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2023-24 Charlotte Hornets: A season in review

The 2023-24 season is going to go down as a seminal season in the history of the Charlotte Hornets franchise. There’s no guarantee that things will get significantly better, but there’s also no doubting that this is a major pivot point in the course of the franchise. All of the decision makers are changing or have changed and the core of the team has been reshuffled and reset after repeated unsuccessful seasons. While I’m sure just about every Hornets fan was ready, maybe even excited for the season to end, it still had plenty of good moments.

What Went Wrong

So, so many things. The defining feature of the season and really the whole two seasons of the second Steve Clifford tenure is the horrific injury luck the Hornets had to endure. Superstar point guard LaMelo Ball played just 58 of a possible 164 games, but it’s not just him. Cody Martin has played in 35 of 164 games since signing a new contract in the summer of 2022. Aside from those two, there has seemingly never been fewer than four or five players on the injury report at any given time. When one player would come back, another would go down almost simultaneously. It’s been uncanny. LaMelo Ball has said he’ll experiment with ankle braces over the offseason. Other than that, there isn’t much the Hornets can do except hope that the injury bug can’t strike so badly three years in a row.

The injuries sabotaged the Hornets season, but the Hornets front office didn’t do enough to build up the depth. There was an unfathomable amount of complacency from the front office, who made no roster adjustments aside from using minimum level contracts to sign backup point guards. That inevitably left the Hornets paper thin as their starters succumbed to injuries, and former general manager Mitch Kupchak and company did nothing to adjust course aside from sign former Swarm man Nathan Mensah to a two way contract. The new ownership group finally gave the front office a kick in the rear end to make some moves at the trade deadline. Shortly after that, the team announced that Mitch Kupchak would be stepping down from his role as general manager effective immediately.

That complacency was accentuated by the inability of any young Hornet to make an unexpected leap. James Bouknight completed his draft bust career arc and was waived midseason after failing to crack a broken rotation. Bryce McGowens and JT Thor were given extended minutes to show discernable improvements. Thor drew some more intrigue on the defensive end of the floor, but his offense looks like it’s a long, long way from being a positive. McGowens was rarely more than just a body on the floor. The token center signings of Mensah and Marques Bolden didn’t move the needle at all. No one made a leap.

And then there’s Steve Clifford. Great dude. A joy to listen to in press conferences. He’s had some good moments as Hornets coach, but he wasn’t able to elevate his admittedly understaffed group. Under his watch, a team that had previously been a great ball sharing, fast paced 3-point shooting team devolved into a pick and roll heavy, plodding offense that knew what kinds of shot attempts they were supposed to take but didn’t know how to take them. This isn’t all Clifford’s fault. Again, the roster was apathetically constructed and the cupboards went bare really quick once the injuries staring piling up, but the process was never destined to work without superstar offensive players. The Hornets statistically had a great shot profile, especially in the first half or so of the season. Few teams attempted more shots at the rim, and they spent a lot of the season with one of the better ‘expected effective field goal percentages’ based on where they were attempting shots. But that stat is devoid of the context in which those shots came. Most of their attempts in the paint were the product of ball handlers barreling into traffic and help defenders while throwing up heavily contested layup and floater attempts. It took several months before the Hornets started even attempting threes with enough regularity, and they never found a rhythm once they started.

The tl;dr, almost everything went wrong. Again.

What went right

The best thing the Hornets had going for them was a decision they made that was widely panned by the fan base. To Mitch Kupchak and his front office’s credit, they were resolute in their decision to select Brandon Miller over fan favorite Scoot Henderson with the second overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Many Hornets fans were what we’ll call “unhappy” with the pick, and a less-than-stellar Summer League had people felling uneasy about the pick, but it didn’t take long for opinions to change. Obviously rookie seasons aren’t the end all, be all for player comparisons, but the Hornets’ selection is off to a good start. Henderson finished his rookie season strong, but it started really poorly and he never really elevated himself into top rookie conversations. Meanwhile, Brandon Miller won three straight Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month awards and put forth a rookie season that would be deserving of Rookie of the Year more often than not. He finished the season with averages of 17.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists while shooting 44.0% from the field and 37.3% from three.

The injuries have made it easy to forget that when LaMelo Ball played, he looked to be on track for offensive superstardom. He had some rough moments coming off of hiatuses, but once he found his groove, he was a force. He had a nine game stretch in November where he topped 30 points in seven of those games. He averaged over 32 points per game with near 50/40/90 shooting splits before an ankle injury forced him out of the lineup. He showed an improved ability to get himself to the free throw line and create better looks for himself. If those ankle braces and ankles hold up, he and Miller will be a dynamite duo for the Hornets.

All of the things that went wrong have hopefully set the Hornets up for a brighter future. The general manager and head coach were both allowed to gracefully step down from their positions. New general manager Jeff Peterson was a hot young name in the NBA world, and the Hornets were quick to appoint him as new general manager. The head coaching search is combing through interesting, up and coming coaches looking to join a growing crop of new guard coaches that are reshaping the league. They’ll probably have a top five pick to supplement the roster and a mid 2nd round pick to do whatever with. They acquired a couple of 2027 1st round picks that they can flip to add veteran talent.

For as much of a drag as this season was, the Hornets did a good job turning it into a jumping off point for their next era. There are reasons to be excited about the team heading into the summer, and there’s a chance it’s not too long before this team becomes fun to root for again.

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