If you enjoy NBA games where points are plentiful and defense is optional, the Charlotte Hornets are for you.
Although they lack the cultural cachet of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers or “Run-and-Gun” Phoenix Suns, the 2021-22 Hornets are an offensive juggernaut in many regards. One reason, which is perhaps the most crucial, is how their points can come from a variety of ways … or a variety of players. In fact, Charlotte’s point distribution is so unique, you’d have to go all the way back to the legendary Boston Celtics of the 1950s in order to find a legitimate comparison.
The Charlotte Hornets offense has plenty of buzz, but the defense lacks sting
With last season’s Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball leading the charge, the Hornets are quickly becoming must-see TV.
Entering Saturday, Charlotte is averaging 115.5 points per game, the second-most in the NBA. It’s doing so on 46.5% shooting from the field and 38.1% shooting from three. Only the Chicago Bulls, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, are shooting 3-pointers with more efficiency. The Hornets are also averaging the third-most shot attempts per game, thanks in part to playing at the second-fastest pace.
Charlotte’s propensity to play fast and loose on offense has shockingly not become a recipe for turnovers. With 13.1 giveaways per game, only four teams are averaging fewer. But the main reason why the Hornets are currently the eight-seed at 20-19 has to do with a defense that doesn’t do them any favors.
Head coach James Borrego, a descendent of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, oversees a bottom-ranked defense in Charlotte. The Hornets are allowing 116.6 points a night, the most in the NBA, while carrying a defensive rating that’s the third-worst. A big reason why stems from the lack of size down low, as no team allows more second-chance points (16.0) than the Hornets. Additionally, they’re giving up the third-most fast-break points per game with 14.4.
This year’s Charlotte Hornets have five high-scoring players, a rarity in NBA history
Even though the Hornets are averaging more points than 28 other teams, they don’t have a single scorer giving them 20 a night. So how are they doing it?
Charlotte’s offensive brilliance lies in its balance. The team’s leading scorer is Miles Bridges, the high-flying 23-year-old averaging a career-high 19.5 points. Next up is Ball, the impressive 20-year-old averaging 19.3 points to go with a team-high 7.8 assists and 7.3 rebounds. After Bridges and Ball, you have veterans Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward averaging 17.5 and 17.2 points, respectively. Additionally, Kelly Oubre Jr. has added 16.6 points off the bench.
That’s five players all averaging more than 16.5 points per game, something you won’t see very often in NBA history. In fact, travel back to 1958 and take a glimpse at the Celtics, a team on the cusp of a dynasty.
The 1957-58 Celtics finished the season an Eastern Conference-best 49-23. They did so in part because of five players who, like modern-day Charlotte, averaged 16.5 points or more.
Bill Sharman (22.3), Bob Cousy (18.0), Tommy Heinsohn (17.8), Bill Russell (16.6), and Frank Ramsey (16.5) gave Boston a well-balanced scoring attack. That being said, Red Auerbach’s bunch also played defense, something Buzz City is currently unfamiliar with.
As one Reddit user pointed out, there have been a few other teams in league history with balanced scoring attacks similar to Charlotte. The 1973-74 Buffalo Braves, led by Bob McAdoo, had five players averaging 15.2 points or more. The 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, fresh off of a championship, had four players scoring 16.0 points or more with a fifth at 15.4. And when the 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers briefly had Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and JJ Redick, all five averaged 16.9 or more.
Charlotte is a piece away from contending
There’s no problem with having a high-scoring, well-balanced offense. Should it continue, the Hornets will remain firmly in the mix to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. However, defensive improvements must be made if Charlotte intends to be more than a one-and-done team.
As mentioned earlier, Charlotte’s most glaring weakness is at center. Right now, Mason Plumlee is the starting 5, and while he’s done enough to earn a nine-year NBA career, he’s not a championship-caliber big man. When Plumlee sits, Borrego is mostly going with a small-ball lineup, meaning the 6-foot-6 Bridges and 6-foot-7 P.J. Washington are handling center responsibilities.
Could a defensively-sound center like Myles Turner be the solution? The 6-foot-11 Turner is a shot-blocking extraordinaire whose days with the Indiana Pacers appear numbered. Charlotte has a solid collection of young players like rookies James Bouknight and Kai Jones that could entice Indiana. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Turner would be a force on the defensive end but athletic enough to hang with Charlotte’s fast-paced offense.
It’s an incredible testament to the Hornets seeing their balanced scoring attack compared to championship-caliber teams of old. Yet those teams also played defense. So if Charlotte can add a player like Turner, a longer playoff run would look far more likely.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.