Injuries have contributed to Charlotte Hornets’ woes, but mental lapses more problematic

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford speaks to the team prior to action against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, December 16, 2022 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford speaks to the team prior to action against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, December 16, 2022 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.

Another loss was in the books and Dennis Smith Jr. reflected on the ills that have maddeningly plagued the Charlotte Hornets all season, highlighting the main obstacle.

“It’s just the discipline that we lack,” Smith said. “Ever since coming into the league, I was always taught ‘game plan discipline, game plan discipline.’ So, whatever the game plan is we’ve got to follow that to a ‘T.’ We show that whenever we do that we are a capable team.

“We’ve (had) game plan discipline throughout the whole game until the fourth quarter and then we let go of that rope a little bit. And that’s when we start to lose games a little bit, lose leads and things of that nature. So, that’s all it is. We’ve just got to be a disciplined team. We’ve got enough talent.”

In a nutshell, Smith’s words perfectly sum up the culprit of the Hornets’ unflattering season. While injuries have significantly contributed to their depressing fortunes, a lack of structure consistently for an entire game has repeatedly cost them, and led to the Hornets amassing the fewest wins in the Eastern Conference.

Like an old container of milk, the Hornets’ 2022-23 campaign has pretty much reached its expiration date. Albeit not technically, of course, given there are still 38 games remaining scattered throughout the next 12 weeks. But make no mistake about it: the deeply-meaningful portion of the season is a wash for the Hornets, replaced by questions about the roster moving forward and, more importantly, leading into the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline.

And that’s undeniably disappointing for the Hornets considering they thought they could find a path to the playoffs following successive seasons of exiting in the first game of the play-in tournament. Instead it’s been quite the opposite. They have taken a step back, which underscores the significance of these next few weeks and months.

To get going in the right direction developmentally first though, finding the cure to eliminate the constant brain cramping at the most inopportune time is imperative.

“And that’s the whole question,” coach Steve Clifford said. “Forty-eight minutes is a long time and not giving possessions away for those 48 minutes is really who wins – who has more good possessions.”

In an attempt to put his in-game observations into the proper visuals, Clifford showed the Hornets the footage of Saturday night’s loss to Boston during Sunday’s practice. They got a team-wide lesson and Clifford also had individual sessions with Terry Rozier, PJ Washington and LaMelo Ball.

“And I think it’s good for them to see,” he said. “But they’ve been very receptive about the execution part. For me, it’s the frustration part with our team. Sometimes when the ball is not going in the basket, we get frustrated and we do lose our focus more at the other end. And whether that’s a growing pain whatever it is … because to be honest, it’s different things on different nights.”

Failing to run back fast enough on defense. Taking silly fouls. Yielding second chances because they can’t collectively rebound.

Those mistakes are magnified since the Hornets rank second-to-last in the league in scoring. They can’t easily overcome the mental gaffes or simply being outworked.

“A lot of times we are putting ourselves in position to win these games,” Cody Martin said. “We’ve just got to get over the hump, learn from the losses and apply those to the next game. We have to start doing that and really just learning. We just have to figure out a way to maintain throughout the game to put ourselves in position to win the game.

“We are not going to win games by 20 points. Sometimes they are going to be end-of-the-game shots, sometimes they are going to be one-stop games. We just have to find a way to put stuff together in order to win the games.”

Clifford explained how he’s tried to keep a lot of the same things the Hornets were successful at last season, and how those aspects of their strategy were devised with those favorable results in mind. But there are also plenty of alterations, and for whatever reason the players haven’t fully grasped the brevity of their bad decisions stacking up.

The Hornets’ inexplicable nature of continually declining to heed Clifford’s instructions from tipoff to the final buzzer put them in their present predicament, which won’t change much until they alter that ineffective approach.

“His method does work,” Smith said. “I always say I’m a fan of coach. I think we’ve got to start understanding it’s the process over the result. If we start missing a couple of shots, then we are going to be like, ‘Aw, (forget) it.’ And we can’t do that. We’ve got to be like, ‘All right, if we miss this shot right, let’s give 100% on this play right here and see what’s going to come from it.’ It’s got to be process over results and I don’t think we are there yet.”

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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