrego was fired despite leading his team to a 43-39 record and its first winning season in six years. Following a bizarre coaching search that included Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson agreeing to take the job and then backing out, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan decided to rehire coach Steve Clifford despite firing him in 2018 after five seasons.

Miles Bridges, the team’s leading scorer last season, was then charged in late June with three counts of felony domestic violence. With his legal issues ongoing, Bridges’ future in Charlotte and the NBA are both in jeopardy.

Coming off last season, the Hornets had two clear objectives: address the lack of skill at center and improve the defense as a whole.

The team addressed both concerns by drafting Duke center Mark Williams and bringing back the defensive-minded Clifford. Small forward Cody Martin was re-signed and journeyman Dennis Smith Jr. was brought in to back up All-Star LaMelo Ball at the point guard position.

Facing a six-year playoff absence and a postseason series win drought that dates back to 2002, Hornets fans can be forgiven for feeling uninspired by the lack of big-name trades or signings during the offseason.

On top of Charlotte losing all five of its preseason games this month, Ball sustained an ankle injury that will sideline him for the season opener and possibly the first few games of the season.

“I would say, right now, Terry [Rozier], Kelly [Oubre Jr.], Gordon [Hayward], P.J. [Washington] and Mason [Plumlee],” Clifford said this week when asked how his starting lineup will look minus Ball. “There’s a lot of skill, and you have a lot of guys who have played a lot of minutes together. And that group played well in Philadelphia. So, I mean, it’s definitely one of the groups that we’re going to be looking at, I would think, all year.”

As if the Hornets needed more bad news, it was announced earlier this week that guard James Bouknight was arrested for driving while impaired last weekend just days after being charged with speeding and reckless driving, according to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.

Bouknight, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2021, was poised to have a bigger role after a rookie season of inconsistent play and tension with the coaching staff, though this recent development isn’t going to help him.

“We are just gathering information right now,” Clifford said of Bouknight’s arrest. “Until we know more definitely on what happened I can’t comment on that.”

With an offseason of arrests, coaching changes and roster stagnation behind them, the Hornets have some league analysts see the upcoming season as a potential “quiet tank” for likely 2023 No. 1 draft pick Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-4, 210-pound center from France.

But any franchise with Ball in the lineup is going to win games, making it unlikely Charlotte would fall that far in the standings. In his second NBA season, Ball averaged 20.1 points, 7.6 assists and 6.7 rebounds, improving on his Rookie of the Year season in 2020-21.

Rozier will once again man the shooting guard spot, and his hot-or-cold shooting could again dictate the team’s success many nights. The eighth-year player averaged 19.3 points in his third season with the Hornets.

Hayward and Washington each have their work cut out for them this year if the Hornets are going to achieve a winning record, especially with the void left by Bridges’ absence.

Hayward is a veteran and versatile forward when healthy — which has only been about 60% of the time since he signed with Charlotte. When he’s able to play, Hayward has been a reliable scoring option, averaging 17.6 points in his two seasons with the Hornets.

Washington, meanwhile, will have an opportunity to take a step forward in his career as a starter at power forward. His performance could bolster the Hornets’ thin playoff chances.

Charlotte already knows what to expect from Plumlee, so Williams’ progress could make the Hornets better in the paint. Depth players Nick Richards, JT Thor, Jalen McDaniels and Kai Jones could also carve out roles.

In a tough Eastern Conference, Charlotte will need many pieces to fall perfectly in place to match the record set by the team last year and have a shot at returning to the postseason.