Charlotte Hornets

Hey, Hornets, give me a reason to make that late-April hotel reservation in Milwaukee

Hornets coach James Borrego on loss to Rockets

Hornets coach reviews another close home loss.
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Hornets coach reviews another close home loss.

When Marvin Williams says he believes the Charlotte Hornets are progressing, I agree; they are better than they were in October and better than they were in January.

When Williams says he believes — with conviction — the Hornets will still make the playoffs, that’s where we diverge. I think the team going 1-3 in this homestand, even considering the last two of those losses were to Western Conference powers Golden State and Houston, puts them in a predicament.

Yes, they are still clinging to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, which would be the last playoff spot at the end of the season. They still have winning records against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat, the teams chasing them for the post-season.

But at the moment, with the Hornets on a three-game losing streak at 28-33, progress and mission accomplished feel like different things. They know they should have closed the deal over the weekend against the Brooklyn Nets. That means they needed to rise up and upset the Warriors or the Rockets to balance that out. Competitive as they were Monday and Wednesday, no Ws.

Nic Batum, who has played really well since the lineup change that moved him back to shooting guard four games ago, says the next four games will be telling. In that span, the Hornets play at Brooklyn on Friday, then three more home games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Heat and Washington Wizards.

Seems like at minimum they need to go 2-2 in those games and probably 3-1.

The problem is there haven’t been enough upside surprises (beating the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets) to balance out the bad losses to teams in the East (New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta) destined for the draft lottery. A lot of that has been about their old bugaboo: Not putting away close games.

Being outscored 28-19 in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, after they led by four entering the final period, is yet another example of a team that is fragile.

Not enough there there

They are fragile for a variety of reasons: Of late, they have been forced to climb back from bad starts. Wednesday, the Rockets scored 41 points on 61 percent shooting in the first quarter. Overcoming that start is draining in a way that had to impact the Hornets in that fourth quarter.

Beyond that, the team’s drafting is having an ugly half-life. Frank Kaminsky wasn’t on the active roster Wednesday and Malik Monk went scoreless in 5 1/2 minutes. Those are two lottery picks, neither of them rookies, who are unproductive.

Kaminsky might be a write-off at this point, but Monk was supposed to be a big part of this season. Since the All-Star break, Monk has played a total of 32 minutes in four games, and scored six points off 1-of-12 shooting. I appreciate Monk is streaky enough that he could hypothetically go off for 20 points against the Nets on Friday. But a guy who was supposed to be featured, whether as a starter or a reserve, isn’t making coach James Borrego use him.

The guy who beat out Monk for the starting shooting guard spot to start the season, Jeremy Lamb, joined the second unit after the All-Star break. He was tremendous Wednesday with 18 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.

Lamb is also months away from being an unrestricted free agent. That means either he signs elsewhere or the Hornets pay him a bundle, which combined with re-signing Kemba Walker, will sure limit other ways to improve a flawed roster.

Finish line or not?

I had no problem with the Hornets saying their top goal this season was to reach the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. The new basketball regime — general manager Mitch Kupchak and Borrego — inherited a veteran roster with accompanying big contracts. The idea of immediately going into rebuild mode, if not tanking mode, was impractical.

But if you’re going to make the playoffs sound so important, and you have six veteran players each making $12 million or more this season, then close the deal. The bar certainly isn’t so high for the last two spots in the East that you can say the competition overwhelmed you.

Williams is an earnest guy who was played 33 1/2 minutes Wednesday on a sore enough right foot that he was listed as doubtful 24 hours before the game. Afterward, he said confidently that he’ll still be playing in late April.

I hope he knows something I don’t; right now I see no reason to make hotel reservations in Milwaukee.

More text here.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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