When I was thinking about what record to predict for the Charlotte Hornets on the eve of their 2021-22 season, my first thought wasn’t nice. It was instead a flashback to the Hornets’ ugly play-in game in May, when Charlotte got plastered, 144-117, by Indiana in a game that wasn’t that close.
As Charlotte forward Miles Bridges said of Indiana after that one mercifully ended: “They bullied us. There’s nothing else to say. Everyone watched the game. ... They played like they wanted to be in the playoffs and we didn’t. ... They whipped our a--.”
This Charlotte team is supposed to be better equipped to not get bullied on the NBA playground. That remains to be seen. Is Mason Plumlee really enough? Not on his own. Charlotte’s season opener Wednesday at home against Indiana will give us an early measuring stick as to how physical the Hornets, as a team, are willing to be.
Physicality is a huge issue for the Hornets, who must solve their longstanding problem of allowing too many baskets in the paint. There’s also the inconvenient truth that the Hornets have posted five straight losing seasons.
Picking the Hornets under .500 has long been the smart bet. Since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004, the franchise has had only three winning seasons. In the past five years, Charlotte has finished a combined 49 games under .500.
It’s not surprising that in Las Vegas, the Hornets’ over-under for wins for this upcoming 82-game season is 38.5.
But I think they’re going to be better than that, and I say that after having watched in person some of Charlotte’s 127-59 loss to Dallas in the preseason finale.
Even in that game, there was hope. Point guard LaMelo Ball looks more confident this year, and he’s going to get a good shot for himself or someone else on practically every possession.
If Ball buys in on defense every possession and shoots the 3-pointer better than he did in the exhibitions, he’s got a chance of being an all-star in Year 2, at age 20.
Gordon Hayward is the Hornets’ X factor, mainly due to his health. Hayward has missed at least 28 games due to injury in three of his past four NBA seasons. Hayward has a few things in common with the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey — they are stars when they play, but their durability has gotten questionable as their careers have gone on.
Hayward is supposed to be back Wednesday after missing a large chunk of the preseason due to contracting COVID-19 (despite being fully vaccinated). The Hornets may have everyone available for the season opener — Terry Rozier’s ankle seems the only real issue — which is a rarity for any NBA team.
“I think last year we showed moments,” Hayward said Monday. “We had flashes. I think this team is really versatile. We’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of guys that can make plays.”
The Hornets’ brand of basketball will certainly be entertaining. They’re fast and frenetic.
Borrego has some young players he must mold, which was what he was referring to when he joked earlier in the preseason that he had a “lot of babies running around there.”
But for every Ball, James Bouknight and Kai Jones, there’s a Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ish Smith. This is a team with youthful talent and veteran gravitas. It is built to win now, and it really should win enough now to end the 2021-22 season at over .500.
Enough dallying. Want to know my pick?
The Hornets will finish 43-39, just enough to squeeze into the No. 6 spot of the Eastern Conference and avoid the NBA play-in tournament (seeds 7-10). It will be Charlotte’s first winning season in six years.
The Hornets still won’t win a first-round playoff series — they haven’t done that since 2002. But at the end of the year, Hornets fans will look back and say: “That was progress.”
This won’t be the year, although that one is coming. It will be the season where the Hornets finally break their playoff drought.