Healthy LaMelo Ball, Hornets look to surprise the East, snap 7-year playoff drought


Last season: 27-55, missed playoffs.

Coach: Steve Clifford (2nd season back with Hornets, 27-55; 10th season overall, 319-400).

What to expect: With 2022 All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball and several other key players returning from injuries and off-the-court issues, the Hornets believe they’re ready to snap a seven-year playoff drought. Ball is back on the floor after three ankle injuries in 2022-23, including a fracture in February, limited him to 36 starts last season. The Hornets believe he could be ready to take the next step toward becoming an elite NBA player. Charlotte desperately needs Ball on the floor to have a chance in the improved East. He’s the triggerman for the offense. When Ball played last year he shined, averaging a career-best 23.3 points, 8.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game. The Hornets averaged 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with Ball on the court — the best mark on the team. He plans to wear ankle braces this season in an effort to prevent more injuries. Ball is expected to start alongside SG Terry Rozier, SF Gordon Hayward, PF P.J. Washington and second-year C Mark Williams. Coach Steve Clifford said Rozier and Hayward are coming off outstanding summers and could be in for big seasons. Hayward, in particular, should benefit from a summer where he could focus on improving his game rather than rehabbing from an injury as in years past. Rozier might benefit the most from having Ball on the floor, allowing him more opportunities to spot up and shoot the 3. Washington is coming off his best season, when he averaged 15.7 points per game. He is an underrated defender but needs to improve his rebound numbers (4.9 per game). Williams, a first-round pick in 2022 out of Duke, had a strong rookie season and has added about 15 pounds of muscle. The 7-footer has the instincts to be a formidable rim protector with 45 blocks in 43 games. Miles Bridges will begin the season serving a 10-game suspension but is expected to be a major contributor. Brandon Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, has impressed Clifford with his basketball IQ and will have a role right away. Cody Martin missed almost all last season with a knee injury, and the team is proceeding cautiously making sure not to rush him back. Martin is the team’s best perimeter defender and a key role player. One player who may surprise is power forward JT Thor, who has made significant strides in his outside shooting.

Departures: G Kelly Oubre Jr., F/C Kai Jones, SG Svi Mykhailiuk, PG Dennis Smith Jr.

Additions: PF Miles Bridges, SF Brandon Miller, PG Frank Ntilikina.

Player to watch: The big question entering the season surrounds how much the Hornets will get out of Bridges, who missed all last season while dealing with a domestic violence charge. Bridges still has some ongoing legal issues after being booked last week for violating a protection order. It’s unclear if that could lead to further discipline from the league. The Hornets need him on the floor to be a playoff team. Bridges led the Hornets in scoring two years ago, averaging 20.2 points along with 7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Ball and Bridges displayed remarkable chemistry when they played together two years ago and Charlotte was eighth in the league in offensive rating. The Hornets were last in the NBA in offensive rating last year with Bridges sitting out.

Season opener: Host Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 25.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 500 to 1



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