BROOKLYN – Terry Rozier has been a member of the Charlotte Hornets for five seasons and hasn’t yet played in a postseason game.
Still, the veteran guard and team leader believes the group is close to competing, as long as its stars can actually get on the floor together at the same time.
The Hornets have endured a stunning rash of injuries, notably to LaMelo Ball and 2023 No. 2 pick Brandon Miller, as well as the season-plus absence of forward Miles Bridges due to suspension following a domestic violence charge.
The marquee absences have clouded veteran coach Steve Clifford’s two-year tenure with the club – his second stint as coach with the franchise.
“We have a great team,” Rozier told The Game Day Basketball after his 37-point, 13-assist performance in Charlotte’s 129-128 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. “We haven’t played at full strength for two years.”
Charlotte was poised to take a huge leap as a perennial postseason participant after its breakout 2021-22 season. Led by Ball, who was an All-Star, the Hornets finished 43-39 – their best record since Clifford last guided them to the playoffs in 2015-16 – but lost to the Atlanta Hawks 132-103 in the Play-In Tournament.
But the wheels have come off since. Clifford took over for James Borrego, who was let go in April 2022, and was dealt an awful hand almost immediately when Bridges was arrested in Los Angeles in June.
“Two years ago, he was the high-scorer and high-rebounder,” Clifford said of Bridges after Charlotte’s loss to the New York Knicks on Nov. 12.
Bridges sat out the whole 2022-23 season, and Charlotte fielded 26 different starting lineups in 82 games while Rozier, Ball, and guard Gordon Hayward, each missed time because of injury.
The bad luck landed Charlotte a 27-55 record and the second overall pick, which it used to take Miller, the standout swingman from Alabama.
Clifford knew Charlotte would have to weather the first 10 games of this season without Bridges as he served the rest of his 30-game suspension from the NBA.
But then Miller sprained his ankle in the Hornets’ 129-107 loss to the Knicks on Nov. 12, and Ball, who is leading the team in points, steals, and assists per game, sprained his ankle in the Hornets’ loss to the Orlando Magic on Nov. 26.
The Hornets are 2-0 in games in which Bridges, Ball, and Miller start. Plus, Clifford could sense his team’s confidence beginning to build right before Ball went down.
“We got on the plane with a lot of momentum finally having everybody back,” Clifford said. “This was the first time, in Orlando, that I could sense that in the huddle what’s [coming] next for us.”
Fortunately for Charlotte, it’s not how a team starts the season but how it finishes it.
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The Hornets have not fallen out of playoff contention despite losing arguably their three best players, though Clifford also feels there is still a lot of growth required from his team even when the stars come back.
“You have to find a way that your team has to play to win, and then you’ve got to do that and be able to do it every night no matter where you play,” Clifford said. “To have the right attitude, approach, fight, determination, togetherness, that’s where it all starts.”
With Miller and Ball expected to return at some point in December, the club is feeling good despite its 6-11 record as of Dec. 1.
“We’re just trying to get everyone playing, so we can be at full strength, so we can really show what we can do,” Rozier said. “Obviously, we’re taking it one day at a time and waiting for our players to get back.”