The Charlotte Hornets Roadmap to Shocking the Eastern Conference Lies 245 Miles to the Southwest

Around the league, the Charlotte Hornets were projected by some to pleasantly surprise in 2021-22. With Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball at the helm, Michael Jordan‘s squad was feisty and made its way into a play-in game last season. But no one had legitimate expectations that Charlotte could crash the party at the top of the Eastern Conference this year.

But last season, there was one young team — led by an ascending superstar point guard — who did just that. That team also had relatively quiet expectations heading into the year. It had several young players who showed potential but had yet to translate it into real production.

That team, however, surprised everyone in NBA circles by making a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Hornets, if they hope to make a similar jump, need to look no further than their neighbors to the southwest in Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks.

The Charlotte Hornets are off to a surprising start

LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets reacts after making a three.
LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets reacts after making a 3-point basket against the Boston Celtics. | Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Charlotte is 4-2 through its first six games. Behind Ball’s playmaking and scoring abilities, the Hornets sit No. 1 in the league in points per game (117.5).

They’re also eighth in field goal percentage (46.0), second in 3-point percentage (40.7), fifth in assists per game (26.0), and only turn the ball over 13.3 times per contest, good for third-best in the league.

The Hornets’ offense is firing on all cylinders — but it’s not just Ball leading the charge.

Fourth-year wing Miles Bridges has been a revelation. The Michigan State product leads the team in scoring at 25.5 points per game. That’s better than double his previous career-high.

He also leads the team in shooting percentage for anyone who averages more than 10 shots per game and is chipping in 8.0 rebounds and a team-high 1.8 steals per night.

While Ball and Bridges lead the way, Charlotte also has a solid mix of improving young players and steady veterans — not unlike the Hawks did last year.

The Hornets’ blueprint to surprising the league is staring them right in the face

Young took that proverbial leap and made his first all-star game last season. Charlotte’s 6-foot-6 franchise point guard is following suit.

Ball is starting this year even better than last, averaging 17.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.7 steals through the first few weeks. His 3-point percentage has also jumped from 35.2% last year to 40.5% this year.

Bridges has also made his massive leap, much as the Hawks’ DeAndre Hunter did a season ago. But the Charlotte-Atlanta similarities don’t stop there.

The Hawks acquired veteran shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic before last year to provide additional playmaking and shooting. The Hornets’ signing of Gordon Hayward was almost exclusively frowned upon given the amount of money shelled out for a player with such a lengthy injury history, but the former Jazz and Celtics forward has been crucial for Charlotte thus far.

Hayward leads the Hornets in minutes, is second in points and assists, and is shooting a ridiculous 48.4% from three on 5.2 attempts per game. It’s the former Butler star’s best season since he plied his trade in Utah.

The team also signed wing Kelly Oubre Jr. who is averaging 14.7 points on 35.7% shooting from deep. Veteran center Mason Plumlee has come in to provide much-needed stability at the center spot. Fellow youngsters Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, and P.J. Washington have shown improvement.

And all this without starting shooting guard Terry Rozier, who’s only played in one game thus far due to an ankle injury.

Charlotte and Atlanta appear to be on similar trajectories

To recap:

  • Ball=Young
  • Hayward=Bogdanovic
  • Bridges=Hunter

And legitimate comparisons can also be made between Oubre and Atlanta’s Kevin Huerter, Plumlee and Danilo Gallinari, and McDaniels and the Hawks’ Cam Reddish.

For further evidence, check out a quote from Atlanta governor Tony Ressler in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the conclusion of the Hawks playoff run last year vs. a remark from Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra after his team played the Hornets via The Charlotte Observer:

Ressler: “I thought (our biggest priority) was creating some stability, not being at all surprised about where we are. We are exactly where we expected to be. I would argue are the two objectives from this season. We shouldn’t be surprised. … Creating that stability, having a great coach in place, having the vast majority of our players in place, all of that is part of the stability.”

Spoelstra: “This is not something that happened overnight. They built a program and this has been steady incremental growth. It hasn’t been linear. That’s what happens to young teams. If you stay with it and you have a good program with rock-solid coaching and you have consistency of the message, the philosophy and culture, you can start to make some progress.

“They have a lot of really talented young players that have grown up in those systems and developed the right habits.”

The similarities are apparent.

Atlanta made the jump to NBA Finals contender earlier than expected — now it’s Charlotte’s job to put it all together and do the same.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.

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