The Hornets shouldn’t simply suck. They should be a putrid, festering boil on the NBA’s inner thigh, hidden from view, inspected only at home, and even then it’s questionable whether anyone should stare too closely. And yet, they’re playing entertaining basketball that somehow promises the chance of a win on any given night.
At 6-8, the Hornets are 8th in the East. If the playoffs started today they’d be in — and while bragging about being last-team-in is hardly impressive, remember that many believed (myself included) that this season would be so bad it could break the NBA record for most losses, or at least set a new benchmark for futility.
There was this sense of finality before the season began that Charlotte would be utterly predictable: Terry Rozier scoring in bunches, getting borderline all-star honors while the Hornets got blown out by 20 every night in front of dwindling crowds. Karmic payback not only for failing to build around Kemba Walker while he was in town, but being unable to turn the best player in team history into future assets via trade.
It’s not so much that the stars aligned, and more like a belch of swamp gas spewed from a dank pit, somehow reflecting the light and turning into something beautiful. A nucleus of young players are exceeding expectations, some even showing they could be future stars, and giving Hornets fans something that has been long lacking: hope. The prospect of an arduous multi-year rebuild has, at least for now, been assuaged by a team that legitimately looks like it could make the playoffs where past, better-constructed teams failed.
The funniest part is that it was impossible to see all this coming.
The biggest catalyst for the unexpected start is Devonte’ Graham, who has managed to take up Walker’s mantle against impossible odds. Necessity forced the second-year point guard into a starting role, and he’s thrived alongside Rozier in the back court. Our own Ricky O’Donnell pointed out that while Graham isn’t yet in the same league as Walker, he’s really not far off.
Pair that with P.J. Washington, a rookie so undervalued that even ardent fans forgot he was on the team before the season. Drafted to little fanfare, Washington has quickly become the most promising first-year player the Hornets have drafted since Walker — both a credit to the rookie’s skills, and an indictment of just how trash garbage the Hornets have been at selecting players since coming back to the NBA. Washington has immediately become one of the most important starters on the team, mimicking veteran Marvin Williams’ outside game, while offering more in the paint.
The cherry on top has been steady progression by Malik Monk and Miles Bridges (on both of whom the jury is still out) who are showing more potential to find roles in the Hornets’ rotation than a year ago. That’s what makes this all so odd. The 2019-20 Hornets are absolutely not a better team on paper than the 2018-19 team, but results thus far have largely been the same.
Last year, Walker played the role of willing superhero, and the team’s chances game-to-game hinged entirely on whether anyone else would be able to step up and support his 30+ point scoring nights. More often than not, they didn’t, and quickly the team found itself in familiar territory — struggling around .500. An inability to share the load as a team sunk the Hornets and eventually led to Walker leaving for the Celtics where he had other great players around him, not needing to carry the entire load himself.
In his absence the Hornets have found the three elements that Walker quintessentially brought to Charlotte night-in-night-out, just from a variety of sources. Graham is the do-everything point guard who can create his own shot and take over a game. Rozier, Graham and Washington are filling the scoring gap, and just this past week we watched as Graham and Monk showed their penchant for being clutch when needed, hitting back-to-back game winners to topple the Pistons and Knicks, both coming in the dying moments.
This is all the first test of an ongoing experiment. There remains the chance this could all explode and the Hornets could end this season looking exactly like the team we expected them to be, but already they’re miles ahead of what the world anticipated. Prior to the season, Vegas set the odds on a Charlotte win total at 23.5 — they’re on pace for 35. That would be just four games off where they finished last year, despite losing the best player in team history. I don’t believe it, even though I understand it.
All I know is that the Hornets are legitimately fun to watch, and there’s actually hope for the future. It’s bizarre to say that during a season where everything looked so utterly hopeless, and Charlotte is still struggling to keep their head above .500, but this team is weird — and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.