NBA Season Preview: Charlotte Hornets

Lance Stephenson -- Team Option
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Projected record: 43-39 (7th in East)


Lance Stephenson
Now in Charlotte, Lance Stephenson looks to silence his doubters. (AP)

Head coach: Steve Clifford
Projected record: 43-39 (7th)
2013-14 record: 43-39
2013-14 ORtg: 101.2 (24th)
2013-14 DRtg: 101.2 (6th)
Players in: Brian Roberts, Lance Stephenson, Noah Vonleh, Marvin Williams
Players out: Chris Douglas-Roberts, P.J. Hairston, Josh McRoberts, Luke Ridnour, Anthony Tolliver
Projected Starting Lineup: Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Al Jefferson

The buzz is back: factor in the motivation of rebranding, new guard Lance Stephenson, and a young playoff team, and you’ve got one frightening bug in North Carolina.

Impressively, Charlotte retained every crucial piece except for Josh McRoberts, and still managed to drastically improve through both free agency and the draft. They’ve got so much raw talent they should be tested for salmonella: Brian Roberts is a young upgrade over Luke Ridnour and fits coach Steve Clifford’s system more comfortably. Noah Vonleh was projected to be taken 4 or 5 in the draft but slid down to 9, and they snagged P.J. Hairston 26th after he tumbled due to behavioral issues. Lance Stephenson? Well he’s Lance Stephenson: His opponents hate him [LeBron James], and his teammates love his mercurial energy. And Marvin Williams… well, he’s overpaid. Call him the elderly king to the Hornets’ nest.

Charlotte is deep. Clifford tried to establish a balanced roster when he came in last season in his rookie head-coaching gig, and now with a full offseason under his belt, he’s got it. Regardless of the pieces he has, Clifford fits them into his system one way or another. What system? Defense. Defense. Defense. Specifically: defensive rebounding.

You saw what Clifford turned Al Jefferson into last season: one of the game’s most prolific big men due to his fearful presence on the boards. Cody Zeller, the former 2013 4th overall pick, was unreliable his rookie year with flashes of potential, improving his rebounding percentage after the All-Star break. Add Vonleh, a rookie with freakishly large hands and a dominant rebounder in college.

Losing McRoberts at power forward changes the dimension of this Hornets offense, but it’s not impossible to overcome. McRoberts bumped his 3PT% up by 12 percent from 2013 to 2014 with Charlotte, enabling them to use him as more of a stretch 4 in their pick-and-roll game. Regardless of who Charlotte elects to start as his replacement this season, whether it be Zeller or Vonleh, neither of them is a shooter. This will call for a return to a more conventional 3-out-2-in set up with their offense, adjusting the pick-and-roll accordingly. It’s a minor change that Clifford has expressed no hesitation to make.

Despite what happens at the 4, or the addition of Lance Stephenson at the 2, the offense will revolve around the same centerpiece: Big Al Jefferson. The veteran big man is a monster presence around the rim and facilitates the offense down low. Every team knows that once he’s fed the ball in the paint, he can make something happen, so their defense disperses and he uses that to call for other player cuts that lead to open opportunities.

Besides Jefferson, Clifford touts Kemba Walker habitually on his ability to lead the pick-and roll. Walker’s improved assist-turnover ratio and ability to create his own shot helps him carry the team.

Let’s not forget small Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, drafted second overall behind Anthony Davis just two years ago. He may look like a bust right now, especially considering that 3 of the 4 picks directly after him were either named Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, or Damian Lillard, and then that guy named Andre Drummond was picked 3 picks after that. But he’s still just 20 years old with athletic skills, great instincts defending the perimeter, and room to grow. Offensively, he could use some work, especially on his mid-range game, but becoming a solid player on a playoff team is not far-fetched.

Teams don’t want any of them come November, and a major part of that can be contributed to their ambiguity. Nobody knows what’s to come from this revamped team, except that it’ll be a product that won’t be easy to beat.