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Hive Dive: The Hornets’ Depth Test

Weathering Health and Safety Protocols, Charlotte’s Reserves Excel

Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Hornets

We’re back with another edition of the Hive Dive, a biweekly series analyzing trends and narratives in the Charlotte Hornets that go deeper than just results. Today’s topic: how the Hornets have stayed afloat without some of their most significant pieces, and what that tells us about the team’s growth since last season. Quick personal note: a particularly hectic life schedule this week means this edition will be slightly abbreviated without our usual Bug Bites section, but look for that to return next time.

Past two weeks:

Record: 2-5 (15-14 overall, 8th in the East)

11/29 @ CHI – L 133-119

12/1 @ MIL – 127-125

12/5 @ ATL – W 130-127

12/6 vs PHI – L 127-124 (OT)

12/8 vs PHI – 110-106

12/10 vs SAC – W 124-123

12/13 @ DAL – 120-96

The Dive:

The Hornets’ Depth Test

Today’s dive is going to start a little bit narrative.

It’s the day before the Hornets are slated to travel to Atlanta after playing one of the best games of the season, taking the Bucks to the wire and falling by 2 points to a last-possession iso bucket from the best player in the world. Charlotte finds themselves on a 3-game losing streak, but the team has clearly found their stride again in Milwaukee. Then, a press release bearing news of the closest thing to disaster comes down the wire. LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee, and Jalen McDaniels are ruled out on Health and Safety protocols.

Down three starters, the shorthanded Hornets rally to edge out Atlanta behind phenomenal play from Ish Smith (18 points, 7-1 AST/TO), and they take home a monumental culture win. The very next day, Ish Smith is added to the list of affected players too, and the Hornets find themselves now down five men. Despite the roster becoming painfully thin, the Hornets go toe-to-toe with Joel Embiid and the 76ers in consecutive games, losing both by a combined margin of only 7 points. Just two days later, as the Hornets prepare to take on Sacramento at home, yet another two players are ruled out, with PJ Washington and Nick Richards sick with non-COVID illnesses. The Hornets are down a staggering seven players.

In a game that featured Vernon Carey, JT Thor, James Bouknight, and yes, even appearances from Kai Jones and Arnoldas Kulboka, Charlotte pulls out the victory over the Kings, 124-123. While weathering a slew of injuries and illnesses, the Hornets go 2-2 in a stretch with only two starters available and their reserves utterly depleted.

“Stay Ready”

It’s a mantra in James Borrego’s locker room. Stay ready to play, stay ready for your role to change, stay ready for the day that the game rests in your hands. You can see the fruits of the philosophy bear out almost every year. Last season, when LaMelo Ball entered the starting rotation following backcourt absences, he secured his spot there for the rest of his foreseeable career. When injuries late in the year left Miles Bridges the keys to the offense, he locked into all-star caliber play that has persisted into this season.

During this 4 game stretch, the way the entire Hornets roster has continued to stay ready was on full display. Bridges, Oubre, and Hayward took turns dropping 30+ in their contests against Atlanta and Philadelphia. JT Thor was asked to play significant minutes and showed a surprising amount of defensive maturity that may stick him to the rotation going forward. Cody Martin stepped into a bigger role on offense, continuing to uphold his league-best 3P% (yes, you read that right) on higher volume. Even James Bouknight had a coming-out party, finally finding his rhythm and dropping a team-high 24 points on Sacramento in 26 minutes.

The Bigger Picture

It goes without explanation that Charlotte’s resilience in this short window should be cause for optimism. While injuries are indeed a part of every season for every team, few teams coming into this year felt the truth of it to a greater degree than the Hornets. The late-season sidelining of Cody Zeller, Devonte’ Graham, Gordon Hayward, and LaMelo Ball last year precipitated a slide in the standings from 4th place all the way to 10th, landing them in the unfavorable bottom slot of a play-in series that they went on to lose. Individual players stepped up in flashes, but the team just wasn’t deep enough to win games while missing so much firepower and playmaking.

The contrast with this year is staggering. Not only have the Hornets remained competitive, but they’re taking games off of teams in their weight class without star players. If this is what the Charlotte Hornets look like 7 men down, then what else can we do but be excited for when the team is whole once again? If an already-formidable squad can come out of these setbacks with a group of reserves who are even better prepared to step up when the situation calls for it, then there’s only one thing for the rest of the NBA to do: Stay Ready.

Written by Michael Gallucci

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