The text came in Monday afternoon from an inquiring mind seeking the same answer as others keeping tabs on the Charlotte Hornets from afar.
No, not one of the nonstop questions surrounding the team’s bevy of injuries, asking whether so-and-so will be able to give it against the Hornets’ opponent that night. This was about the future, searching for an explainer of sorts given the team’s current state.
It read: “Just curious. Do the Hornets have their own 2023 draft pick?”
That’s what we’ve come to already with the Hornets. Despite pages on the digital calendar having not flipped to the new year just yet, people are wondering aloud if the season is lost and they’re looking ahead to a forthcoming offseason that’s still six months down the line.
One-third of the way through a campaign that was supposed to have the Hornets picking up where they left off in April, and taking a bigger leap toward the playoffs, they’ve experienced more frustration than happiness. That’s why the Hornets could breathe a sigh of relief for once after escaping with a 125-119 win over Sacramento at the Golden 1 Center on Monday night behind a huge fourth-quarter effort by LaMelo Ball, putting the brakes on an eight-game losing streak.
“Just to get that one win, it just felt great,” Ball said. “It’s definitely a big win. One can turn into two, two can turn into three. So, just getting that first win is always good.”
Victories have been extremely hard to come by for these Hornets (8-23) and are more challenging to reach with each injury. It’s magnified an already razor-thin margin of error, often making it difficult to close out games.
“You could tell in the locker room guys were happy and it’s good to win that way,” coach Steve Clifford said. “Win on the road against a team that’s been playing well and down going into the fourth quarter. We had to win the fourth quarter. We made plays, we had good defensive possessions. So, we won for the right reasons and that always helps, too.”
Clifford noticed something Sunday: drooped heads and sagging shoulders, a mood brought on when the Hornets saw Terry Rozier limp around after diving on the floor for a loose ball in the second quarter of their loss in Denver. Rozier sat out the rest of the action with a right hip contusion and also didn’t suit up against the Kings. He listed as day-to-day.
It’s become commonplace for the Hornets to boast a lengthy injury list. They’ve played the bulk of their season without Ball, Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin and a hefty potion minus Dennis Smith Jr. So, surely those 79 games they’ve lost to player injury were on their mind leading into their date with Sacramento (16-13) and Clifford had to chat with his troops to ease any mental anguish creeping in.
“I actually talked to them today,” he said, “because when Terry got hurt that was one of the first times that I’ve seen on the bench and then even at halftime this like, ‘Whoa.’ I talked to the staff about it at halftime and I talked to them today. That’s part of this league and we have to be able to keep going forward.
“Having Melo and Gordon back makes us a much much better team. Obviously, they are getting in their rhythm and we are playing with different playing groups right now, and we have to work all that out. But it’ll change back for us. We’ll get these guys back, we’ll get the other two guys back and then we’ll be a better team.”
Perhaps, but will there be enough time left to completely turn it around? While it doesn’t quite feel like the Hornets have veered off the road and into the median, they are driving dangerously.
Already five games behind the final play-in tournament spot in the Eastern Conference and hovering with the league’s worst record, the Hornets are speeding toward the draft lottery and could be poised to be among those teams with the best odds to land likely coveted No. 1 overall selection Victor Wembanyama in June. Plus, thanks to the three-team trade with New York and Detroit last June, the Hornets should also have another first-round pick since they own the rights to Denver’s selection.
But Clifford’s crew isn’t the last bit concerned with any of that. Climbing out of the league’s cellar remains at the forefront, albeit an arduous task. There’s no sugar coating it.
“The one thing you can’t do is you can’t lie to NBA players,” Clifford said. “They know where they are at. So, I think you can talk to them in an honest manner, in a transparent manner about where we are. We’ve played 30 games and I didn’t realize (Sunday) night was the first time our starters were on the floor together.
“That’s going to happen. Just being older. I’ve been through this a couple of times.”
In fact, Clifford dove into his memory banks and recalled his days in Houston on Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching staff. He brought up the Rockets’ pairing of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
“We were coming off 52 wins with T-Mac and Yao and next year I think those guys played together like 19 games,” Clifford said. “We went from like 52 to like 29 (it was actually 51 to 34). So, it’s just part of this.”
In other words, he’s not panicking. He’ll point to things like Ball accounting for 87% of the Hornets’ points (16 points, two assists, and four points created off assists) through the better part of the initial nine minutes of a critical fourth quarter of their victory over the Kings.
Or Kelly Oubre filling in with Rozier out and pouring in 31 points. And Nick Richards recording his eighth double-double off the bench this season, which is third-most in the league. Those are the kinds of efforts they need more consistently since they’ve been so besieged by injuries to key players.
“If you look at all the games we’ve played without all those guys,” Clifford said, “I don’t think we are going to win every close game. But the one thing we’ve had, our effort’s been really good. … We’ve got to do some things better, details and stuff like that. And that’s what we need to be focused on.”