The Charlotte Hornets and host San Antonio Spurs will be carrying differing expectations when they square off in the season opener on Wednesday.
There is a lot of similarity between the two teams, as both are in rebuilding mode. Both teams made the conference play-in tournament as the 10th seed, then lost in the first game, in each of the past two seasons.
Charlotte brought back veteran coach Steve Clifford in the offseason to steer its combination of youthful players and proven veterans. Clifford, who was previously at Charlotte’s helm from 2013-14 to 2017-18, will look to help the Hornets build a defensive presence that can spark a deep postseason run.
The Hornets are led by all-star point guard LaMelo Ball, who averaged 20.1 points, 7.6 assists and 6.7 rebounds per game last year in his second season. Ball is expected to miss Wednesday’s game with a sprained left ankle after getting injured in the Hornets’ preseason loss to the Washington Wizards on Oct. 10.
Charlotte will go big on Wednesday with a starting five of forwards Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward and P.J. Washington, center Mason Plumlee and point guard Terry Rozier in Ball’s stead. Rozier averaged 19.3 points per game in 2021-22.
“With LaMelo out, some guys are going to get the ball coming to them more,” Clifford said. “Obviously, he’s one of the guys we play through. Do you want to play a month without one of your better players? That’s where it hurts you. But for two or three games, we have enough here.”
Charlotte is also without forward Miles Bridges, who is not with the team as he faces felony domestic violence charges. They may also be without reserve guard James Bouknight, who was arrested Sunday morning on suspicion of driving while impaired, his second arrest for a vehicular violation in less than a year.
The Spurs are in full rebuilding mode after missing the playoffs for the third straight year and losing guards Dejounte Murray (traded to the Atlanta Hawks) and Lonnie Walker IV (signed as free agent with Los Angeles Lakers) in the offseason.
The Spurs had three first-round picks in this year’s draft and used them to select Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan at No. 9 (the club’s highest pick since it drafted Tim Duncan first overall in 1997), Ohio State’s Malaki Branham (20th), and Notre Dame’s Blake Wesley (25th). Of the three, Sochan made the biggest impact in training camp.
San Antonio’s roster is one of the youngest in the league and is without a bona fide star. Forward Keldon Johnson, who signed a four-year, $80 million extension in July, could be the next great Spurs player.
Along with Johnson, the Spurs are expected to start center Jakob Poeltl, Sochan at the other forward and Tre Jones and Devin Vassell at the guards. Look for plenty of playing time from veterans Zach Collins, Doug McDermott and Josh Richardson and second-year guard Joshua Primo.
“It’s a wonderful group of young guys,” said Gregg Popovich, who is set for his 27th year as the Spurs’ head coach. “To be a championship program, you have to have a couple of superstars on your team. That doesn’t exist right now. What we have is a bunch of guys who can all be part of a championship team if the other pieces arrive at some point.”
–Field Level Media