Writer: Kyle Wheelock
The Bad and Unlucky: The Charlotte Hornets (Part 1)
The city of Charlotte might have won the bid to host the 2019 All-Star game but we can’t keep ignoring the Charlotte Hornets, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: the Hornets are stuck in purgatory. They’ve been stuck since the 80s and with the way things look now, they’re going to continue to be stuck there for years until something finally changes.
What am I getting at exactly? Let me backtrack. A few weeks ago, a friend asked, “What’s the farthest an NBA team has been from winning a championship?” A specific question sure, but that didn’t stop us from finding the answer. Since their inception in 1988, the Charlotte Hornets have never made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, haven’t won a playoff series period since the 2001-02 NBA season, and have never placed higher than 4th in the Eastern Conference. After 28 years of existence (the years the franchise spent in New Orleans aren’t included as a part of a deal negotiated when the Bobcats rebranded) there’s a lot of sadness and disappointment to cover, so this is going to be a long one. Buckle up Buzz City, admitting is the first step.
So let’s take it back to 1988, when Charlotte first got their team. The NBA already wanted to add four new expansion teams so when then owner-to-be George Shinn promised, “the largest basketball-specific arena ever to serve as a full-time home for an NBA team”, it seemed like a no-brainer. Excitement was at an all time high and on November 4, 1988, the folks of Charlotte got to watch their shiny new NBA franchise in action for the first time. The game would end in a blowout as the Hornets lost 133-93 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. A bad omen if I’ve ever seen one.
From there the Hornets would finish their inaugural season 20-62, which got them 12th in the conference. Their next season actually saw the young team finish worse than before, putting together a record of 19-63 and placing 14th in the Western Conference (yeah, for one season the Hornets competed in the Western Conference. To this day I can’t tell you why and they switched back to the east the next season). You get the idea, they weren’t that great. In fact, the Hornets didn’t have a winning season until 1992-93, where their young core of Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning carried their team to the 5th seed with a record of 44-38. The team would then lose to the Knicks in the Conference Semifinals, 4-1.
As talented as their Johnson-Mourning frontcourt was, they couldn’t will the Hornets back to that stage, following their Semi Finals appearance, the Hornets would miss the playoffs in 1994, and would be upset by none other than Michael Jordan and his Bulls squad in the first round. The next season, Alonzo Mourning rejected a contract extension and was traded, and the season after that Larry Johnson was traded, leaving Charlotte with only Glen Rice. Now, Rice wasn’t a scrub, he put up MVP level numbers during his three season stint in Charlotte, but the farthest he could carry them was another 4-1 loss in the Semifinals. To the Bulls. Again. After his time in Charlotte ended, Rice joined the Lakers and immediately became an NBA champion. Again, bad and unlucky.
In the post-Rice era, the Hornets would post two consecutive 40 win seasons that both ended with eliminations in the Semifinals. By now, the honeymoon stage was definitely over in Charlotte, as after the 2002 season, the Hornets moved to New Orleans, leaving Charlotte without a basketball team until 2004.
Of course, anyone who knows the NBA knows what happens next. The Bobcats, much like their predecessors, would lose their first game, go on to miss the playoffs for the next four seasons (they would sneak in as the 7th seed in 2009-10 but were swept in the first round, as is tradition by this point), be purchased by Michael Jordan in 2010, and of course, put up the then worst record in NBA history. But hey, there’s a bright side right? Surely the worst record in NBA history had to warrant the 1st pick in the draft, right? See you’d think that, but this is Charlotte we’re talking about, they actually got the 2nd pick in the draft that year, missing out on none other than Anthony Davis, who ended up going to the-wait for it-New Orleans Hornets. Again, bad and unlucky.
Granted, even though the missed out on AD, the Bobcats still had a promising young point guard in Kemba Walker, as well as their newly drafted small forward, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, so everything isn’t all bad, right? Spoiler alert: it hasn’t been great. Since then, things haven’t been too much better for the franchise (unless you count negotiating to get the Hornets identity back in 2015 as a major win), they finished the regular season 7th in 2014 and promptly got swept in the first round by Lebron James and the heat, missed the playoffs in 2015, but made it back in 2016 as the 6th seed…only to be eliminated in the first round in seven games. By the Heat. Again. There’s definitely no shortage of heartbreak and mediocrity to be found in Charlotte, but for their sake, we’re gonna give the Hornets a break for now. They definitely need it.