Next step? Though there’s still some questions, Hornets motivated by 2020-21 failures as 2021-22 season begins

By Richard Walker

There’s lots to like about the Charlotte Hornets as the 2021-22 season begins.

But there’s also some questions after the team lost its last five games of the last season’s regular season and were blown out 144-117 by the Indiana Pacers in the NBA play-in tournament last season.

That has continued this preseason as injuries, health protocols and a contract decision leave some uncertainty about the Hornets as the season begins on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at home against the Pacers.

Charlotte went 1-3 in the preseason and used the starting lineup it expects to employ only once as starting forward Gordon Hayward missed the last three games due to health and safety protocols, backup forward Kelly Oubre missed three games with a right ankle sprain, starting center Mason Plumlee missed two games due to health and safety protocols, starting guard Terry Rozier missed two games with a left ankle sprain and forwards Miles Bridges (right knee discomfort) and P.J. Washington (left middle finger dislocation) left the team’s final preseason game and didn’t return.

Earlier this week, the team and Bridges failed to reach a deal on a contract extension of his rookie contract, which will make Bridges a restricted free agent in July 2022.

With oddsmakers projecting a win total in the high 30s, the Hornets are again a strong candidate for the postseason but they want to qualify automatically, which would mean finishing in the top six in the Eastern Conference – and not the seventh- through 10th-place teams that would meet in the play-in tournament.

Bridges, the team’s longest-tenured player at three years of previous service, said overcoming the May 18 play-in loss at Indiana motivated his offseason drills.

“Every time I got tired this summer during a drill, I thought about that game,” Bridges said on the team’s Sept. 27 media day. “We can’t take any games for granted this season.”

But while Bridges thinks the loss will prove to be a “blessing in disguise,” the are questions about whether or not the team can move forward and make improvements.

The optimists point to improved depth and the expected improvement of 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball.

Despite missing 21 games with a broken wrist in the middle of the season, Ball averaged 15.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds and is determined to do even more this season.

He’s got the green light from his head coach James Borrego.

“I want him to take the reins of this program,” Borrego said. “He’s the quarterback, the floor general and for us to take that next step he must run this team, not only on the offensive end but the defensive end as well.”

Ball welcomes the opportunity – and the challenge.

“It’s going over plays and stuff and watching film and knowing where to be at and where others players are to be,” Ball said. “It’s leading the pack.”

Ball, Rozier, Hayward, Bridges and Plumlee are the projected starters with veteran Ish Smith, rookie James Bouknight, Oubre and Washington leading the reserves that also will have rookie Kai Jones and second-year players Nick Richards and Vernon Carey backing up Plumlee.

Borrego says the desire to improve has been obvious ever since offseason drills began.

Borrego said there is a “great vibe and chemistry” with the team, adding that a team get-together this offseason in Miami was attended by all players – and team owner Michael Jordan — and most of the players spent much of the offseason in Charlotte working out together as well.

“This group really enjoys each other,” Borrego said. “The halls are alive and active.”

Here is the full 2021-22 regular season schedule:

Wed. 20 INDIANA 7:00
Fri. 22 at Cleveland 7:00
Sun. 24 at Brooklyn 4:00
Mon. 25 BOSTON 7:00
Wed. 27 at Orlando 7:00
Fri. 29 at Miami 7:30
Sun. 31 PORTLAND 7:00
Mon. 1 CLEVELAND 7:00
Wed. 3 at Golden State 10:00
Fri. 5 at Sacramento 10:00
Sun. 7 at LA Clippers 9:00
Mon. 8 at L.A. Lakers 10:30
Wed. 10 at Memphis 8:00
Fri. 12 NEW YORK 7:00
Sun. 14 GOLDEN STATE 7:00
Wed. 17 WASHINGTON 7:00
Fri. 19 INDIANA 7:00
Sat. 20 at Atlanta 7:30
Mon. 22 at Washington 7:00
Wed. 24 at Orlando 7:00
Fri. 26 MINNESOTA 7:00
Sat. 27 at Houston 8:00
Mon. 29 at Chicago 8:00
Wed. 1 at Milwaukee 8:00
Sun. 5 at Atlanta 6:00
Fri. 10 SACRAMENTO 7:00
Mon. 13 at Dallas 8:30
Wed. 15 at San Antonio 8:30
Fri. 17 at Portland 10:00
Sun. 19 at Phoenix 8:00
Mon. 20 at Utah 9:00
Thu. 23 at Denver 9:00
Mon. 27 HOUSTON 7:00
Wed. 29 at Indiana 7:00
Sun. 2 PHOENIX 7:00
Mon. 3 at Washington 7:00
Wed. 5 DETROIT 7:00
Sat. 8 MILWAUKEE 7:00
Mon. 10 MILWAUKEE 7:00
Wed. 12 at Philadelphia 7:00
Fri. 14 ORLANDO 7:00
Mon. 17 at New York 1:00
Wed. 19 at Boston 7:30
Fri. 21 OKLAHOMA CITY 7:00
Sun. 23 ATLANTA 7:00
Tue. 25 at Toronto 7:00
Wed. 26 at Indiana 7:00
Fri. 28 L.A. LAKERS 7:00
Sun. 30 LA CLIPPERS 1:00
Wed. 2 at Boston 7:30
Fri. 4 CLEVELAND 7:00
Sat. 5 MIAMI 7:00
Mon. 7 TORONTO 7:00
Wed. 9 CHICAGO 7:30
Fri. 11 at Detroit 7:00
Sat. 12 MEMPHIS 7:00
Tue. 15 at Minnesota 8:00
Thu. 17 MIAMI 7:00
Fri. 25 TORONTO 7:00
Sun. 27 DETROIT 7:00
Mon. 28 at Milwaukee 8:00
Wed. 2 at Cleveland 7:00
Sat. 5 SAN ANTONIO 7:00
Tue. 8 BROOKLYN 7:00
Wed. 9 BOSTON 7:00
Fri. 11 at New Orleans 8:00
Mon. 14 at Oklahoma City 8:00
Wed. 16 ATLANTA 7:00
Sat. 19 DALLAS 7:00
Mon. 21 NEW ORLEANS 7:00
Wed. 23 NEW YORK 7:00
Fri. 25 UTAH 7:00
Sun. 27 at Brooklyn 7:30
Mon. 28 DENVER 7:00
Wed. 30 at New York 7:30
Sat. 2 at Philadelphia 12:30
Tue. 5 at Miami 7:30
Thu. 7 ORLANDO 7:00
Fri. 8 at Chicago 8:00