Spending the better part of their existence as a completely irrelevant bottom feeder, the Charlotte Hornets (bye-bye Bobcats!) have finally put together a young, respectable core. Looking to capitalize on their playoff berth from a year ago, just the second in franchise history, the Hornets made some key additions through both free agency and the draft.
The biggest (and perhaps most surprising) addition for Charlotte this summer was Lance Stephenson, the 24-year-old wing who developed into one of the more intriguing players in the league the last four seasons in Indiana. Lance brings a much needed creative ability to the Hornets this season, looking to inject some spacing and ball handling into a team that was 24th in offensive efficiency last season.
Charlotte’s struggles on offense last season are not hard to pinpoint. The (then) Bobcats took the fourth lowest percentage of three pointers in the NBA last season, and were about league average in creating points in the paint, pretty much all accounted for by Al Jefferson. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the league’s best offenses typically excel from behind the arc and at the rim, and the Hornets brought in Lance to address those needs.
Last year Lance averaged nearly 4.5 drives per game, a total that would rank second on this years Hornets squad only to Kemba Walker. Lance also scored 8.1 points in the paint per game, nearly three more a night than the undersized point guard. While Stephenson is not quite a dead eye shooter in the NBA, his 35% three point shooting will add range to a group of wings that desperately needs it.
The most notable departure from last year’s Bobcats team is Josh McRoberts, a member of Charlotte’s four most used five man lineups last season. McRoberts added an element of shooting and creative passing at the power forward spot that will be hard to replicate. But Stephenson, who averaged 4.6 assists last year, should be able to handle the distribution responsibilities admirably. And Marvin Williams, another offseason addition, will provide the floor spacing in the front court that Charlotte will need to open lanes for Lance and Kemba.
Charlotte, despite not owning their own first round pick, had two other picks to work with. With the ninth pick in the draft, the Hornets grabbed Indiana freshmen Noah Vonleh. Vonleh may have trouble adjusting to the NBA game, but projects to be a physical freak. Standing at 6’9″ with a 7’4″ wingspan, Vonleh famously had the biggest hands of the much hyped 2014 draft class.
(Hilarious side note: The pick used on Vonleh was acquired from the Detroit Pistons in the infamous Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette swap. Joe Dumars!)
Vonleh, along with fellow Hoosier Cody Zeller, give the Hornets one of the deepest (and youngest) front lines in the Eastern Conference.
Charlotte’s other first round pick was PJ Hairston. The former Legend (no really he was a Legend!), could be a valuable shooter on the wing. He averaged just under 40% from deep before getting dismissed from UNC and shot 36% from three while in the D-League.
I thought it was strange when the Hornets drafted Hairston, considering his troubled past at UNC. While a lot of those issues can be chalked up to BS NCAA rule violations, there is something to be said of a program like North Carolina dismissing a player rather than appeal to the NCAA. Hopefully the wisdom he gained riding the bus for the Legends will help him make the choices he needs to in order to become an impact NBA player.
Last season the Bobcats finished 6th in defensive efficiency, a quantum leap from 2013 when they finished in dead last in the NBA. The jump in efficiency is surprising considering the key addition the previous offseason was plodding big man Al Jefferson. Big Al, a feared and respected machine in the post, does not carry a similar reputation to the other side of the ball.
So where did this defensive improvement come from? That would be coach Steve Clifford, the first time head coach who spent about a decade working beneath both of the Van Gundys. Clifford’s conservative approach to pick and roll defense plays to the strengths of Jefferson, allowing him to hang back and defend the paint rather than try and run out on quick guards on the perimeter.
Charlotte, which only allowed 101.2 points/100 possessions, looks to improve upon that impressive mark in year two under Clifford. In addition to the natural comfort level of spending two years in a defensive system, progressions from former second overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in year three should add an element of nastiness to this team. MKG has quietly been establishing himself as one of the most athletic wing defenders in basketball, able to crash the paint and scramble out to find shooters in the blink of an eye. Whether or not his shot develops into a plus skill, Kidd-Gilchrist will have a positive impact on the basketball court.
Charlotte snuck into the playoffs as the seventh seed last year and pretty much served as a warm-up for the Heat on their way to the finals. It was more or less a cute story that nobody outside of hardcore NBA fans picked up on.
I imagine this year will be significantly different. The East is as weak as ever, especially with the Pacers looking incredibly thin at guard and on the wing. The Hornets, with added talent, natural growth from their young core and increased familiarity with Coach Clifford, might end up defending home court in the first round of the playoffs. They clearly are not on the same level as the Bulls or Cavaliers, but they will definitely be in the mix with the Washington-Toronto-Miami crowd.
No longer the doormats of the NBA, the Charlotte Hornets deserve to be a staple of everybody’s League Pass.