Today, I thought we’d look at another “almost” team of the 1990s, the Charlotte Hornets squads that were led by young stars Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning from 1992 to 1995. These Hornets were heralded as one of the young teams that might be Shaquille O’Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic’s main rival. Recently, NBA TV did a fun documentary about the LJ/Zo squad in which the protagonists looked back fondly at the old times but missed many of the complicated details regarding how good the team actually was and why they were broken up. The team was fun on paper, and appeared to have two bookend stars with LJ’s marketing appeal and Zo’s unparalleled intensity. How good were they and did they miss out at a shot of title contention? I have my suspicions but let’s dive in FAQ-style to re-examine the LJ/Zo Years in Charlotte.
A Brief Recap of LJ/Zo Years
For those who have forgotten, the Hornets were a popular but bad expansion team that began life in 1988. They always led the league in attendance but lost 191 games their first three seasons before landing the top pick in the 1991 Draft. Charlotte used that pick to draft Larry Johnson, the undersized UNLV PF, who had explosiveness and power game that was always compared to fellow short power forward Charles Barkley.
LJ didn’t disappoint. He promptly won Rookie of the Year in 1991-92 (19.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg) and led the Hornets to a then-franchise best 31-51 record. They were just bad enough to pull the second overall pick in the 1992 Draft. They missed out on Shaq but got a nice consolation prize in Mourning, who was a huge star at Georgetown and would’ve been a fine first pick in most drafts.
With this tandem, in 1992-93, the Hornets improved to 44-38 and won a tight playoff series against the Celtics on a Zo series winning jumper but were then dispatched by the top seeded Knicks 4-1. In 1993-94, the LJ got a huge extension in October 1993 (for 12 years and $84 million) and Charlotte were outside title contenders in the pre-season. Vegas had them at 48 wins in the pre-sesaon with the fifth best title odds at +1200 (tied with the Spurs, Rockets, and Blazers). Unfortunately, LJ promptly hurt his back and struggled all season. Charlotte finished 41-41 and just missed the playoffs.
In 1994-95, LJ was healthy but he was decidedly more of a below the rim player. Still, Charlotte had its best season at 50-32 and earned a fourth seed. Unluckily for Charlotte, they drew a five seed Bulls who happened to feature a recently unretired Michael Jordan. MJ dominated the series (32.3 ppg on .585 TS%) and the Bulls won 3-1. On the eve of the 1995-96, due to a contract negotiation impasse, Zo forced a trade to Miami and the LJ/Mourning ended before it really did anything. LJ played out 1995-96 with a .500 team before getting traded to New York. Having established the basic facts, let’s turn to the nitty gritty…
How good was LJ pre-back injury?
My independent memories recall him being a force of nature made up of dunks, primal screams, and gold teeth, but the advanced stats are less impressed:
1991-93 (age 22-23): 38.5 mpg, 20.6 ppg, .561 TS%, 10.8 rpg, 3.9 apg, 18.9 PER, .140 WS48, 1.8 BPM
These are very nice stats but, for context, let’s compare them to Barkley’s stats at the same age:
1985-87 (age 22-23): 38.5 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .638 TS%, 13.6 rpg, 23.7 PER, .192 WS48, 5.9 BPM
That’s light years ahead of LJ at the same age. LJ was a definite All-Star but he was several tiers below Barkley and it’s not likely that he would’ve ever caught Sir Charles, who got even better in the ensuing years. LJ was a building block but his pre-injury form was probably overrated.
How much did LJ drop off post-back injury?
For those that remember LJ on the Knicks as an undersized post up guy, it may come as some surprise that LJ’s post-injury Charlotte numbers were pretty good. If we exclude 1993-94, the year of the injury, here is how LJ did compared to the pre-injury days:
1991-93 (pre-injury): 38.5 mpg, 20.6 ppg, .561 TS%, 10.8 rpg, 3.9 apg, 18.9 PER, .140 WS48, 1.8 BPM
1994-96 (post-injury): 40.2 mpg, 19.7 ppg, .559 TS%, 7.8 rpg, 4.5 apg, 18.4 PER, .138 WS48, 2.4 BPM
Johnson totally remade his game as a perimeter player. The boards dropped dramatically but he made up for that by hitting a ton of three-pointers (148-393, .377%) post-injury compared to the low volume and efficiency pre-injury (23-93, .247%). Some of the increased three-pointer proficiency came from the newly shortened three-point line in 1994 but, the fact is, LJ was roughly as valuable after the injury in Charlotte as a result of this adjustment, even if the style of play was less explosive.
What about Zo?
Young Mourning put up nice raw stats as a Hornet (21.3 ppg, .589 TS%, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg) but his advanced stats were also a bit tepid (20.8 PER, .151 WS48, 1.1 BPM). Again, these are perfectly good stats but well below what he would later do with Miami (21.7 PER, .176 WS48, 2.8 BPM). In terms of value relative to his peers, here is how Mourning’s Charlotte years stacked up in VORP:
Center VORP 1992-1995
1. David Robinson, 26.8 (243 games)
2. Hakeem Olajuwon, 20.4 (234 games)
3. Shaquille O’Neal, 17.2 (241 games)
4. Patrick Ewing, 13.6 (239 games)
5. Dikembe Mutombo, 9.3 (246 games)
Vlade Divac, 9.3 (241 games)
7. Brad Daugherty, 6.5 (121 games)
8. Alonzo Mourning, 6.0 (215 games)
9. Oliver Miller, 3.8 (125 games)
10. Rik Smits, 3.0 (237 games)
Advanced stats can be buggy so we can’t take VORP as gospel but Zo was clearly below the big time Hall of Famers by several orders and also a rung below Mutombo, Vlade, and Daugherty.
What was also surprising was that Zo’s presence didn’t guarantee the Hornets a great defense. In fact, Charlotte was slightly below average on defense in Mourning’s first two years (19th in 1992-93 and 17th in 1993-94). The bad defense appeared to be based mostly on bad coaching decisions. Coach Allan Bristow wanted to run and press but the results were not great:
1992-93: 2nd in pace, 19th in defense (44-38)
1993-94: 4th in pace, 17th in defense (41-41)
The pace didn’t help Zo either, who was close to average in DBPM those seasons. The Hornets finally adjusted after those two seasons. For the 1994-95 season, Charlotte hired defensive guru Johnny Bach (who was forced out by the Bulls) and the Hornets slowed it down on offense. The combination was a significant improvement:
1994-95: 22nd in pace, 9th in defense (50-32)
Mourning also had his best DBPM (0.9) in 1994-95 but his overall stats (20.1 PER, .153 WS48, 1.1 BPM) were still below the stats he would put up in Miami in 1995-96 (22.7 PER, .178 WS48, 4.2 BPM). The Miami Zo stepped up to a Ewing level of effectiveness in one season. It is possible that the same improvement would’ve occurred in Charlotte had Zo stayed but so many players have made leaps when playing with Pat Riley that the trade to Miani must’ve been a factor.
Did Jordan kill the LJ/Zo Hornets?
Despite the great showing in 1994-95, the Hornets four seed in the playoffs earned the right to play Jordan’s Bulls. A comparatively shaky MJ was still great and the 47-35 Bulls sported a 4.32 SRS to the Hornets’ 2.87 SRS. The Hornets were quite aware of their predicament and were salty when questioned by reporters before the start of the playoffs.
According to this Herald-Journal story from April 22, 1995: “It doesn’t appear to be a matchup the Hornets are relishing. After Thursday’s 91-86 loss to New York, which solidified the Hornets’ matchup with Chicago, Hornets players were evasive – and some downright hostile – when asked about the playoffs. ‘I have no comment on the playoffs,’ said center Alonzo Mourning….. Said guard Hersey Hawkins, a Chicago native who will have the awesome task of guarding Jordan, ‘Does anybody look forward to guarding Michael Jordan? I really haven’t seen him play this year outside of (Jordan’s first game back against) Indiana.’ Said guard Dell Curry, ‘I ain’t worrying about them until we play them.’ One wonders if the Hornets would be reacting the same way if they were preparing to play the Atlanta Hawks or the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.”
Well, the Bulls beat the Hornets with a 3-1 series victory but the Hornets were competitive. Chicago outscored Charlotte by 3.8 ppg. The Bulls won the clincher in Game 4 85-84 and needed a fourth quarter comeback to seal the deal.
After the loss to Chicago, Bristow noted that: “Chicago ruined our season. There’s no question that if it was any other team, we’d have won and gotten to the second round.” This seems accurate. The other potential match ups were Cleveland (the slow paced Fratello Cavs), Atlanta (the slow paced Wilkens Hawks) or Chicago without Jordan, all of whom seemed quite beatable. The Hornets didn’t exactly destroy these teams in the regular season (3-2 against Cleveland, 2-2 against Atlanta, 2-1 against Chicago without MJ).
The ultimate reward would’ve been a match up with Shaq, Penny and Orlando in the second round. Charlotte went 1-3 against Orlando (though two of the games were close) but it’s fair to assume that the Magic would’ve dispatched Charlotte in five or six games and wouldn’t have changed Zo’s imminent trade demand.
So, how good could this team have been if they stayed together?
Assuming coaching improved and utilized Zo correctly, they seemed pretty maxed out at the low 50-win range and not a serious contender in the East. The rest of the roster was decent but not overwhelming:
-Point guard Muggsy Bogues had very pronounced strengths and weaknesses that added up to a an average player
-Shooting guard was Kendall Gill (excellent slasher, weak shooter) or Hersey Hawkins (pretty good overall player but not explosive at that point)
-Small forward was a weak spot populated by role players (Johnny Newman and David Wingate)
Charlotte should’ve kept Mourning and traded LJ if possible but the ceiling here was still not that high because the stars weren’t as good as perceived, and the rest of the roster was not that deep.
Hornets GM Bob Bass received Glen Rice for Zo and Anthony Mason for LJ. In the end, the trades of both players worked out well for everyone. Zo was a borderline MVP candidate and anchored some very good Heat teams that flamed out in the playoffs until he suffered a kidney illness in 2000 that reduced his effectiveness. LJ was a solid veteran third/fourth option for New York before his back totally gave out in 2001 at age-31.
After the trade, the Hornets had a nice solid team built around the new players (Bass also flipped Rice at the perfect time for Eddie Jones, which kept the run going). From 1996-97 through 2001-02, the Hornets made the playoffs five times in six seasons and made the second round three times. In other words, the Hornets built a better team without their original stars.
In the end, Charlotte didn’t do much with their two most famous stars of the early years. They beat an older Celtics team in 1993 that also lost Reggie Lewis during the series. Also of note, Charlotte was the only team to beat MJ in a First Round series game after 1990. The LJ/Zo Years were fun on paper but poor coaching, a tepid roster, and the actual value of the stars made a title run likely impossible.