CHARLOTTE — Already 13 games below .500 and in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets would certainly take a mulligan on the first two months of the 2022-23 NBA campaign if they could.
Charlotte (7-20) has lost its past five games, the team’s second longest losing streak of the season after dropping eight in a row at the end of the October and start of November.
The reasons for Charlotte’s struggles are easy to identify. Star guard LaMelo Ball has been limited to just three out of 27 games this season due to ongoing ankle issues. Leading scorer Miles Bridges’ ongoing legal issues stemming from offseason domestic violence charges have kept the Hornets from signing the restricted free agent.
And injuries to other players — including Gordon Hayward, Dennis Smith Jr, Mark Williams and Cody Martin — have made it nearly impossible for Charlotte to build off its 43-39 record from a year ago.
“Help is on its way,” said coach Steve Clifford said after the Hornets’ 121-102 loss to New York on Dec. 9. “I think that one of the things you can’t do is overreact to things and you have to watch.
“Even now with the group we have, as shorthanded as we’ve been, if we get a couple of breaks here and there, we got 10 wins and we’d be two games out,” he continued. “So with everybody back, it’ll come again and there’ll be a little adjustment period. We have some guys that are playing well. They’re in roles that are really challenging when you’re playing every other night and back-to-back in there.”
It hasn’t been all bad news. Charlotte’s offense ranks fourth in the league in points per game (115.3) and both Terry Rozier (22.2 points) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (20.8) are averaging career highs in scoring.
Role players like Jalen McDaniels, Mason Plumlee, Nick Richards and Theo Maledon have stepped up and played more minutes than usual.
But wins haven’t followed. Clifford, in the first year of his second tenure in Charlotte, was charged with improving the team’s defense after replacing James Borrego. That hasn’t happened — the Hornets have fallen to 25th in team defense with 114.9 points allowed per game.
Charlotte’s defensive limitations were on display Dec. 11 when 76ers star center Joel Embiid scored a season-high 53 points in an 18-point rout. The loss also highlighted the Hornets’ difficulties from 3-point range. Charlotte converted just 6 of 26 attempts from long range and is tied for 26th in the league at 32.2% after making 36.5% of their 3s a year ago to rank sixth.
P.J. Washington, who had a strong start to the season, has regressed recently. He made just 2 of 12 from the field in 35 minutes against Philadelphia.
The Hornets should have a chance to end their skid Wednesday at home against the 7-22 Pistons — the only team beneath them in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte will then host Atlanta (14-14) on Friday before playing in Denver (16-10) on Sunday.
“We have a chance each and every night we suit up against another team,” Oubre said. “It’s just the simple fact of what we do in that span of 48 minutes, whether we come out with a win or not.
“It’s not a race — it’s a marathon. At the end of the day, we have to continue to just understand the situation. We need to look at it for what it is but also just know the rain isn’t going to rain forever. The sun has got to come out one day. So as long as we continue to just get better and put the right things in our mental, we’ll be there.”
Charlotte will need to be more than the sum of its parts to avoid falling further behind in the Eastern Conference.
“Until we get our guys back, do we have a playoff roster that we are putting on the floor every night? No, we don’t,” Clifford said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t play playoff basketball. We can play playoff-type basketball.”