The coolest thing about the Hornets getting their old name back isn’t the fact that this franchise gets to return to its roots and tradition and distance itself from the Bobcats moniker and the worst season in NBA history. Its that Charlotte gets its sweet new uniforms and color scheme back!!! Haha only kinda kidding, but c’mon this vs. this? No question.
This was one of the surprise teams of the East last year and was an excellent example of how small-market teams may need to operate. Charlotte is always going to be a less desirable location than a Los Angeles or New York, which means it will have a hard time getting the league’s superstars. And now, with shorter contracts and more teams with money to throw around in the offseason, smaller-markets like Charlotte are forced into overpaying the league’s second-tier talent with Al Jefferson’s 3 year $40.5 million contract being the case in point.
Or was it an overpay? Jefferson had a career year last year, injecting a ton of low-post scoring into Charlotte’s dreadful offense. Jefferson commanded double teams and still pretty much scored at will, despite the entire league being aware of his long-time affinity towards the left-block. Pairing Big Al’s scoring with 1st year coach Steve Clifford’s 6th best defense leaguewide was enough to earn Charlotte the 7th seed in the East and an unceremonious sweep by the Miami Heat. Hornets fans should be wondering how this team would’ve done if it had fallen to 8 and faced a demoralized Pacers team instead.
And who else is here this year?? The winner of last year’s “Everyone’s Friend” award Lance Stephenson! (Had to do it) After the Jazz matched Charlotte’s offer to restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, Buzz City took a run at the Pacers swingman and managed to pry him away from Larry Bird and the rapidly deteriorating basketball situation in Indiana. If Charlotte’s notoriously positive locker room/team chemistry is enough to keep Stephenson motivated, I’d say the Hornets got the better player for cheaper.
And boy is Stephenson going to change this team. Between him and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets have potentially the best pairing of wing defenders in the league. Clifford also seems convinced that he can develop PG Kemba Walker into a strong defender in his 4th season. Based on Clifford’s success with the entire team last year, I’d say this is a very realistic goal. If those 3 are clicking on all cylinders, it won’t even matter that Jefferson is a notoriously poor defender and slow on his feet in rotations. This will be a top 3 defense.
There are a bunch of questions left for this team. Cody Zeller will likely be promoted to the starting PF in his second season in the league, despite playing fewer than 20 minutes a game last year. He is backed up only by the rookie Noah Vonleh, meaning Charlotte may need to acquire another forward if neither of them really pan out. The team is also dangerously lacking in outside shooting. Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting woes are well-known and its frequently his defender who slacks off to double Big Al. Walker and Stephenson both shot around 35% from 3 last season, which is pretty terrible for either guard position, though it is very likely that having them alternate as the primary ball-handler and play-maker should improve the looks for the other. Its that or this team is going to be banking A LOT on the human microwave Gary Neal.
Charlotte is not going to be that much fun to watch next season. They’ll have a tough defense and win a fair amount of hard fought games, but with a lot of slow-paced methodical scoring from Jefferson. I’m very excited to see how Stephenson fits into all of this though, and whether he moves the dial enough to get them homecourt advantage in a division that saw 4 playoff teams last year.
X-Factor= Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Anthony Davis’s teammate at UK, and the 2nd draft choice to Davis’s 1, Hornets fans can only be wondering about what might have been. MKG is an excellent defender and capable of cutting off the ball for a few lay-ins a game, but desperately needs to develop some kind of shooting touch for him to remain a starting caliber NBA player.