The Charlotte Hornets’ Best Season: 1998

The Charlotte Hornets are, like the Cleveland Browns in the NFL, a team that has the odd distinction of owning the history of a team that relocated to another city and being able to apply that history and franchise record to its current expansion iteration.

Which is a good thing, because the Hornets, since their reincarnation in 2004 as the Bobcats before getting their name back in 2014, have been almost as bad as the post-1999 Browns.

The expansion Hornets have just three playoff appearances, no playoff series wins, and the worst regular-season record in NBA history (7-59 in 2012.) The expansion Browns have two playoff appearances, one playoff game win, and the worst regular-season record in NFL history (0-16 in 2017, along with the 2008 Lions the only two winless seasons since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978.)

But the Hornets were actually good in the ’90s. Not great, never contenders—especially with Michael Jordan around—but good enough to earn their way onto national television and even have a couple of legit star players like Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

All this climaxed in 1998 with 51 regular-season wins and a trip to the second round of the playoffs—which to this day is still the deepest into the playoffs the franchise has ever gone, having never made a conference finals in the old days or the new.

Let’s take a look at this super-duper team, shall we?

The On-Court Record

Remember how I ragged on the Nets for having 50 wins as their franchise high-water mark? At least they made the NBA Finals twice. Sure, they got clobbered by the Lakers and Spurs, but back then, that was just the Western Conference kicking the East in the teeth, something they’d done on a league-wide basis at least since Magic Johnson was still around. Any team that didn’t have Michael Jordan on it couldn’t carry the West’s jock even in the ’90s—those Lakers, Blazers, Suns, Sonics, and Jazz all would’ve beaten teams like the Knicks and Pacers; conversely, Jordan’s Bulls would’ve beaten the Rockets in 1994 and ’95.

Into this milieu dropped the ’98 Hornets. Johnson was gone, traded to the Knicks in 1996 for Brad Lohaus and Anthony Mason. Mourning was gone, sent to Miami after the 1995 season for a bunch of who-dats and Glen Rice.

We’ll talk about this team’s roster in a bit, but the Hornets won 54 games in 1997 and 51 in ’98 despite losing the two guys who were their biggest stars earlier in the decade.

The fact that they got swept by the Knicks—who had Johnson—in ’97 is why ’98 is getting the nod as the franchise’s best season, but it’s impressive enough that coach Dave Cowens was able to get anything at all out of the roster he had.

The Featured Players

Rice scored 22.8 points a game for the ’98 Hornets. Nobody else on the team had more than 13, and that was David Wesley‘s doing.

David Wesley was the second-best player on a 51-win team. Mason was the third-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game, while Matt Geiger—one of the who-dats referenced in the Mourning trade, was the fourth-leading point-getter with 11.3.

And a big part of this melange of awful was because the Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant in ’96…and then shipped him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac, who averaged 10.4 points and 8.1 rebounds a game while Kobe, in his second year in the league, made his first All-Star appearance as the Lakers’ sixth man, scoring 15.4 points at age 19 and putting up 1.8 VORP.

Every way you look at this Hornets team, you see a team that had no business winning 51 games. They were 11th out of 29 in Offensive Rating, 15th in Defensive Rating, and 12th in Net Rating, actually outperforming their expected win total by four games. But even with those stats, if you watched the Hornets, especially on a night when Rice’s shot wasn’t falling, you’d find yourself wondering how in the world this wasn’t a lottery team.

And this is the best season the franchise ever had in terms of combining regular-season wins with actually winning a playoff series!

They probably should’ve just left the dream of NBA basketball in Charlotte in Louisiana where it…well, it didn’t belong there either (we’ll get to the Pelicans and sing the glorious praises of Chris Paul, don’t you worry), but “decent but not great” is as good as it’s ever gotten in this franchise’s over-30-year history.

The Coach

Dave Cowens, as mentioned, was the coach of this motley outfit, as he won 54 games in his first year, 51 in his second, then got fired after starting the ’99 lockout season 4-11. He went 109-80, still to this day the best a coach has ever done with this wretched franchise.

Cowens had coached the ’79 Celtics after Tom Sanders was shown the door, going 27-41 after the team had started 2-12. He was keeping the seat warm for Bill Fitch, who got the honor of coaching Larry Bird once Bird finished playing at Indiana State.

Cowens would later coach the woeful Golden State Warriors to a 17-65 record in 2001, getting fired after starting his second year with that hopeless-until-Steph-showed-up franchise 8-15. We’ve seen Cowens could take a lousy roster and make them a solid playoff team, but the ’01 Warriors would flummox the likes of Red Auerbach and Gregg Popovich. That injury-plagued, talent-poor squad of Antawn Jamison and a bunch of nobodies had 15 different players start at least one game and 22 players suit up combined as starters and reserves over that season.

My point in all this is that Dave Cowens is an underrated coach who deserves more credit than he gets for turning the post-Grandmama Hornets into a team that was actually better in the standings than when Johnson and Mourning were still on the team.

Honorable Mentions

Well, there’s the regular-season high-water mark of 54 wins from 1997, just for starters, although getting swept in the first round of the playoffs tends to disqualify even rotten franchises’ best-ever lists from including them.

If I’d wanted to discuss Johnson and Mourning specifically, I could’ve chosen 1993 (Zo’s rookie year) and the team’s 44-38 record and second-round appearance, or 1995, when they went 50-32 and lost in the first round.

And, of course, if I’d decided not to include the ’90s Hornets alongside the expansion team, the nod would’ve gone to 2016, with its 48-34 record and first-round exit at the hands of the Miami Heat in seven games.

But any way you cut it, this franchise is a garbage fire, and it’s never been anything close to great in any season of its history. With the Los Angeles Clippers having made the 2021 Western Conference Finals, the Hornets are now one of only two teams—the New Orleans Pelicans, hilariously, are the other—never to make so much as a conference finals.

Even crazier, the Hornets are the only team in the entire NBA never to have won their division—not even once! And they play in the Southeast Division, by far the NBA’s worst collection of grab-your-barf-bag basketball teams since 2015.

The Hornets might just be the worst franchise ever to exist—it’s between them and the Pelicans, both farmed in the same rotten pro basketball soil. Stick to Tar Heels and Blue Devils and even Demon Deacons, North Carolina. It’s better for everyone that way.

NEXT: Chicago Bulls. No prizes for guessing the year. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!