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3 reasons the Hornets are legitimate playoff contenders after 3-1 start

Hornets, Miles Bridges, Ish Smith, Mason Plumlee, LaMelo Ball

The Charlotte Hornets are off to a strong 3-1 start this season. They were close to recording a 4-0 slate but the Boston Celtics were able to squeeze the win in overtime on Monday. Nevertheless, the first four games have given us some interesting points about the Hornets that need to be discussed. Simply because they are the main reasons why the team can be considered legitimate contenders this season.

Miles Bridges is a completely different player

In the first four games of the 2021-22 NBA season, Bridges is averaging a stellar 25.0 points and 8.0 rebounds. This is a major improvement from his averages of 12.7 points and 6.0 boards last year. Obviously, there’s a ton of games left to play and Bridges’ averages could normalize as the season goes on. However, in the first few games, fans have seen a more poised and patient version of him, at least on the offensive end of the floor.

Prior to this year, Bridges was regarded as a hyper-athletic forward who can jump out of the roof and slam the ball with authority. He also had a three-point shooting stroke in the bag which he isn’t shy to show off. This season, all these tools are still in his arsenal, but more polished than ever. He’s also now more reliable in the midrange area. He won’t hesitate to pull up from around the free throw line or even work in the post.

Pair Bridges’ individual strides with his developing chemistry with the very confident LaMelo Ball, then you have a player who has stepped up a notch. Don’t be surprised if Bridges enters the conversation of Most Improved Player or even an All-Star nod.

Reliable bench led by Ish Smith

When Smith was acquired in the offseason, he was expected to become that veteran locker room presence as well as a mentor to LaMelo. As such, analysts believed that the Hornets need to beef up their bench further. LaMelo needed a more solid backup. But in the first four games so far, Smith has been a fantastic player. He’s averaging 10.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists.

The man is 33-years-old but is still one of the quickest and shiftiest guards out there. Coach James Borrego trusts Smith so much that he was inserted in the final minutes of their win over the 111-95 win over Brooklyn Nets.

Apart from Smith, the likes of Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, and PJ Washington have played meaningful minutes for Borrego. Kelly Oubre Jr., who has started in place of the injured Terry Rozier, has been big as well for them. In the event that Rozier returns and Oubre gets relegated back to the bench, we should expect the latter to still make a good impact.

Mason Plumlee’s playmaking

Like Smith, when the Hornets acquired Plumlee as their center, not everyone was too hyped. It’s not because Plumlee is a horrendous player, but some felt that the team needed a center of the modern ilk—someone who is more mobile and has a touch from deep. Plumlee doesn’t exactly fit these descriptions. He’s the type who likes to get down and dirty in the paint. He likes to get physical, crash the boards, and slam the ball.

But in their first four games so far, Plumlee’s playmaking has stood out. He’s averaging 2.7 assists so far which is above average for a center. Statistics reveal that passing is indeed one of his hidden strengths. Last season, he actually finished fifth in assists among centers. In the season prior, he finished seventh. Plumlee’s passing numbers aren’t way up there but it certainly helps when you have another player who has that inherent skill.

It helps in the Hornets’ fluid ball movement, which is a good reason for their strong start. Plumlee, after receiving one of many nifty passes from LaMelo, won’t always be in a rush to score. More often than not, he’ll always look for the best option possible. If it requires passing the rock, then he’ll do it.