Weeks before training camp began, Hornets coach Steve Clifford said this was the most talented roster in his now four-plus seasons in Charlotte.
Where is that team? How does a group with a sure-bet Hall of Fame center and a shooting guard with a near-maximum contract and an All-Star point guard look this flawed and fragile?
How have the Hornets managed to lose twice to a Chicago Bulls team with four total victories this season?
The 9-15 Hornets’ 119-111 loss Friday was their sixth in the last seven games. They were billed as having the makings of a top-5 defensive team. Elite defensive teams do not give up 50-plus points in the lane. The Bulls – these Bulls, not the champions Hornets owner Michael Jordan once made famous – scored 56 points in the paint. It felt like 106.
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Dribble-penetration by the Bulls Friday savaged the Hornets. In the first of two losses to the worst team in the NBA, Nov. 17 in Chicago, that dribble-penetration opened the perimeter for 17 3-pointers. Friday, penetration translated to layups and dunks.
An eight-point lead isn’t big in an NBA game, but it should have been enough at home against a Chicago team that had lost 10 in a row.
Their last victory was – you guessed it – over these Hornets.
This team has had some early misfortune: Nic Batum had an elbow injury that could have cost his season. Cody Zeller is out at least six weeks with a torn meniscus. Clifford has missed the past three games with a yet-undisclosed health issue.
However, that doesn’t explain how they fail to close out games. The Hornets were outscored 13-5 in overtime, making just one of seven shots from the field. A rookie, Lauri Markkanen, scored five of his 24 points in the extra five minutes. He finished the game making eight of 15 shots and grabbing 12 rebounds.
I don’t think tanking is the answer, and I wouldn’t start playing rookie Malik Monk 30 minutes per game. But I appreciate the frustration from fans. Hornets management and ownership should be worried that frustration will morph into disinterest. Attendance was listed at 14,077 Friday, which means many distributed tickets went unused.
The Hornets are in what should be a friendly stretch of the schedule: Ten home games among 13 total. But they have lost their last two at Spectrum Center, and Saturday night versus the Los Angeles Lakers is no gimme, despite that team’s 9-15 record.
The Lakers didn’t play Friday, so they should be fresh. The Hornets are missing Zeller and Frank Kaminsky (sprained right ankle), and Jeremy Lamb couldn’t play the second half Friday due to a shin contusion.
The Hornets’ three most prominent players – Kemba Walker, Dwight Howard and Nic Batum – each played 42 or more minutes Friday. How much juice will they have left for the Lakers? The only available Hornet who didn’t play Friday was rookie Mangok Mathiang, who should be in Greensboro with the G-League Swarm.
We should know by the end of December whether the Hornets are going anywhere.
Right now, it doesn’t look like a Happy New Year.