ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Charlotte Hornets

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Last season: After years of being a league-wide punchline, Charlotte took some steps towards actual respectability in 2013-14. They splurged on Al Jefferson in free agency and finished 43-39, making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. Under first-time head coach Steve Clifford, the Bobcats had the sixth-best defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 101.2 points per 100 possessions despite lacking a traditional rim protector. Jefferson proved a terrific signing, Josh McRoberts thrived in a stretch-four role, and Kemba Walker established himself as a quality starting point guard. They were swept out of the first round by the Miami Heat, but nonetheless made it clear that this is a team with a real future.

Signature highlight from last season: Gerald Henderson couldn’t have hit this trick shot off the top of the backboard on purpose if he tried.

Key offseason moves: After Utah matched the Hornets’ massive offer sheet to Gordon Hayward, Charlotte shifted gears and signed Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million deal. They lost McRoberts to the Heat and traded Brendan Haywood to the Cavs but brought in point guard Brian Roberts and veteran forward Marvin Williams to fill out the bench. The Hornets are also adding two first-round picks in power forward Noah Vonleh (No. 9) and point guard P.J. Hairston (No. 26).

Keys to the Hornets’ season:

Which Lance are they getting? The Hornets’ top summer signee is a game-changer on the defensive end and an explosive scorer. But, as witnessed during the Pacers’ second-half collapse last season, Stephenson can also be a major liability when his head isn’t in the right place. Good Lance has the perfect skill set to take the Hornets to the next level; Bad Lance has a questionable shot selection, gambles too much on defense and causes needless distractions (like the LeBron ear-blowing incident). Charlotte gave him a lot of money, making the gamble that they’ll get more of the former than the latter. Hopefully, they’re right.

How good is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Despite a hand injury that sidelined him 19 games in 2013-14, MKG continued to blossom as a defender, playing a major role in the Bobcats’ success on that end. Still, the 2012 No. 2 pick is a complete unknown offensively — his jump shot is notoriously bad, and he hasn’t become a reliable scorer in other ways, either. Kidd-Gilchrist and Stephenson should be a lockdown defensive combo on the perimeter, but in order to reach his ceiling, MKG will need to become a factor on offense in some way. That jumper may never be consistent, so improving his scoring around the basket is probably the way to do that.

Who fill the void at power forward? The loss of McRoberts hurts, more than a lot of people may realize. He was a uniquely skilled power forward capable of spacing the floor and making plays, and a versatile defender who was a big part of the Bobcats’ success on that end last season. His departure leaves a hole next to Big Al in the frontcourt, with three leading candidates to pick up those minutes.

2013’s No. 4 overall pick, Cody Zeller, is the likeliest to start, at least early on. Zeller overcame an awful start to his rookie season and put together a solid final stretch. Per Basketball-Reference.com, before the All-Star break, Zeller was averaging 5.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while shooting 38.0 percent from the field; after the break, those numbers jumped to 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds with a 50.7 percent shooting clip. Both sample sizes are much too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but Zeller seemed to figure things out as the season progressed. He still has a ways to go defensively, as most rookie big men do, but the signs are encouraging, and he should see the lion’s share of minutes at power forward when the season kicks off.

Williams has played small forward for most of his career but will likely see most of his minutes at the four position this season. He’s a become solid outside shooter over the last two seasons in Utah, but he isn’t nearly the passer McRoberts is. At the start of the season, Clifford may feel more comfortable starting a veteran over one of the two young guys competing for minutes, but Williams is probably best suited as a reserve at this point.

Vonleh is a total question mark. He fell to No. 9 in the draft because of a lack of polish, and that was before undergoing surgery last month for a sports hernia that will limit him for most of training camp and possibly the first part of the season. Back injuries are scary regardless, but it’s especially not ideal for a player going into his rookie season. The injury only decreases Vonleh’s chance of finding consistent minutes and solidifies him as a long-term project, even if the Hornets envision him as the long-term starting power forward.

Why you should watch: They’re a few years away from contending, but the Hornets are one of the up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference. Jefferson is one of the most gifted and underappreciated low-post scorers in the league and no player can singlehandedly win or lose a game for his team quite like Stephenson can. Charlotte should absolutely be in your regular League Pass rotation. Plus, they’ve got some killer new uniforms to go with the name change.

Prediction: 44-38. The Hornets are no longer a “surprise” team — with this roster in the weak Eastern Conference, they should be expected to make the playoffs barring a catastrophic injury. They have the defense, especially with Stephenson in the fold, to give a contender headaches in the first round and maybe even make win a playoff series if they get the right matchup.