San Antonio has won six of their last nine games as their roster is finally healthy for the first time all season. Meanwhile, the Hornets have begun to spiral in the standings as several significant contributors have found themselves on the injury report, undergoing COVID-19 protocols.
Both young teams love to run in transition, pass the ball, play the passing lanes, and cut down on turnovers, though there are more than a couple of distinctions between the Spurs and their opponent. So I reached out to At The Hive contributor James Plowright to get the lowdown on Charlotte.
1. The San Antonio Spurs are trending up in the Western Conference standings, and the Charlotte Hornets are headed in the opposite direction in the East. What does this team have to do to pick up a win in the 2-1-0?
Charlotte will be up against the wall, missing several players due to COVID protocols and trying to reintegrate others who have recently rejoined the team. It’s completely unknown what condition Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels will be in, and both are likely to be active for the first time in ten days. The key for tonight’s matchup is limiting turnovers. Dejounte Murray is one of the best ballhawks in the game, and Charlotte is missing both of their natural point guards in LaMelo Ball and Ish Smith. Doug McDermott also killed Charlotte last year in their matchups against Indiana. Death by a thousand back cuts was a theme.
2. Charlotte signed Mason Plumlee, Ish Smith, and Kelly Oubre Jr. this offseason. How have they adjusted to new roles? And what impact have those three had on this club?
Kelly Oubre Jr. is in the midst of a career year but isn’t impacting the team how most people anticipated. Charlotte was expecting a versatile defender who could force steals, block shots and get out in transition. Kelly has been subpar in these areas compared to previous years, but he has turned into a high-volume three-point shooter. He ranks fifth in the NBA in made threes so far and certainly isn’t afraid to get them up. Plumlee has been average. And while that’s better than Zeller and Biyombo were last year (albeit a low bar), that hasn’t solved the Hornets’ defensive issues. Keep an eye out for his 35% free throw shooting…It’s been bad. Ish Smith has been impactful when he plays but has found himself outside the rotation with Terry Rozier filling in as backup PG when Melo is off the floor.
3. LaMelo Ball is one of the brightest young stars in the league, but he hasn’t suited up since going into COVID protocols on December 5. How has that changed the way the Hornets play the game?
You will see point guard by committee. Cody Martin, Gordon Hayward, and Miles Bridges have all logged time as the lead guard over the last few contests. The benefit of how Charlotte plays is their system and identity run throughout the team. Their style of play has not changed one bit since Melo went down. Expect the Hornets to play fast, run off makes, and hunt mismatches with Hayward and Miles.
4. Fans have returned to stadiums, rules have changed, the NBA has a new ball, and shooting percentages are down leaguewide. So, how has Miles Bridges broken out amid all the changes?
Miles flashed this potential down the stretch of last season. When Hayward, Martin, Melo, and PJ were all out, Miles stepped up with increased usage and produced at a high level. Playing full-time power forward has helped, as well as logging some time as a small-ball center, where he can use his speed to power past slower players. Miles’ ballhandling and passing make him hard to guard. He can hurt you in so many ways, and he impacts the game on both ends. He’s a better three-point shooter than he’s shown this season., and I actually think he’s got more room for improvement.
5. Rookies rarely see many minutes under Gregg Popovich, and James Borrego is part of his expansive coaching tree. Are there similarities in how the two approach developing first-year players?
Many forget now, but even LaMelo Ball started his rookie season on the bench behind Devonte Graham. The Hornets can afford not to force-feed minutes to young guys due to their strong G League development program. Devonte Graham, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, and Nick Richards all logged time in Greensboro and made major steps. On top of that, the current Hornets team actually has veteran depth. Kelly Oubre is having a career year, Cody Martin is one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and the Spurs will feel his defense tonight. His offensive development is nothing short of outstanding, and that’s not just his league-leading three-point shooting. Bouknight’s talent level is through the roof, but he’s been so used to pounding the rock and going one versus five, the team needed to fine-tune his playing style to fit into their free-flowing offense. Kai Jones was always a long-term project. He’s a raw piece of clay for the Hornets to mold. I expect JT Thor to play more than him this year due to his defensive versatility and decision-making.