As the NBA playoffs heat up, the Charlotte Hornets find themselves, once again, on the outside looking in.

The team finished with a winning record (43-39) for the first time in six years, but they suffered a blow-out loss in the play-in series for the second straight year.

If the Hornets are to end their postseason drought — they have not made the playoffs since the 2015-2016 season — here are three things the team must focus on this off-season.

Improve Defense

After being ranked 23rd (110.1) in offensive efficiency last season, the Hornets moved to a franchise-high eighth (113.6) this season. 

But despite their offensive improvement, the team ranked near the bottom of the league in defense (22 out of 30 teams).

The deficiency starts in the post, where they gave up the 10th most point.

The team acquired big man Mason Plumlee before the season and traded for Montrezl Harrell before the deadline, but neither is the answer on the defensive end.

While the free-agent market is slim on available centers, names like Portland’s Jurkic Nurkic and New York’s Mitchell Robinson have come up in potential trades. Former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert also could be available if Utah’s season ends earlier than expected.

With two first-round picks, the Hornets could also look to the draft (Duke’s Mark Williams).

Getting a consistent wing defender would also help. The Hornets run a zone defense in most of their sets, which can easily be picked apart by the league’s top offenses. 

In an eastern conference with Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum, a lockdown defender would be major in the playoffs.

Re-sign Miles Bridges

Forward Miles Bridges had a breakout season, leading the team with a career-high 20 points and 7 rebounds.

Bridges’ improvements come at the perfect time; he is set to become a restricted free agent this off-season and could get a big payday. 

Bridges declined a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Hornets last fall. According to Bleacher Report, he is expected to command a “maximum salary that could total five years, $173 million this summer.”

This leaves Charlotte with two options: give the 24-year-old the money he wants or search elsewhere.

Since Bridges is a restricted free agent, the Hornets can match any offer from opposing teams and keep him.

Once again, the Hornets could use one of its two first-round draft picks to fill this need, but waiting on a rookie to develop isn’t going to help the team for a post-season run next year.

Bridges’ emergence as a reliable scorer, defender and playmaker will make keeping him a better option.

Trade away Gordon Hayward

In 2020, the Charlotte Hornets traded for Hayward and gave him a four-year, $120 million contract. With Hayward’s injury struggles in Boston, the move was seen as a high-risk, high-reward move for the Hornets, in search of a veteran star.

Since the trade, the 32-year-old forward has missed 71 out of 154 games.

Hayward, when healthy, has been a reliable scorer, averaging 15.9 points and adding 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep. 

His play led the Hornets to the top six in Eastern Conference standings early this year. But after he suffered an ankle injury in February, the team fell to the 10th spot and played an embarrassing performance in the play-in game.

Charlotte still owes Hayward more than $60 million for the next two seasons, but that’s a hefty cost for a player who spends more time on the bench than on the court.

While Hayward has been a valuable presence when healthy, the best ability is availability. The team needs to move on from him to find a more reliable option.

Finding a trade partner to take on his contract will be hard, but the Hornets will be better off using that money to acquire more veteran depth to improve the team’s defense and outside shooting.

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