The 2014-2015 Charlotte Hornets were the most disappointing reboot since The Phantom Menace. What was supposed to be a nostalgia-fueled romp to the Playoffs turned out to be an injury riddled, failed chemistry experiment that left casual fans and league observers shaking their heads, parroting old standbys like “same old Bobcats” or “same old MJ”.
What the skeptics missed in all of last season’s turmoil was that the Hornets organization had been trying like mad to be good. They went the extra mile to ditch the old brand and bring back the buzz. They hired competent basketball minds in Rich Cho and Steve Clifford over the years and phased out old cronies. They brought in real basketball talent instead of could be’s and could’ve beens.
Things simply broke bad. Lance Stephenson was a worthwhile gamble that went bust. Every starter either missed major time due to injury or went through a horrible slump. The glue that held the team together the previous season took his talents to South Beach. Stuff happened. Instead of scrapping the whole experiment, the franchise looked at what worked in ’13-’14 (passing + shooting + good vibes) and doubled down on it this summer.
Unlike George Lucas and his failed prequels, Michael Jordan isn’t forcing himself into the director’s chair and he isn’t selling the franchise in order to skip town. Jordan has given a primary directive (“be competitive, make the Playoffs”) and will occasionally make his opinions known in the Draft room when he feels it’s appropriate. To continue the analogy, MJ is now more Spielberg than Lucas – a collaborator working with a highly competent team. And last season, the shark didn’t work.
This season, the front office and coaching staff finally seem to be on the same page. Previously, Cho was attempting to hedge the “be competitive now” directive with one foot firmly in the future. For example: Sign Al Jefferson in his prime and then draft a 19 year old unpasteurized rookie to play next to him. In theory, that’s a neat idea but the league is much too competitive for that sort of hard-hedging to work. So Cho sent that rookie (Noah Vonleh) to Portland for 26 year old triple double threat Nic Batum. Both feet are firmly in the now (and near future).
The naysayers look at that trade and the Hornets selection of 22 year old senior Frank Kaminsky in June’s Draft as key evidence in the case for MJ as the Biggest Dummy in the league. The Hornets need to be collecting assets! They are striving for mediocrity! They need more Draft picks! They need to get better at Drafting! Jordan will never figure this out! He should sell the team!
It’s incredibly easy in life to point out what’s wrong. Twitter, YouTube and Xbox Live offer a cheap barrage of criticism daily. The Hornets struggles last season (and their macro-struggles as a franchise) require much more nuance and understanding. Since the time Cho was hired four years ago, the Hornets have made up a ton of ground from their past mistakes and taken several solid steps forward. Sure, they whiffed on Bismack Biyombo but scored on Kemba, MKG, Big Al and a slew of trades. They came within a few ping-pong balls of landing once in a generation talent Anthony Davis, barely missed and moved on to Plan B – build a winning culture. If you think this is naive, check out what perpetual tanking is doing to the Sixers organization.
For the first time in forever, the Hornets have a dozen competent professional basketball players and a well respected head coach. More than half of the roster can become free agents next season. Clifford’s on the last year of his deal. Motivation meet Incentive. They’ll bust their tails to go above .500 and make the Playoffs, come hell or high water. If a trade must be made, it will be made.
Charlotte will go 44-38 this season and make the Playoffs. The Force is Strong in this team. The Swarm will Awaken. Hugo, we’re home.
Charlotte Hornets ’15-’16 Bold Predictions:
1. MKG will return for a postseason run.
Defense, game planning and matchups reign in the Playoffs. MKG will be back and adhesively applying himself to John Wall, Jimmy Butler or DeMar DeRozan.
2. Frank Kaminsky will eventually start.
By mid-season if not before, Frank will be in the starting five. Offensively he makes so much more sense than Cody as a ball mover and floor spacer. Kaminsky shouldn’t play more than half the game as a rook but every one of those minutes need to either be next to Al or as a small ball five.
3. Nic Batum will not average 18 points a game.
That’s simply not his game. Expect a 14ppg/6rpg/5apg line from the French Army Knife. He’s not a perfect player by any means but Batum has the ability to fill in the gaps of an incomplete roster. Nic, Frank, Jeremy Lin and Spencer Hawes will do what Josh McRoberts did two seasons ago and much, much more.
4. Jeremy Lin gets Sixth Man of the Year consideration.
I initially thought he was going to start next to Kemba once MKG went down but J-Lin’s ability to run the second unit and finish games is much more valuable. His shot mechanics have improved and while he won’t shoot 50%+ from the 3PT arc as he did in the preseason, his ability to run the pick and roll, penetrate, distribute and draw fouls are absolutely sustainable. Expect Lin to average 28-30 minutes a night.
5. Steve Clifford gets Coach of the Year consideration.
If Clifford gets the defense in the top third of the league minus MKG (they’ve finished in the Top 10 during each of his first two seasons with CHA), he’ll not only get COTY consideration but likely a fat new contract from MJ as well. Let’s hope so. The idea of a Charlotte NBA coach lasting more than three seasons would’ve seemed mythical just a few years ago.
6. Kemba shoots over 40%.
He’s only done it once (his sophomore campaign) but Walker is due for a league average field goal season. With Batum and the other connectors moving the ball, Kemba will have to force less shot-clock bailouts and take less bad shots overall. Smart offense is contagious and my bet is that Kemba catches the bug.
7. The Wing is going to be a Problem.
Outside of Batum, the Hornets have serious depth issues at the SG/SF positions. Jeremy Lamb looks completely lost defensively and PJ Hairston is about as consistent as AT&T coverage. If Cho does pull the trigger on a trade, expect it to be for wing help.
8. If any Hornets are traded it will be Cody Zeller and/or Brian Roberts.
Roberts has shot lights out (44% overall, 45% from 3PT) in the preseason and has run the offense like a pro. He’s too good to be a third PG who sits behind Kemba and Lin. Some team with lead guard issues (maybe his old team in New Orleans) will come calling.
Cody is an extremely intriguing athlete who could blossom on a fast paced squad with scorers. He’s also the Hornets only big who’s a legit plus defender. If the right deal comes along (and only if), I could see Charlotte taking it.
9. The Eastern Conference Standings in April:
Detroit finishes 9th. Boston and Orlando tie for 10th.
10. Final Prediction: This Hornets season will be much more fun than last.
Bank on it.