Give the NBA’s schedule-maker credit.
Rather than waiting and letting any lingering feelings bubbling up within the Charlotte Hornets summer for a while, the people responsible for putting the 82-game slate together gift-wrapped their opening night opponent with a bow. Some five months after their inexplicable performance in Indiana that ended their season, the Hornets have the opportunity to release some of those pent-up frustrations when they tip off their regular season against the Pacers at Spectrum Center on Wednesday night.
Nothing can completely erase the nightmarish outcome, certainly not the initial game of a six-month campaign they hope pushes well into the spring. But it can assist in soothing some of those wounds and mental scars brought on by that rough loss to Indiana in the play-in tournament back in May.
A season loaded with some of the biggest expectations in recent memory gets underway with a twist, and the Hornets are embracing the opportunity to tip things off against the team that sent them spiraling into offseason mode.
“It’s right in front of us so we are going to deal with it, and I think it’s good for us,” coach James Borrego said Tuesday. “We get to go back right at the team that put us out last year. It’s one of 82. This isn’t the defining moment of our season and everything rides on one game. There is a lot of motivation for (Wednesday) night for a number of reasons. But to go face Indiana again after what happened to end last season I think it’s great for our group.
“We’ll see how far we’ve come. We’ll learn a lot from that game. Win or lose, we are going to take a lot from that game and move forward. But I know our guys are excited to compete (Wednesday) night. There is a lot of great motivation to go out there and win a basketball game.”
That outing in Indianapolis — paired with a roster ravaged by injuries — led to quite a number of changes in the Hornets’ makeup. Depth was a major issue a season ago, among other things, and general manager Mitch Kupchak made it a priority to correct it.
Kupchak traded for Mason Plumlee, inked free agent swing man Kelly Oubre and signed veteran Ish Smith. That followed the drafting of four rookies in July and two of them could be contributors in the coming months, the headliner being James Bouknight. The reshuffling of the roster around the league’s reigning rookie of the year has increased the Hornets’ outlook exponentially.
“I know internally what our expectations are,” Gordon Hayward said. “We have a lot to accomplish this year, so we are going to do our best.”
With so many new faces, Terry Rozier thought it was prudent to have a team-bonding session prior to the start of training camp. Collectively, the Hornets spent nearly a week as a unit in Miami in early September that had them eager for training camp.
Following a tricky preseason filled with its share of injuries and absences, the anticipation of finally getting going has them seemingly giddier than their starved fan base.
“It’s important,” Rozier said. “This is what we got together for a month ago. This is what makes teams, starting (Wednesday) it’s time to show it now. We’ve got all of these names on paper. We’ve got a lot of people hyping us up, but it’s now a matter of us going out there and doing what we are supposed to do. So I know we are all excited for it. Definitely, I am. I’m ready for it.”
Plumlee is, too. He witnessed the Hornets’ breakneck pace during his time with Detroit and is already confident he can slide as a matching piece in their jigsaw puzzle.
“I think I fit in well,” I think it’s just a team that’s growing, a team that made a statement last year with how they played and the progress they made. And we are just trying to take the next step.”
Providing the Hornets with extra playmaking and a more mobile presence at the position than his predecessors is key for Plumlee. Often, the Hornets were outmuscled in the paint, causing Borrego to play a lot of zone defense. They also sorely lacked rim protection and that is where Plumlee comes in.
“Just sort of having a presence, being physical, contesting everything around the basket and then rebounding at a high level, I think a lot of that,” Plumlee said of his expected interior duties. “Those statistics or analytics just come down to keeping teams to one shot and making it tough on them for that shot, so that’s my role.”
Beginning with their tilt against the Pacers, they can figure out if acquiring Plumlee and the other pieces they assembled are enough to vault them to their first true postseason appearance since losing to Miami in seven games in 2016.
“Time will tell,” Borrego said. “I like the moves we’ve made. The versatility is there. I like the additions. The length, the size, the experience. Again, we haven’t been whole to really see what this group is really going to look like. We got a taste of it against (Oklahoma City on Oct. 4). That’s probably the closest thing we’ve had yet. And I liked what I saw in the OKC game. I liked what I saw in the summertime.
“I’m very confident in this team. I like this team. I think this team has a lot of growth and will to develop. But I think those changes are a positive for us. And so far I like what I’ve seen. I believe in this group.”