Defining the Culture of the new age Charlotte Hornets

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

The Charlotte Hornets were supposed to be a “fun team”. An “exciting, young squad” with a bright future. But through the first six games of the season, it appears the Charlotte Hornets are a good team. Now. Today. In October, 2021. Ain’t that somethin’?

Defining the Culture of the new age Charlotte Hornets

The 2021-22 season appeared to have the makings of a “bridge” year for the Hornets, connecting the final season of a rebuild that feels like it has lasted multiple decades (oh, it kind of has?) with the first season of potentially being a real competitor in the Eastern Conference. And that would be fine! The Hornets have solid building blocks to help them become a contender, which is always an arduous process in #ThisLeague, so flirting with .500 this season would be a positive progression. Success does not happen overnight, especially for small-market teams–so just seeing improvements from Lamelo Ball, Miles Bridges, and PJ Washington, while staying competitive (in a suddenly very deep East) would be a fruitful season in Charlotte.

And maybe 2021-22 does still end up as a bridge season, and this scorching start is just a flash in the pan. No matter. Because the Hornets have accomplished something this season that they haven’t done in the last… 25 years? And it has nothing to do with their record in 2021-22, because it’s something that should extend far beyond the next 82 games. This year, the Hornets have established a culture. BUZZ WORD ALERT.

NBA teams and fans love to brag about their “culture”, and it can mean a host of different things. In Miami, “Heat Culture” encourages doing the hard, dirty work and taking accountability. Jimmy Butler is the perfect face of Heat Culture. In San Antonio, the culture is a team-centric approach on the floor, and a vaunted player development program behind the scenes. Toronto’s culture is getting every player in the league with long arms, I think.

Granted, a good culture means nothing if a team can’t maintain consistent success. But a culture has to be established before that success can take place. Culture has to be top-down, from the decision-makers in the front office, to the fans in the stands. Consistency in all aspects is key to establishing culture– constant upheaval in an organization makes culture impossible to establish.

Two years ago, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchack and the Hornets front office signed Terry Rozier, a move that confused and frustrated Hornets fans who wanted a full, complete teardown and rebuild. Today, Rozier is an integral part of the Hornets culture, and after signing a four-year extension a few months ago, he’s in Charlotte for the long haul.

The Hornets were bad in Rozier’s first year, going 23-42. But signing someone like Rozier, who came to Charlotte with something to prove– that he could be a high-level starter– is how a team and organization lay the foundation to establish a culture. By acquiring good players when they can– full stop.

The next summer, they signed Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120-million dollar contract, another move that was maligned at the time. But a few years later, both players will play key roles in the Hornets playoff run this year. Oh yeah, I said it. Playoffs, baby!

James Borrego also got a contract extension this summer, a move that was roundly praised throughout NBA circles. But, why? Borrego has never coached a team to record above .500. Well, once again, building culture is a multi-year process that relies heavily on consistency and steady improvement, the ladder being something JB has shown each year as the Hornets coach. Just like he bet on Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, Mitch Kupchak is betting on James Borrego. And so far this season, that bet is paying off. Borrego’s development of players like Miles Bridges, Jalen McDaniels, and Cody Martin shows that he is patient, and understands that player development is also a large undertaking that can not be rushed. All of these things are part of a culture, but having a competent front office is not a culture in itself.

So, what exactly is Hornets culture? Is it high-flying dunks, viral videos, a lovable and bubbly announcer, a great color scheme and brand, a small-market team embracing a player who has been a worldwide phenomenon since he was fourteen years old? Well… Yes. Hornets Culture is all of those things, but it’s certainly not just those things. Hornets culture is also when you have to explain to people why being a Hornets fan is so miserable because they don’t realize the extent of the mediocrity this team has been burdened with for literally their entire existence. Wait no, that’s not Hornets Culture. Maybe it was, but not anymore. Disregard that please!

At its core, Hornets Culture might be about balance. Not physical balance, even though that is an important basketball skill. No, I mean the balance between ego, production, humbleness, and confidence. Balance between on-court trash talk or braggadocio, and off-court work and individual improvements. Balance between wanting to be “the guy”, and conceding the spotlight to someone else when it’s their time to shine. In the Hornets win against the Brooklyn Nets, LaMelo Ball told James Borrego to let Ish Smith stay on the court while Smith was torching the Nets. The maturity required from the young, flashy superstar to take a back seat to a lifetime backup cannot be overstated. That is balance.

What we have seen from Miles Bridges this season is also a great indicator of balance. Bridges has been a great trash-talker since high school– he has a boastful, cocky game on the floor, and was not afraid to remind Orlando Magic fans who were chirping in his ear during Wednesday’s game that he was… Giving them the business. I’ll let you find that video yourself– FanSided execs probably wouldn’t love if I put Miles’ exact quote in this story. But again, Miles’ talk is backed up by a work ethic that is very apparent by his improvements in… Pretty much everything this season. He’s committed to backing up what he says on the court, and his play does a lot of talking… And he also does a lot of talking. Balance.

In essence, the Hornets should talk a big game– it makes basketball more fun. But backing it up is paramount, and at the moment, the Hornets mix of confidence and commitment to improving has made for one really enjoyable show. Trash talk that a player can’t back up is kind of pathetic. But a little flash, accompanied by real effort when the lights are off, can yield some extremely fun results. And that’s what we’re seeing from the Hornets this year.

That is Hornets culture.

The Hornets might be the face of the modern NBA. Flashy, fun, social, young, personable, cocky, hard-working. They are an amalgamation of all the best parts of basketball.

The Hornets getting national attention like this will always feel weird.

Miles Bridges said there’s a “different vibe” to this year’s Charlotte team. Vibe, culture, energy, swagger, whatever word you want to use, the Hornets players know they are built differently than past iterations of the team. I don’t want to harp on the past too much, but how would you define the Culture of past Hornets teams? I’ll give you a second…

Yeah. You wouldn’t. Because there was no culture. Most Hornets teams since the new century kind of just floated around, occasionally finding some combination of seemingly random NBA players that meshed well enough to sneak into the playoffs. They were overwhelmingly forgettable. There is nothing forgettable about these Hornets, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Maybe you think those “buzz words” above are overused, and don’t really equate to winning at the end of the day– that’s fair. They are phrases that have been watered down and over saturated. But in the case of this year’s Hornets, and hopefully Hornets teams for many years to come, they are perfect descriptors. Lamelo, Miles, Terry, JB, Mitch, and so many others have changed the culture in Charlotte. They have brought the vibes back, and made the Hornets the most fun team in the NBA. And after years of being a forgettable blob on the NBA’s radar, the Hornets have developed their own identity, their own culture, and their own unique brand of basketball– on and off the court. Hornets culture is pretty fun!

Next. Hornets: 4 reasons to a hot start this season. dark