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The Hornets’ Misfit Toys Can Play

Little was expected of Charlotte’s patchwork roster, but the disparate parts have all fit together, altering the team’s trajectory this season and changing the perceptions of its maligned players along the way

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Not many items on the Island of Misfit Toys were actually defective. OK, so maybe there aren’t many kids who’d be psyched to play with a boat that can’t float or an airplane that can’t fly. But a spotted elephant isn’t broken; it’s chic. A bear with wings isn’t faulty; it’s magic. A water pistol that shoots jelly is, objectively, dope as hell.

That’s the lesson of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: That which is different is not in some ineffable way wrong, and can, in fact, be grand and spark joy. Sometimes, all it takes is finding someone who doesn’t mind playing with a Charlie in the Box. Or who’s willing to let a former lottery pick out of one.

Malik Monk entered the league with inarguable bucket-getting gifts, but displayed them only sporadically through most of his first three seasons. The former no. 11 pick struggled to earn defensive trust, to impact the game beyond scoring, and to maintain momentum; a monthlong stretch in which he averaged 17 points per game ended sharply when he was suspended for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Then came the pandemic, a nine-month layoff, and the offseason arrivals of Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball—all of which pushed Monk out of sight, out of mind, and out of the rotation.

When coach James Borrego didn’t play Monk in 13 of the Hornets’ first 17 games this season, it seemed like his time in Charlotte might be up. But the coach finally rolled back the stone in late January, giving Monk a longer look after Terry Rozier sprained his ankle ... and the fourth-year swingman has seized his new chance with both hands.

A newly matured Monk is averaging 15.7 points in 27 minutes per game through his past dozen outings, shooting a blistering 47.4 percent from 3-point range on 6.5 attempts a night in that span. He went nuclear on the Suns on Wednesday, exploding for 20 points in the second quarter alone on his way to 29 in 28 minutes. The old concerns about all that he couldn’t do melted away as you watched him weave through defenders, splash triples off the catch, and detonate at the rim. What remained was the satisfying sensation of seeing a just-turned-23-year-old explore the limits of all that he could do—a misfit toy, at last, at play.

He’s not the only wanderer in Charlotte finding ways to thrive and contribute to a remarkably fun and shockingly decent Hornets team that enters Friday at 15-16, within hailing distance of fourth place in a congested Eastern Conference.

Gordon Hayward entered Boston as a golden-boy centerpiece, suffered a horrific and traumatic injury, and spent most of the next two seasons trying to rebuild himself. When Charlotte signed him, the general reaction was less “Hey, the Hornets got a no. 1 guy” than “Why the hell would they pay him $120 million?” Now, he’s producing almost exactly as he did during his All-Star season in Utah, quieting doubters—the rising tide lifting the boats that can’t float by themselves.

Rozier went from Boston folk hero to Celtics flameout in the space of 12 months. Then he became a punch line—a three-year, $58 million consolation prize for a franchise that looked wildly inept as it stumbled to the end of the line with Kemba Walker, and he was almost immediately outperformed and outshined by erstwhile backup Devonte’ Graham. Now, Rozier is averaging 20.4 points on career-high efficiency; he’s 11th in the NBA in made 3s and 13th in 3-point percentage, drilling 44.5 percent of the 7.6 triples he hoists per game. Hayward has the All-Star buzz and Ball gets the headlines, but the Hornets aren’t in playoff position without Rozier quietly becoming a hard-nosed flamethrower.

There’s more: Monk’s up-and-down ride, Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington rejecting their tweener labels, Graham’s struggles to author an encore to last season’s rise, and center Cody Zeller’s annual bouts with injury. LaMelo Ball may look like a star now, but a year and a half ago, few knew what to make of a virality-seeking missile on a meandering and circuitous path around the basketball globe, with disappearing defensive interest and a jumper shaky enough to register on the Richter scale. Everywhere you look, there’s a flaw waiting to be flipped into fuel; everywhere you look, there’s a player who might be able to give you more than you’d think, if only you’d look at them with a fresh set of eyes.

Put them all together and a Charlotte club that many projected to rank among the league’s worst before this pandemic-warped season has notched wins over the pre-Harden-trade Nets, the full-strength Bucks, the Heat with Jimmy Butler back, and the Warriors (thanks in part to Draymond Green momentarily taking leave of his senses). On Wednesday, they added Phoenix to the list, scoring a 124-121 road win against the fourth-seeded, two-All-Star Suns.

Monk vibed. Hayward delivered your recommended daily dose of dietary fiber with his customary 20-8-4. Ball brought the Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs with 20 points, eight dimes, and a late-fourth-quarter flurry that helped turn back a Phoenix rally to seal the W:

Charlotte trailed by 17 midway through the second quarter, led by 11 midway through the fourth, and barely squeaked out the one-possession final margin. It was a frenetic, fun as hell, pretty weird game that the Hornets pulled out in the end. Which is to say, it perfectly encapsulated the blueprint for a team that ranks 18th in offensive efficiency, 18th in defense, and 20th in net rating … and somehow transforms into a juggernaut when it matters most. The Hornets are a killer 10-5 in games when the score’s within five points in the final five minutes, with far and away the league’s best net rating in those “clutch” minutes.

The Hornets may be misfits, but they can bring considerable versatility depending on matchups and circumstances. They can play big, with Zeller or Bismack Biyombo in as a traditional pivot, or small, with Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington up front, and still run lineups featuring secure ball handlers, smart passers, knockdown shooters, drivers, and interchangeable defenders all over the floor.

Hayward’s size and skill make him a nightmare cover working either end of the two-man game—he’s a threat to hunt mismatches, score at all three levels, and create clean looks for teammates. Rozier can make plays off the dribble and off the catch, and has become a hell of a tough shotmaker: 48.5 percent against “tight” or “very tight” coverage, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Graham’s numbers are down from his breakout 2019-20 season, but he can still stroke spot-up 3s and run pick-and-roll. Bridges can handle the ball, too, and has shined as an attacking small-ball 4—he’s scoring an eye-popping 1.65 points per pick-and-roll possession he finishes, according to Synergy Sports’ charting—and he can also drill triples and guard wings.

Ball’s playmaking has been transformative. The rookie boosts Charlotte on the defensive end, too, using his length, anticipation, quickness, and great hands to generate extra possessions that can help the Hornets cut into deficits and inflate leads:

Nobody dominates the ball, which forces opponents to defend the whole floor and weaponizes everyone; six Hornets have usage rates north of 15 percent in crunch time, and Hayward, Rozier, Bridges, Graham, and Ball are all shooting 50 percent or better in the clutch. It’s a “many hands make light work” approach to closing out games—and it’s an approach that has been awfully effective thus far, and feels very much of a piece with the Hornets’ overall egalitarian vibe.

Charlotte doesn’t have a true paint-patrolling big man, so everybody has to dig into the lane and pitch in on the glass; seven Hornets average at least four boards per game. As good as Hayward has been, there’s no superstar-level scorer that defenses have to double-team, so the Hornets have to work together to create extra scoring chances. This is one reason they play an aggressive brand of defense that forces a high number of turnovers, helping them generate a ton of points off turnovers and push for fast-break points. The numbers suggest that’s a wise approach: According to Mike Beuoy of Inpredictable, Charlotte averages 1.04 points per possession after its opponent makes a shot (23rd in the league); 1.11 after forcing a miss and grabbing a defensive rebound (17th in the league); and 1.39 after creating a turnover (fourth in the league). For the Hornets, the best offense really is a good defense.

Without a dominant individual scorer to just throw the ball to over and over, the Hornets aim to overload opponents with movement—the sort of purposeful passing and cutting that traces back to the “point-five” mentality that longtime Spurs assistant Borrego cribbed from Gregg Popovich. The upshot: Within a half-second of getting the ball, a player should be either passing, shooting, or driving toward the rim to do something productive. No standing around or letting the ball stick. So far, so good: Only the Pacers average more passes per game than the Hornets, and only the Warriors move their bodies or the ball faster.

Playing that way creates more opportunities for everybody. You can only play that way, though, if your leaders buy in. Two-thirds of the Hornets’ baskets come off a direct dime, the league’s third-highest assist percentage, because the combination of Ball’s infectious playmaking and the unselfishness of Charlotte’s top scorers (Hayward and Rozier have two of the lowest usage rates of any players averaging at least 20 points per game this season) creates an environment in which everyone gets a chance to fly free—chosen ones and misfits alike.

The secret, of course, is that we’re all misfits in our way; the trick is to figure out how to use what makes you different to make you stronger. Welcome to Charlotte, the Island of Misfit Toys—home of a team finding itself and, from the looks of it, having a hell of a lot of fun in the process.