Hornets guard LaMelo Ball usually finds Miles Bridges a few times per game. LaMelo will throw a baseball pass across the court to a streaking Bridges, or hit him cutting to the basket on a pick-and-roll or spotting up in the corner. Every once in a while, they will get the crowd on their feet with a rim-rattling alley-oop. Basketball is supposed to be fun. You are reminded of that when you watch them play.
As fruitful partnerships go, LaMelo to Bridges (2.2 assists per game) ranks right behind Chris Paul to Devin Booker (2.3) and Draymond Green to Steph Curry (2.4). The Hornets pair clicked almost instantly last season, coming off the bench together and running in transition. They are capable of turning a game into a track meet in just a few minutes. LaMelo became a starter after 20 games last season and won Rookie of the Year. Bridges was a little behind him, moving into the starting lineup nearly 50 games in and slipping under the radar on a Hornets team with several other talented youngsters.
Bridges, This Season and Last
The talent was always there. Bridges was ready for the opportunity. He averaged nearly identical numbers in 19 games as a starter last season. He wasn’t handed anything. He was extremely efficient (true shooting percentage of 62.5) in a smaller role (usage rate of 17.3) so Charlotte cleared out space for him to have a bigger one. The Hornets benched P.J. Washington and shuffled roles on offense after the departure of Devonte’ Graham. This season, Bridges is taking seven more shots per game and has gone from no. 6 on the Hornets in touches to no. 3.
The most encouraging part about his leap is that it’s not a hot shooting streak. Bridges made a living in his first three seasons as a 3-and-D player, but he’s shooting much worse from 3 this season (32.7 percent) than last (40.1). He’s made up the difference by almost doubling his number of drives per game. Once Bridges starts going downhill, he’s hard to stop. He’s no. 16 in 2-point percentage (54.1) among the 56 players taking at least nine 2-point shots per game. His increased aggressiveness can be seen in his free throw attempts jumping from 1.7 per game to 4.0. Fouls are down this season, but Bridges draws so much contact in the lane that the refs have to call it.
Bridges looks like an NFL tight end who wandered onto the court after a weight-lifting session. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, he’s bigger, stronger, and more athletic than most players he matches up with. He often gives up height but it doesn’t matter. Bridges can power through defenders and he’s skilled enough to take advantage of the openings that creates.
There’s more polish to his game than you might expect for someone with his physical tools. Bridges doesn’t just play bully ball. He can get his shot up from anywhere on the floor and read the defense when they send help. He has raised his assist percentage by almost 2 percentage points from last season while lowering his turnover percentage by almost 5. Those numbers rarely move in opposite directions. Typically, the more a player is asked to create for others, the more mistakes he makes. Bridges hasn’t made just one jump this season. He’s made two. He’s gone from a guy who gets set up to one who creates his own shot and sets up other guys.
Bridges is doing all that while carrying a massive load on defense. Per NBA Advanced Stats, he has guarded everyone from Kevin Durant to Jayson Tatum, Julius Randle, Bradley Beal, and Damian Lillard this season. He starts games as a wing stopper and often finishes them as a small-ball 5. Charlotte signed Mason Plumlee to be its starting center, but he’s a 31-year-old declining from a peak that wasn’t particularly high. Meanwhile, Washington had been out for most of the season with an elbow injury before coming back last week. That left Bridges as the best option in the middle on many nights. He’s a good rebounder who isn’t afraid to mix it up inside and does a decent job of walling off the paint on drives. The Hornets have a net rating of plus-12.6 in 190 minutes with Bridges at the 5.
Charlotte coach James Borrego can’t afford to keep him off the floor for long. Bridges is seventh in the NBA in minutes per game (36.2). The Hornets go from a net rating of plus-2.8 with him to minus-11.1 without him. Part of that is that he plays so much with LaMelo. But he’s having an ever bigger impact on LaMelo than LaMelo is having on him:
LaMelo and Bridges: Better Together
|LaMelo + Bridges||646||plus-3.5|
|Bridges, no LaMelo||187||plus-1.8|
|LaMelo, no Bridges||112||minus-5.0|
Bridges and LaMelo both make life easier for their teammates, but in different ways. Charlotte doesn’t run a lot of plays for Bridges. His most frequent sources of offense are spot-ups (30 percent) and transition (17.7 percent). He finishes at a high level at the rim and 3-point line, moves well without the ball, and makes good decisions when he does have it. That kind of player makes every lineup that he’s in better, especially when he defends and rebounds as well as Bridges.
There are some nights when he fades into the background on offense. After all, there are a lot of mouths to feed in Charlotte. The Hornets have five players averaging at least 10 field goal attempts per game in LaMelo, Bridges, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, and Kelly Oubre Jr. But Bridges can spread his wings no matter how opportunities are distributed in the backcourt. The bigger issues are Oubre and Washington, two other young frontcourt players also trying to establish themselves in the NBA. The Hornets, like the Hawks, probably won’t be able to keep all their young talent happy in the years to come.
There is a lot of room for Bridges to get even better if Charlotte keeps expanding his role. He’s the rare player who excels as both the ball handler (87th percentile) and roll man (97th) in the pick-and-roll, but those plays count for 7.0 and 8.3 percent, respectively, of his total offense. It’s almost impossible to guard Bridges after he sets a screen because he can pop out for a 3, catch a lob at the rim, and make passes in four-on-three situations. One of the best ways for the Hornets to create offense at the end of games is to put Bridges and LaMelo in a two-man game and let them cook.
But LaMelo is more than just a pick-and-roll partner for Bridges. He’s also a point guard in the old-school sense of the word. He came into the NBA with the ability to recognize which mismatches to attack and get the ball to the right players. LaMelo finds the hot hand and keeps doing it until the defense adjusts. Bridges has had six games in which he’s taken more than 20 shots and he shot 50 percent or higher from the field in five of them. He doesn’t have to force the action and look for shots when they aren’t there. Bridges can give up the ball and trust that it will come back to him in the right spots.
LaMelo doesn’t just know how to get Bridges the ball. He wants to do it. That doesn’t happen all that often with two young stars on the same team. There’s usually more of a push-pull dynamic as they try to establish themselves. Consider what’s going on in Boston. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are elite two-way wings who have been less than the sum of their parts together because neither can pass like LaMelo, who is averaging significantly more assists (8.2) than those two combined (5.9). Brown and Tatum are at their best when they are hunting for their own shot. It’s just hard to have two guys doing that at the same time because they end up taking turns instead of playing off of each other. Bridges doesn’t have that problem. The more LaMelo has the ball, the more shots that he will get.
LaMelo has taken a massive leap of his own this season, averaging 19.3 points on 41.1 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. The only other point guards who can stuff the stat sheet and control the game like him are Luka Doncic and James Harden. LaMelo can’t score like them, but that might make it easier to build around him. He needs a scorer like Bridges in a way the other two don’t. It’s hard to form a sustainable partnership when one side isn’t necessary. No one wants to feel like an afterthought.
But one star is never enough to win a title. The foundation of a great team is a combination of stars that fit well together. LaMelo can be the best version of himself without taking anything away from Bridges and vice versa. Any team that can’t say the same about its two best players is inherently unstable. It’s like building a city on a fault line.
The Hornets have been up-and-down this season. They are the no. 6 seed in the East, at 13-10. The middle of the conference is crowded. They are 1.5 games behind the Bulls at no. 2 and one game ahead of the four teams tied for no. 8. Just being in that group is a big step up for a team that won 33 games and snuck into the play-in round last season. Charlotte is like a lot of young teams in that it is better at home (7-2) than on the road (6-8) and tends to play to the level of its competition. The Hornets have beaten Golden State and lost to Houston.
All that stuff can be sorted out in time. LaMelo is 20 and Bridges is 23. The elevator only goes up from here. The only thing the Hornets may regret is not having signed Bridges to an extension before the season. He will be a restricted free agent in the offseason and should get a max contract if he maintains this level of play. Bridges earned a promotion. Now he’ll get the raise that comes with it.