Hornets’ season leaves more questions than answers

Charlotte had the fourth-worst record in the NBA in 2022-23

Coach Steve Clifford, second from left, and the Hornets finished the regular season with a 27-55 record, the fourth worst in the NBA. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — As the final buzzer sounded on the Hornets’ 2022-23 season, Sunday’s 106-95 victory over the playoff-bound Cavaliers marked a positive finish to a year that won’t be fondly remembered.

Rookies and burgeoning talents Mark Williams and Bryce McGowens each notched 22 points in the win, offering the Hornets (27-55) some optimism as they closed the season winning 12 of their final 24 games.

When a team slogs to a 15-43 record in the first two-thirds of the season, playing .500 ball for a few months can feel like quite the improvement even if the stakes are comparatively lower.

“Unless you make the playoffs, it’s a long offseason, but these are important games for our young guys,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said after the season finale.

As the Hornets enter the offseason for the seventh year in a row without reaching the playoffs, all eyes turn toward the May 16 NBA Draft Lottery when Charlotte — which finished with the league’s fourth-worst record — has a 1-in-8 chance of landing the top overall pick. That would allow the Hornets to select 7-foot-3 Frenchman Victor Wembanyama at the NBA Draft on June 22.

Detroit, Houston and San Antonio each have slightly better odds (14%) of getting the top pick.

It’s difficult to describe how impactful it would be for the Hornets franchise to land Wembanyama — not just in terms of a talent upgrade for the team’s frontcourt depth, but also as an overall morale boost for the coaching staff, roster and fan base.

General manager Mitch Kupchak and Charlotte have five draft picks this year, including two in the first round. That makes it essential for the Hornets to come out of the draft with impact players, especially if ownership decides to part ways with top scorers Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre Jr.

Perhaps most importantly, Clifford mentioned at the Hornets’ season-ending news conference that the team needs to improve if it wants star point guard LaMelo Ball to stay in Charlotte after his contract expires.

“He badly wants to win,” Clifford said bluntly. “When you’re at his level, there are certain expectations. You’re going to be compared to the other point guards his age that have had not incredible playoff success but have had some. It’s important to his career.”

Ball, who played just 36 games this season due to injuries, has not made the playoffs in his first three campaigns and saw Charlotte’s win total drop from 43 to 27 this season.

When asked on April 10 about how he views his long-term future with the team, Ball didn’t tip his hand.

“I love it here,” he said. “I can’t really tell the future. We’ll just see how it goes and go from there.”

On top of any additions from the draft, the Hornets’ lineup could look very different given that the team has $39 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.

Some of that money could be used to re-sign restricted free agent Miles Bridges, who missed all of this season after being arrested on domestic violence charges last summer.

While the 25-year-old has certainly proven his worth on the court — he led the Hornets in scoring during the 2021-22 season — his off-court issues have clouded his present and future. Bridges and Ball have proven to have a strong relationship the past few years, which could factor into how circumstances play out.

With the Hornets’ lineup in flux, even the ownership situation appears to be in transition.

Last month, it was revealed that team owner and six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan is negotiating to sell an additional stake in the franchise to a group that includes current minority owner George Plotkin.

Clifford was recently asked about his job status given the possibility of a shift in ownership.

“Obviously, I hope nothing happens because I want to coach again next year,” he said. “But I’ve also been around this league long enough to know to not ever be surprised by anything that happens. That’s pro sports.”

As the dust settles from the Hornets’ 2022-23 season, it’s clear that there is a lot of work to do for the team to improve, although it’s hard to imagine the number of injuries and amount of adversity encountered this season could be topped.

That could provide some optimism for Hornets fans — a sense of hope that would turn euphoric if Charlotte managed to land the No. 1 pick next month and draft a generational talent.