The Hive is Buzzing
What's causing LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges to be at the center of a resurgence in Charlotte?
There’s nothing but excitement brewing in North Carolina around the Charlotte Hornets’ early season success. Fans have every right to be elated with the team in front of them.
LaMelo Ball looks like a potential transcendent PG and Miles Bridges is on his way to winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Many expected Ball to take a leap in his sophomore season, but few could’ve predicted the exact level to which Bridges has soared.
While both of them have shown improvements in key areas already through the first four games of the young 2021-22 campaign, a major part of what’s led to Charlotte’s 3-1 start comes back to the offensive identity head coach James Borrego has had his team embrace.
Yes, the Hornets have an identity that couldn’t be further from what it was last season.
If I were to try my best to pinpoint what the Hornets were good at a year ago, I’d struggle to land on one specific area I could point to and say “yep, that’s what this squad built around.”
This season is completely different. Bottom line, this team is fast. Damn fast.
Honestly, I’m exhausted just watching this offense operate. If I had to guard these guys defensively, I’d be swearing every trip up and down the court.
The vast majority of Charlotte’s shot attempts come with double digits left on the shot clock, whether Ball and Bridges are racing up the court in transition or operating out of half court sets.
And that’s why both have seen massive increases to their averages (I know, I know, we’re only four games in). This team has found its identity and planted its flag in the ground.
Last year, the Hornets were 22nd in field goals made, 20th in field goals attempted and 23rd in total points scored.
Want to hear where they’re at to this point in the season? Try 2nd in field goals made, 1st in field goals attempted and 2nd in total points scored.
If that’s not a massive improvement then I must be blind to the truth.
Bridges, Kelly Oubre and Cody Martin constantly explode out of the gates in transition like horses on the Kentucky Derby track. Mason Plumlee is a reliable cleaner of the defensive glass, and Ball isn’t half bad himself at grabbing and going.
Once the ball gets into LaMelo’s hands, he’s more than comfortable rocketing the deep pass to one of his receivers down court or finding a way to blow past defenders who aren’t back for the easy deuce or pull-up triple.
And speaking of guys not recovering well in transition on defense, it’s good that the Hornets have played multiple teams that don’t exactly excel in that aspect.
The Brooklyn Nets proved that they aren’t going to bother racing back in the regular season. The Cleveland Cavaliers have an eager bunch looking to prove themselves, but they don’t have the experience quite yet to offer up answers defensively on a nightly basis (although the Cavs aren’t looking so bad themselves through the first few games of the season).
Against the Boston Celtics, the Hornets’ only loss on the season up to this point, they faced a better coached defensive team filled with guys who want to get back and contest shots in transition. It wasn’t a blowout because it takes quite the effort to actually want to match the pace of this hive of hornets.
Charlotte has feasted on early opportunities to burn opponents in transition, playing at a pace that with this supporting cast around Ball and Bridges is surprisingly sustainable.
Plumlee and Gordon Hayward keep the ball moving, Oubre has been shot ready or willing to pass on the move should the opportunity present itself, and my favorite back-up PG in the league Ish Smith applies pressure when Ball sits.
This team is built to constantly attack, exploit mismatches and push the pace no matter who’s on the floor. Borrego doesn’t have to worry about playing two different styles while he’s mixing up the rotations.
And that’s made life so much easier for Ball and Bridges to grow into more efficient versions of their best selves.
Bridges has never been a high level creator off the bounce, but give him an open run at the rim and he can hammer it home as good as anyone else in the league. Last year he showed massive improvement as a shooter from distance, and this year he’s even more comfortable stepping into a three-point shot off the catch. And he’s always one of the first players leaking out for the Hornets, eager to beat his man down the floor and hunt down the mismatched guard who has to try and keep him out of the paint.
Because the offense is structured around taking advantage of the very opportunities Bridges excels in, he’s always shot ready. Very rarely does he have to operate outside of the same one or two decisions on each offensive possession. Simplifying his role has allowed him to maximize every touch, and the numbers speak for themselves.
In 2020-21, Bridges averaged 12.7 PPG on 50.3/40.0/86.7 shooting splits. While his three-point percentage has gone down a few ticks at 35.7%, he’s also taking seven of them per game as opposed to 4.4 the previous year. He’s now scoring 25 PPG on 52.9% shooting sitting at 64.5% true shooting.
He hasn’t changed the types of shots he’s taking, rather how frequently he’s able to take them because of the improved pace and emphasis on ball movement.
It’s an early lesson in basketball that the ball always moves faster than the man. Charlotte embraces that philosophy with the right personnel in place to do so.
Ball can shoot from deep and takes his healthy share of triples each game, but his command of tempo, adept handle and slithery movement in the half court help him dissect opposing defenses while maintaining how often the Hornets want to get shots up.
And his threat to score has made this offense even more dangerous. Ball’s averages have also spiked up from last year, as he’s currently at 22.8 PPG on ridiculous 47.2/50.0/100.0 shooting splits. Those percentages are impossible to maintain, but if he can stay above 46/39/80 over the course of the season, defenses will have to respect him and force more doubles his way as soon as he crosses mid court.
When a double team is thrown at him, his height and vision help him to see over the defense, find the open man and make the easy play usually leading to an assist. I understand why it’s done sometimes, but it’s almost comical when teams double off the roll man to put pressure on Ball only for LaMelo to hit the roll man in stride uncontested at the rim.
The same can be said when teams try and trap him on the wing and he flings a cross court pass to the corner shooter far before defenders can rotate and recover to contest.
Even when the ball is forced out of LaMelo’s hands, his teammates don’t buck the trend and dribble the air out of the rock either.
Plumlee and Hayward are both underrated passers for their respective positions. While you wouldn’t look at their assist numbers in box scores and immediately dub them elite distributors, they keep the ball moving and don’t let it stick in their hands. This unselfishness only heightens Ball’s court vision and awareness and encourages others like Bridges and Oubre to follow suit and share the rock.
No matter where the Hornets are at in an offensive possession, the ball flies up and down the court. That’s why Charlotte can keep pushing the pace and outgunning opponents.
What’s even more absurd is that the Hornets have made massive improvements offensively WITHOUT Terry Rozier in the lineup! One of my favorite corner snipers (45.8% on corner threes last year), he only adds to what Charlotte wants to do every trip down the floor.
Now, I’ve given a lot of credit where it’s due but no I don’t believe the Hornets are a perfect basketball team. They’re far from it.
This isn’t a good defensive team no matter which way you slice it. Plumlee and PJ Washington can contest shots at the rim, but neither are exactly who you want switching out on the perimeter and acting as difference makers in that area. That also doesn’t make for a very switchable lineup either. The Hornets also lack a reliable one-on-one defender on the wing to guard the team’s best or even second best offensive talent.
Even on the offensive end, they can be much more efficient finishing at the cup and converting from the charity stripe; especially Ball when it comes to shooting at the rim. Ball is always about the flair and pizazz, but it wouldn’t kill him to try making a layup other than floating it in from high off the glass and contorting his body away from the basket.
With all of that being said, this Hornets team is for real. Charlotte’s squad looks like a perennial playoff team because of the STYLE of offense they play. Not every other defense in the league will want to keep up with the pace they’re playing at in the regular season. It’s a recipe to stack wins, especially against some of the NBA’s major tankers.
Until they address both of those needs defensively, they’re likely nothing more than a first-round exit. Maybe both of those answers are on the team in the long term, with James Bouknight and Kai Jones waiting patiently for their moments in the sun. Or maybe the Hornets have one major trade to make in the next year or two to solidify this roster as a contender around Ball and Bridges.
But those two guys are STARS. Yea, I said it. Stars. And nothing will slow down the hive offensively at this point.