The Charlotte Hornets have navigated a treacherous 2023-24 season. After loads of injuries and roster changes, Charlotte finished the year at 21-61. The team dearly missed LaMelo Ball, who missed most of the season with an ankle injury. Ball, Head Coach Steve Clifford, and the Hornets defense are subject to examination for the team's brutal season.

Hornets' Steve Clifford looks at crowd

Steve Clifford entered 2023-24 with high hopes after the Hornets finished at 27-45 the previous season. The head coach was excited to see how the team played after another year of players building chemistry. In addition, Charlotte acquired highly touted forward prospect Brandon Miller in the 2023 NBA Draft.

However, things did not go as expected. Charlotte quickly fell down the Eastern Conference standings. Clifford does not shoulder the entire burden for the squad's fall, but the team needed a spark from someone, and he was a prime candidate to provide one.

On the positive side, Clifford was detail-oriented and often noted areas the team needed to improve in. For example, he stressed Charlotte's need to move the ball more in their 112-107 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on December 15th.

“Ball movement was a little stagnant. Didn't move with the necessary fluidity that it needed to to force the defense to react the way that Clifford wanted it to. Thus creating the slow start that the Hornets wanted to avoid. It also doesn't help when fouls are consistently an issue,” Clifford said.

Clifford has made an effort to help guide the team in the right direction the entire year, but unfortunately, it was not enough to help them over the hump. He announced he would be stepping down as Head Coach and moving into an advisory role with the organization. His move leaves room for Charlotte to get new leadership.

Now, onto the key player in question for the season's journey.

LaMelo Ball: Charlotte's absent difference-maker

LaMelo Ball stands next to Steve Clifford, Hornets teammates

LaMelo Ball is arguably the Hornets' most impactful player. He joined the team in 2020 after he was selected with the third overall pick in the draft. Ball had a solid rookie year and thus, earned the Rookie of the Year award and made the All-Rookie team.

Then, he made a phenomenal jump in 2021-22. Ball averaged 20.1 points, 7.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and shot a career-high 38.9% on three-pointers. He earned his first All-Star honor, and the future looked bright, but then, injuries hampered his progress.

Ball improved his points and assists numbers in 2022-23 but only appeared in 36 games due to a plethora of ankle injuries. His ailments followed him in 2023-24 when he played a career-low 22 games on the season. The Hornets needed Ball to make a jump in the East. He must stay healthy for his team to reach its potential.

Nevertheless, there is growing sentiment that he will return in good condition for 2024-25. Moreover, he showed flashes of success in 22 games. Ball averaged a career-high 23.9 points and 1.8 steals to go with 8.0 assists. If LaMelo Ball can stay injury-free, Charlotte should be able to take a sizable leap.

The Hornets will need more than individual contributions to be successful though.

The Hornets defense must improve

One of the biggest culprits for the Hornets' poor performance in 2023-24 was their defense. Charlotte ranked 26th in the NBA in Team Defense. Their defensive rating was 119.2, which takes into account multiple defensive metrics such as opponent points in the paint, opponent points off turnovers, and defensive rebounding percentage.

The Hornets must focus on developing their defense during the offseason to compete with elite teams. One surefire way to do this is to acquire defensive-minded personnel in free agency or the NBA Draft. Charlotte is projected to get a top pick, and there are many serviceable defensive specialists to choose from.

Of course, the team also needs to clean up its offense to thrive, as Steve Clifford noted throughout the year. All in all, things are looking bright for the Hornets despite their brutal 2023-24 season. If LaMelo Ball stays healthy, their team defense improves, and new leadership sparks momentum, the Hornets can inch toward a respectable showing in the East.