Draft and free agency season is over. Summer league, too, is in the rearview mirror. These are the dog days of the NBA season when there is nothing to quench our basketball thirst until training camp.
You want that buzz. You need the buzz!
The Charlotte Bobcats went out on a high note last year by netting the franchise's second playoff berth with a 43-39 record. They unfortunately got swept in the opening round of the playoffs by the Miami Heat after winning more than double their win total for the second consecutive year. No other NBA team can ever make that claim as the Bobcats went from seven wins, (albeit in a lockout-shortened campaign of 66 games) to 21, and then last year's 43.
On the off chance that the Hornets bring back Buzz City by winning 86 games, it is a pretty safe bet that the streak will come to an end this season.
The Eastern Conference is going to look drastically different than last year, and it is going to be at least four extra notches of fun. Teams like the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers revamped in a loud way this offseason and should be the creme de la creme of the conference. That next tier is where Charlotte can carve out a strong position for itself. The Miami Heat and Washington Wizards should be strong, as well as the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets.
Overall, the East should be deeper this year, but the Hornets have made their improvements as well.
Profound Identity Has Grown
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a club is pivotal to success in this league. Steve Clifford came aboard last year and helped with just that.
Most of all, the Hornets now have a profound identity. They have a style that is very much their own, and the offseason additions will both contribute to that as well as expand upon it.
Clifford implemented a system that got the most out of his players last season by emphasizing defense. Al Jefferson had arguably his best year as a pro. Kemba Walker took a solid step forward. Josh McRoberts exploded into one of the league's most underrated talents. Anthony Tolliver became an elite outside shooter. This is a coach who knows how to get the most out of what he has, and Charlotte has quietly acquired an impressive haul of talent.
The Bobcats' final season gave this franchise something concrete to build upon because it finally produced results. The team morphed into a stalwart on the defensive end, ranking fourth in the league by allowing just 97.1 points a night. Most impressive of all, according to Hoops Stats, the Bobcats had a top-five defense while being tied for committing the fewest fouls in the league. They play hard-nosed team defense that doesn't involve a lot of switching or gambling. They do it the right way by sticking to your man and crashing the defensive boards tenaciously as a cohesive unit.
On offense, ball movement and feeding the post was the calling card. Charlotte ran a methodical pace that resulted in the fewest turnovers in the league at just 11.6 per game. One would maybe like to see the team run the break a little more given the amount of athletes on the roster, but that should change slightly this season.
The added pieces will be able to seamlessly adjust because of how well they fit the identity of this team. Such a fit is beneficial both for the player and the team, because the new guys know what they are signing up for, and there is no question what the team wants from them.
Bringing in Lance Stephenson at shooting guard was an incredible pickup for just three years and $27 million. His attributes that fit perfectly include his hellacious defensive rebounding, which led all guards in the NBA last season by a wide margin at 5.9 per game. He plays sound defense without taking risks, posting a career-best 101 defensive rating last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
The Hornets had the second-fewest amount of steals last season. Stephenson averaged just 0.7 per game, but he still checks out as a great defender. That is because while steals are nice, this team prefers just locking you down and forcing a miss, then crashing the boards and getting the ball that way. It is a much more reliable method of success.
Stephenson also brings a second ball-handler to the starting lineup alongside Kemba Walker. His playmaking abilities were on display all last season as well, a skill which is that much more valuable without McRoberts in town.
He can add some more pizzazz and playoff experience. He can also get this team out in the open floor more regularly. Keep in mind Stephenson is still just 23. It is crazy to think that he is actually younger than Walker, but what he lacks in age he makes up for in skill. At such a young age, it is reasonable to think he could still improve much more.
As for the bench, Stephenson's presence slides Gerald Henderson to the pine, giving the team a proven veteran scorer in the second unit that they sorely missed last year. New backup point guard Brian Roberts will give the team the reliable second point guard that never came to fruition last season. He is known for taking care of the ball and making good decisions on both ends.
Marvin Williams was not a signing that will get anyone jumping out of their seats, but he is a solid veteran who can thrive in the right system. It remains to be seen whether or not he starts, but he is a long athlete who can slot right into McRoberts' old spot and wreak some havoc on defense as well as contribute some long-range shooting.
The rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston also will be vital to the bench. Hairston is definitely farther along in his development and could be an immediate contributor due to his D-League experience and outside shooting prowess. He tore it up in NBA Summer League after a rough start, and fans should have no doubts about his ability. Vonleh is slightly farther down the depth chart but is a big, strong body who hopefully could be a factor down the stretch similar to fellow Hoosier Cody Zeller last year. We also cannot forget that Jeff Taylor will be back as well.
All the newcomers are examples of how clearly this team is developing into a physical and versatile squad. The Hornets will be increasingly more dangerous the faster they can continue to grow into this style, and it will be exciting to watch throughout the year.
What Does It All Mean?
In terms of roster overturn, Tolliver and McRoberts are out, as well as the disastrous brief tenure of Luke Ridnour mercifully coming to an end. The newcomers are Stephenson, Roberts, Williams, Vonleh and Hairston. That is a substantial upgrade at all five positions for this young bunch.
One thing to note is that this is a much-improved Eastern Conference. The only teams who unquestionably got worse over this offseason were Miami and Indiana.
Cleveland now has LeBron James and Kevin Love (presumably...don't veto my article, Adam Silver). The Bulls snagged Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Washington has retooled nicely with Paul Pierce, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. Toronto has kept its core intact. Other teams like New York, Detroit, Boston and Orlando could all conceivably be much better. Also, do not forget the Atlanta Hawks with a healthy Al Horford.
One thing Charlotte has going for it is youth. This team achieved a lot last season despite being inexperienced, and now everyone has another season under their belts as well as the comfort of not having to adapt to a new system. The city should also be rallying around them with the new teal and purple regime. That has to account for something.
The Hornets should fit right into that second tier in the Eastern Conference with the possibility of pushing their way up should everything fall into place for them. That brings me to my bold prediction that shouldn't seem too outrageous when all things are considered.
Charlotte will go out and win 51 games next season.
I don't think everyone realizes how much Stephenson can bring to this team. He can make everyone else better by taking an immense amount of pressure off Walker, getting more easy buckets for Jefferson, helping to pull the defense away from the big man and also having the ability to find open shooters and lock guys down on defense. Henderson sliding to the bench gives that unit an immediate boost, which will also benefit from having Gary Neal for a full season and an unselfish point guard running the show behind Walker.
Clifford's system is strong enough to avoid any possible bumps in the road. Charlotte weathered the storm last season through a number of injuries and got noticeably stronger as the season unfolded. Another thing that could easily give this team a giant boost would be for one of the younger guys to make the leap.
I'm looking at you, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Zeller was abysmal early last season before becoming a valuable contributor in the second half. He shot 38 percent from the field before the break and 51 percent after it. It is understood that big men take a bit longer to develop, but he is in a nice position where he can just be himself. On paper, he slots next to Jefferson perfectly and could significantly boost this team should he continue to grow. He, too, dominated in summer league, further exemplifying that he could be a safe bet for a breakout.
MKG just needs to fix that jumper and get some confidence. Stephenson's presence could have a good impact on him as well because it adds another feisty perimeter defender to the starting lineup. He also may be able to get MKG out in the open floor with him for some easy buckets.
On the Eastern Conference landscape, Charlotte made more noticeable improvements in terms of acquiring new talent than other teams did. Had it not brought in anyone, it still wouldn't have been too far-fetched to think the team would improve strictly based on its youth and injuries last season.
There is no doubt this team is better, but it will still have to claw through a much-improved conference. Getting out of that first round this season should be the main goal. One step at a time for these young Hornets.
Seed: No. 5
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