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Hornets 2020-21 season wrapup – What’s next for team after season filled with improvement, injuries, highs and lows

By Richard Walker

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego knows there’s pain and disappointment over the way his team’s 2020-21 season ended.

After all, after climbing as high as fourth place in the Eastern Conference in early April, Charlotte ended the regular season with a season-long five-game losing streak that dropped the team to 10th place.

Finally, the Hornets were routed 144-117 at the Indiana Pacers in a play-in game in which they never held the lead.

But Borrego and his players are certain the loss will motivate offseason drills in hopes of a better outcome next season.

“I thought we clearly took a step from last year to this year: I’m very clear about that,” said Borrego, whose team went 23-42 in the abbreviated 2019-20 season and Vegas oddsmakers established 25 1-2 as the team’s over/under for 2020-21 wins this season. “There’s no
doubt in my mind we took a major step from last year to this year. Now, it’s really about how do we take that next step and that’ll come over the next couple weeks.”

Charlotte finished 33-39 in the regular season to exceed virtually all preseason expectations. And the Hornets did so with 148 games lost to injury and/or illness among 13 of their players and the use of 23 different starting lineups.

“It started with the Gordon (Hayward) injury,” Borrego said of the franchise’s top offseason free agent acquisition that missed 29 games this season including the last 24 of the regular season and the play-in game. “Gordon’s missed 40 percent of these games and it put a lot of pressure on a number of players just to stay in the mix and I give our group a ton of credit. Once Gordon went out, (La)Melo [Ball] went out, Malik (Monk) went out, Devonte’ (Graham) was in and out. It put a lot of stress on this roster – and I just think here down the stretch it caught up to us.”

To put the loss of manpower in perspective, not a single player was able to play in all 72 games.

Leading scorer Terry Rozier (20.4 scoring average) missed the least games (three) as a right ankle cost him two games and a sore left knee cost him one game.

The team’s rookie of the year candidate Ball (15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists) missed 21 games after a broken bone in his right wrist required surgery to return.

Besides Hayward’s 28 missed regular season games, Cody Zeller missed 19 and Graham and Monk 17 apiece.

Hayward said the prognosis for his sprained right foot is heal soon enough not to impact his offseason training program.

“With the way it ended, it’s tough to talk about our growth,” Hayward said. “But I think it’s going to be a great offseason and I’m ready to get after it.”

There are questions about what the Hornets will do with their roster as Zeller, Monk, Graham, Bismack Biyombo and Brad Wanamaker are free agents.

Each didn’t rule out a return and Monk put it the most bluntly: “If they want me, I’d love to be here. I just want to be wanted.”

Charlotte finished its regular season ranked among the league leaders in assists (5th-tie), offensive rebounds (sixth) and forcing turnovers (ninth). But it also finished near the bottom in turnovers (24th), steals (24th), scoring (23rd), field goal percentage (22nd) and free throw percentage (21st).

In some ways, simply improving as lesser teams in the league would push them to closer to the top of the standings.

Charlotte went 15-10 against teams that finished out of the play-in tournament while going 7-10 against other play-in teams and 11-19 against teams the filled the top six slots of the respective conference playoff brakcets. That includes two wins each over Milwaukee, Atlanta and Miami.

Bridges, who missed six critical games late in the season due to health and safety protocols, is confident the late-season slide will prompt a determined offseason effort to get better.

“I feel like it’s always good for teams to have some sort of motivation,” Bridges said. “For us to be embarrassed the way we were is going to give us fuel for our fire this summer.”