At long last, the NBA has returned.
Media days were conducted around the league on Monday, and Tuesday marked the first official practice for most franchises. Dallas and Minnesota have already tipped off the first preseason game of the year in Abu Dhabi, and Charlotte takes the floor for its preseason opener against Miami in five days. Before we know it, opening night will be staring us in the face.
Unfortunately, we do still have some time before we hunker down for the regular season; and with the Hornets coming off an intriguing summer of moves and acquisitions, we’ve got things to discuss. Why not ask ourselves a few questions to facilitate the discussion? (Also, it makes formatting and writing this article much easier for me).
Some of these questions below will be answered, others not so much. Some will be answered with more questions. Everyone loves that. Seven is a good number, so I’ve decided that we’ll ask seven questions about any aspect of Hornets basketball as we gear up for the 2023-24 season. Let’s just get started.
1. Does the team consider Brandon Miller as part of the group of young, developing players, or a part of the regular rotation from day one?
Steve Clifford went ahead and answered this question himself at media day.
But I still thought it was worth pondering. Clearly, Miller has already shown enough to be a part of the opening night rotation. Just how favorably do Cliff and his staff view Miller, though? Positively enough for him to earn a spot in the starting lineup as a rookie? Miller will have his work cut out for him with Gordon Hayward and Miles Bridges atop the depth chart, but it’s evident that his coaches and teammates believe in him already.
2. How does the rotation shake out early in the season — more players featured with fewer minutes for each, or fewer players receiving heavier minutes?
It can vary from coach-to-coach, but teams usually start the season with around 10 players in the rotation before steadily trimming it down to eight or nine by the spring. Five starters and a couple high-minute bench players is the typical formula for consistency and allows players to establish a rhythm and get comfortable within their roles over time.
The top-eight players are probably locked into place: Ball, Rozier, Hayward, Washington, Williams, Bridges, Miller and Richards will almost certainly be prioritized in the early-going. But, do Bryce McGowens, Nick Smith Jr., JT Thor, and others get a chance to prove themselves?
If Martin is unavailable to start the season, it could be a good time to give the young guns a crack at the regular rotation with Bridges suspended for the first 10 games, too. A 10-man rotation in the first 10 games (sans Martin and Bridges) could look something like this:
Smith Jr.-James Bouknight-McGowens-Thor-Richards
3. Does Edmond Sumner, Frank Ntilikina or R.J. Hunter earn the 15th roster spot?
Perhaps Ntilikina, Sumner or Hunter could insert themselves into the discussion we had for question 2 as well. Since all of these guys are on non-guaranteed deals and can be waived with little-to-no salary cap penalty, the basketball fit is going to solely determine who sticks around.
Ntilikina has already received glowing praise from Clifford. It was fairly predictable that Cliff would be fond of a player with his defensive acumen and physical traits.
As he transitioned into more of a versatile defensive piece on the wing rather than a point-of-attack defender with Dallas last season, his numbers dipped, but there’s plenty of film where he executes in-scheme and he did a solid job utilizing his length and strength defending taller players. It’s hard to make an impact on the box score playing just 541 minutes on the season.
Sumner would be my personal choice for the 15th roster spot. While not a point guard, he’s more effective as a secondary ball-handler and initiator than Ntilikina with his quick first-step and downhill finishing.
A torn Achilles sidelined Sumner for the 2021-22 season, but he steadily regained his burst and shot 35.6% from deep with in 53 games with Brooklyn a year ago. For his career, he’s a 34.1% 3-point shooter — nearly two percent better than Ntilikina’s career mark.
In my opinion, a player that can come in from deep on the bench and handle the ball, generate paint touches and shoot at league-average efficiency is more valuable than a switchable defender with a limited offensive repertoire.
The odd man out is Hunter, who appears a long-shot to make the 15-man roster. Hunter turns 30 in 19 days, hasn’t appeared in an NBA game since the 2018-19 season finale, and is a career 29.5% 3-point shooter coming off an injury. One thing he offers is wisdom and experience as a well-traveled pro; something Sumner and Ntilikina cannot.
Maybe signing Hunter to a minimum for the 15th roster spot is how Mitch Kupchak envisioned adding veteran leadership to the locker room.
4. What does the starting lineup look like in game #11?
Easily the most fun question to me. My default answer is just the starting lineup that was successful two years ago — Ball, Rozier, Hayward and Bridges — but with Williams in place of Mason Plumlee. That seems like a happy medium for the front office, Cliff, and the players.
We’ve already heard from the coach and the vets that Miller is capable of playing in the league right now. There’s a decent chance that Bridges needs time to ramp up after missing a season-plus. Cliff’s choice could hinge pretty strongly on who has the hot hand in the moment — which isn’t always the best way to make a decision, but the Hornets really have no option. If I had to make a prediction, I’d go with this:
Bridges gives the offense a boost as sixth man and can re-integrate slowly, with Martin, Miller and Richards following him. Either Hayward or Rozier can be the first starter to sit, and thus come back in to pilot the second unit while Ball rests.
To me, that’s the best way to keep the team’s best playmakers on the floor for 48 minutes and not miscast Martin or a less-experienced guard as the lead initiator. Rozier is not best fit as a starting point guard, but he’s more than serviceable as a backup or secondary option.
5. How visible will the new owners be at games — closer to an MJ-like presence, or slide into the background?
A big picture-style question. At first, I can’t imagine Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin will make many waves — it does seem Schnall takes after Michael Jordan, though. Sadly, I doubt he’s playing 1-on-1 with any of the players. At least his ankle brace influence has already spread.
Plus-one Cool Owner Point for Rick Schnall. We’ll see Schnall and Plotkin at plenty of Hornets games this season, but the leadership style will almost certainly land closer to other NBA owners than matching the aura and presence that Jordan carries.
6. The Hornets finished top-10 in pace of play last season, and are even better equipped to play fast with a healthy roster in 2023-24. What does faster-paced CliffBall look like over a larger sample?
The play style and tendencies of the 23-24 Hornets will be fascinating to watch develop. Clifford received flak soon after he was hired because his teams typically play slow-paced, methodical offense and focus intensely on fundamental defensive principles. Not exactly a philosophy that meshed with Charlotte’s young roster at the time.
Fast-forward to the end of the year, and the Hornets were top-10 in transition frequency by any statistical metric. The efficiency obviously didn’t match due to injury, but a healthy Hornets squad is equipped to maintain a fast pace while improving mightily in its effectiveness.
In the same vein, they’re also better-equipped to execute in halfcourt settings. The Hornets were 29th in points per 100 plays in the halfcourt per Cleaning The Glass. It’s imperative to improve on that before transition play, since most possessions are played in the halfcourt. When push comes to shove, the team that can slow it down and win one-on-one matchups the most often tends to come out on top. Especially in the postseason.
Leaning into an uptempo, run-and-gun style was what made Charlotte’s offense so potent two seasons ago — the Hornets were first in points added per 100 possessions in transition (3.7) per Cleaning The Glass and third in frequency. Led by a second-year All-Star, the Hornets finished that season with the sixth-best offense in the entire NBA.
A natural meeting point between Clifford’s preferences and the style that brought offensive success in 21-22 is maximizing transition play following steals and live rebounds. Transition frequency off live rebounds actually went up a half-point going from James Borrego to Cliff — pushing off misses and turnovers, and slowing it down to find favorable matchups off makes is a sound formula for offensive success with this team construction.
Allowing Ball to freewheel and take advantage of the paper-thin passing lanes that few players other than him can even see is the best way to let his talent and creativity flourish. That shows up most often in transition, where Ball can push the pace in the open court and produce quick, easy points for his team. Applying that talent to halfcourt settings and giving the Hornets more options in late-clock situations would add a potent layer of versatility to the offense.
7. As currently constructed, are the Hornets capable of making it through the play-in and into the postseason?
We’ll round it out with another big-picture question. Simply put, the answer to me is yes.
Anyone who agrees with Clifford’s sentiment that this is the most talented team he’s ever coached almost has to answer yes as well. When comparing the Hornets roster to others in Play-In range, the talent level is strikingly similar, yet Charlotte has been cast aside in nearly every preseason power rankings article.
Here are the number of All-Star players on each roster apart from Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia and New York, my presumed top-6 in the East:
Atlanta (2), Charlotte (2), Toronto (1), Indiana (1), Brooklyn (Ben Simmons, barely counts), Orlando (zero).
Charlotte’s top-8 consists entirely of bona fide NBA rotation players (when making the fair assumption Miller is legit.) Depth really doesn’t matter beyond your top-8 in the playoffs unless a key player gets injured, which typically ruins your season no matter how deep the roster.
The Hornets have depth — they do not have depth if Ball, Hayward, Rozier and Bridges all miss significant time. That logic applies to every NBA team, but it’s being used to portray the Hornets negatively while portraying other teams positively. We’ve come to expect that as Hornets fans, but there’s no reason to think this roster has less of a chance to break out in the regular season, advance through the Play-In and make the playoffs than others in the same boat.
The talent level in the East takes a steep drop-off beyond the teams contending for a championship. Charlotte’s first playoff berth since 2016 could very well be on the horizon.