The Charlotte Hornets essentially hit rock bottom during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns. How bad was it in the Queen City? The team combined for win just 28 games during this span and were relegated to laughingstock status around the league. However, things are different for Charlotte heading into training camp this season. The team pumped out 43 wins in 2014, en route to a playoff appearance and are poised to make another run at the postseason.
The Hornets have a steady mix of young talent, a capable coach and an All-NBA player leading the charge. The Hornets are no longer the league’s go to punchline. While they’re still quite a bit away from title contention, make no mistake, the buzz is back.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Charlotte Hornets.
Five Guys Think
Outside of Cleveland and Chicago, no Eastern Conference team improved themselves quite as much as the Charlotte Hornets did this past offseason. Obviously luring Lance Stephenson away from Indiana was a huge coup for them, and it definitely shores up their backcourt rotation. Rookies P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh both were pretty incredible values where they were selected in the draft, and both could contribute on this roster right away. Steve Clifford has quickly become one of the better coaches in the conference, and Al Jefferson shouldn’t be any less effective than he was a year ago. Without question, this is a team on the rise, and while they’re only ranked third in the Southeast Division in these projections, they could just as easily win it their first year as the Hornets.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
Can you feel it? The Charlotte Hornets will enter this season with more buzz than at any point in the franchise’s history. After years in the league’s cellar, the Hornets won 43 games last season and clinched a playoff berth. Even though the team was unceremoniously eliminated in the first round of the postseason, the future is bright in the Queen City. Two moves during the summer of 2013 put the team in this position. The signing of veteran center Al Jefferson was huge for the team in regards to respectability and Steve Clifford has finally put an end to the revolving door of head coaches in Charlotte. Add in emerging guard Kemba Walker’s development and you have a team who will be fully expected to make another playoff run in 2014-15.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
Charlotte made huge strides last season, surprising everyone and making the playoffs for the first time in years. This year, I think they’ll continue to get better. Not only will the players be more comfortable under head coach Steve Clifford (who was a first-time NBA head coach last year), they also had a terrific offseason. They added key contributors like Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston to an already-talented core that features Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, etc. Stephenson, in particular, should really help the team on both ends, especially if he performs at the near-All-Star level that he played at for the first half of the 2013-14 season. Charlotte ended their playoff drought last year, which was an enormous step in the right direction for the team. But now it’s time to go even further and actually make some noise in the East.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
With the combination of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, the Hornets turned in a respectable 43-39 season, giving the fans of Charlotte a rare treat of a winning basketball season. With Lance Stephenson added to their core which also includes newcomers Noah Vonleh, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, the Hornets may be able to flirt with 50 wins this coming season. Doing so will be no easy task, though, as the Southeast Division will be no cakewalk. Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo are all still learning the NBA game and still have room for improvement. If even two of those four can become consistent contributors, the Hornets will soon be recapturing past glory and making routine trips to the second round out East. The biggest question is whether or not Al Jefferson sees himself as a Hornets for the long-term, especially since he may opt out of his current contract after this coming season.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Charlotte Hornets displayed the kind of self-awareness last year that we haven’t seen from them in quite some time. After coming off their second playoff appearance in franchise history, it would have been really easy to think that they’re further along in the rebuilding process than they truly were and just settle for staying relatively pat. Instead, they were one of the more aggressive teams of the offseason, signing Gordan Hayward to a max offer sheet, then signing Lance Stephenson after the Jazz matched their offer for Hayward. They were in desperate need of another explosive weapon out on the perimeter, and got Stephenson on a great, short-term deal. He’s really going to make a difference in helping push them closer towards serious contention in the Eastern Conference. With additional firepower, more depth and legitimate star power in the Stephenson, Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, the re-branded Hornets are headed towards their best season ever.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: In this day and age consisting of a weaker crop of centers roaming the paint, the Hornets have one of the league’s best in Al Jefferson. The 10 year veteran has always been known to put up a gaudy stat line, but last season he strapped the Hornets to his back on both sides of the floor and silenced critics who questioned his leadership. Jefferson is a 20 point and 10 rebound threat every time he laces up the high tops and was named to his first All-NBA (third) team last season. Known for his effectiveness in the low post, the next stop for Jefferson is the ever elusive All-Star selection which perennially has eluded his grasp. Charlotte also features emerging point guard Kemba Walker who is more than capable of putting up strong nights offensively. However, the overall success of the Hornets this season rests on the shoulders of Jefferson.
Top Defensive Player: The arrival of guard Lance Stephenson immediately strengthens the Hornets perimeter defense. Stephenson is an athletic force who can effectively guard multiple positions, but the Hornets’ best individual defender is none other than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The third year forward is routinely tasked with guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player, often times without weak side help. The biggest drawback for Kidd-Gilchrist at this point is the fact his offensive limitations often play a huge role in his nightly minute allocation. With Stephenson now by Kidd-Gilchrist’s side, Charlotte will be one of the most frustrating teams for opposing wings to matchup against.
Top Playmaker: The arrival of center Al Jefferson last season significantly reduced the offensive burden on point guard Kemba Walker. This allowed Walker to focus more on ball handling duties and getting his teammates involved rather than the Hornets living and dying by his offensive production. Walker is one of the fastest guards in the league with the rock and has a knack for getting into the lane and creating havoc. The addition of Lance Stephenson, who can also create and get into the lane, gives the Hornets an incredibly tough backcourt to defend.
Top Clutch Player: The go to options down the stretch in clutch situations for Charlotte is undoubtedly Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. But the nod goes to Jefferson who was more efficient on both sides of the ball with the game on the line and less than five minutes remaining. Over half of the Hornets’ games had a point differential of five points or less with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter last season. Jefferson will be counted on for producing points in these situations. It will be Walker’s primary job to properly set up his center for those buckets.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams was selected by the Atlanta Hawks before Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 NBA Draft and has spent his entire career trying to live up to those expectations. While Williams will likely never reach the heights of Paul and Williams, what’s missing is the fact the forward has become a very productive player throughout his career. The stats aren’t gaudy but Williams has averaged double-digits in scoring in six of his nine years in the league. Williams has also developed three-point range, evident by his 84 makes in 2014 (36 percent). Williams can also defend multiple positions. Williams will never be like Paul and Williams in the sense of personally carrying a team to the postseason, but title contending teams always have a guy like Williams in the fold doing the work.
Best New Addition: The Hornets let it be known they were going to be active in free agency this summer and swung for the fences trying to lure Gordon Hayward into town. While the club didn’t get Hayward, the signing of Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal is potentially the better fit. Stephenson brings a scrappy toughness to the roster and is someone Charlotte fans will rally behind.
– Lang Greene
Who We Like
1. Al Jefferson: The veteran center has always been productive but battled injuries early in his career and spent time languishing on more than a few subpar rosters. Therefore, the note on Jefferson was one of being capable of stuffing the nightly box score, but unable to significantly elevate an inferior team. Jefferson silenced a large contingent of his doubters with his performance last season in Charlotte. Jefferson became the face of the franchise, led a cellar dwelling team to the playoffs and scooped up All-NBA honors. What will the veteran big man do for an encore in 2015?
2. Steve Clifford: The first part of establishing a solid program is finding consistency on the bench. Prior to hiring Clifford as head coach, Charlotte tried Larry Brown, Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap at the helm in failed attempts to jumpstart the franchise. Clifford, a longtime assistant, almost immediately gained his troops buy-in and also ushered in a sorely needed defensive philosophy which helped the Hornets stay competitive when their shots weren’t falling. Clifford is the Hornets’ guy and his hire is one of the reasons things have turned around for the franchise in short order.
3. Lance Stephenson: His antics get the mainstream headlines, but his game says future All-Star performer. Some guys approach the game with a business-like mentality, others wear their emotions on their sleeves. Such is the case of Stephenson who is considered this year’s high risk high reward free agency signing. Stephenson can play and the Hornets’ style fits his game. We’re leaning more toward All-Star level performer and don’t foresee an implosion.
4. Kemba Walker: The dynamic guard continues to improve as a floor general and playmaker. With less demands on him offensively, Walker has been able to focus on running the team more – which is a good thing. The arrival of Stephenson via free agency gives Walker another weapon at his disposal. Walker should shoot a career high from the field and also set a new career high in assists in 2014-15.
5. Rich Cho: The veteran league executive has pulled off some crafty moves as the Hornets’ general manager in the past year. The signing of Al Jefferson, Brian Roberts, Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams have increased Charlotte’s depth. The hiring of head coach Steve Clifford has added the needed stability. Cho’s job isn’t done, but the franchise is headed in the right direction after year’s in the basement.
– Lang Greene
The Hornets are one of the few teams in the entire league with a dominating low post presence offensively. The presence of Al Jefferson on the interior gives Charlotte an edge in the paint on most nights. Kemba Walker also has a solid knack for getting into the lane and finishing in his own right. The arrival of Lance Stephenson will put even more pressure on teams trying to keep the Hornets from camping on the interior. The Hornets also improved significantly defensively by adding Stephenson. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will eventually become one of the league’s better perimeter defenders and while Jefferson isn’t a defensive juggernaut he has played extremely well in Steve Clifford’s system.
– Lang Greene
While one of the Hornets’ biggest strengths is having guys adept at finishing in the paint, one of the team’s biggest weaknesses will be knocking down three-point shots – consistently. This will give their opponents an opportunity to sag off defensively and protect the paint. The pressure will be on Gary Neal, Gerald Henderson, Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson to consistently knock down these shots to make Al Jefferson’s job easy on the inside.
– Lang Greene
The Salary Cap
The Hornets dropped under the cap to make a significant offer to restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, but the Utah Jazz chose to match. Instead, Charlotte signed unrestricted guard Lance Stephenson. After adding Marvin Williams, Jannero Pargo and Brian Roberts, along with rookie first-rounders Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, Charlotte has hit the cap with 14 guaranteed players. What’s left to spend is the $2.7 million Room Exception. The Hornets also have until Halloween to negotiate contract extensions with Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, otherwise the pair will become restricted free agents next summer.
– Eric Pincus
It feels good to welcome the Charlotte Hornets back into the NBA after a regrettable 10 seasons for the Bobcats, just as they seem poised to have their most relevant season since their reincarnation. But it seems like the optimism accompanying the name change and the signing of Lance Stephenson may be a bit overboard. Some have talked about this team as a potential sleeper for the top half of the East playoff bracket, but I think they are more likely to miss the playoffs entirely than reach those heights.
Almost all of the cast is back this year, with an exchange of Josh McRoberts for Marvin Williams, Stephenson, and rookie Noah Vonleh. On a pure talent-in/talent-out basis, this is an upgrade for the Hornets. But basketball teams to not improve or decline solely on that basis, particularly teams with the weaknesses the Hornets project to have.
The Bobcats’ (past tense, still allowed to use that name) biggest weakness a season ago was the offense, in particular a lack of floor-spacing. McRoberts was an essential part of what little offense this 24th-ranked squad could muster, as he amassed a ton of touches handling the ball out top and spaced the floor with his adequate shooting from the three-point line. That was crucial to give Jefferson breathing room down low and open space for drives by Walker, especially when he shared the floor with total non-shooter Kidd-Gilchrist.
Stephenson is a better player than McRoberts, but he is also a below-average three-point shooter for a shooting guard when you consider the defensive attention he draws. Although he shoots a competent percentage, he is not enough of a threat to really deter help off him. And while Williams is a superior shooter to McRoberts, he was also a major reason Utah ranked a distant 30th on defense a year ago. If he gets major time at the four, it would be hard to imagine the defense repeating last year’s performance with he and Al Jefferson manning the power positions.
Another issue for Charlotte was a lack of offensive rebounds, where they pulled down a mere 21.9% of their own misses, bad for 26th in the league. This was by design, as coach Clifford emphasized getting back in transition as a large part of his miracle-working with the defense. Nevertheless, the lack of second chances makes the job on offense a bit tougher.
This team had the point-differential of a .500 squad last year, and benefited from good health. They may also fall victim to Bill James’ “Plexiglass Principle,” in which teams who improve a great deal one year, such as the Hornets (especially on defense) a year ago, tend to regress the following year. If they are to improve, it will be advances from Stephenson, Walker, and Kidd-Gilchrist that power it, along with a minimal regression from Jefferson’s career year. In particular, the perimeter trio must improve its shooting.
Clifford continues to draw blood from a stone with the frontcourt defense, keeping it at the same level despite a big rotation of Jefferson, Williams, Cody Zeller, and rookie Vonleh. The latter two provide semi-competent depth up front, and all of the perimeter players improve their shooting.
The Hornets have one of the smaller differentials between their best and worst case scenarios, as they are not relying on anyone injury-prone and have a good distribution of talent throughout their roster. Much of this talent is young and figures to get better. But in the bad scenario, the defense drops off for some of the reasons stated above. Jefferson regresses offensively from his career year, both due to age and the lack of spacing, and nobody else can pick up the slack. The defense slips out of the top-10 while the offense remains in the doldrums.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Can the Hornets take advantage of the Eastern Conference’s transition of power and rapidly rise in the standings?
The momentum is building in Charlotte. From top to bottom the Hornets have plenty of talented pieces, a capable head coach, a front office willing to spend and a fan base ready to explode with excitement. The Eastern Conference is in a state of transition which could provide an opening for the franchise to make some noise. Miami is no longer the power with LeBron James departing to Cleveland. The Cavaliers will need time to gel before they begin their reign of dominance. Chicago is still playing the wait-and-see game with Derrick Rose. Brooklyn has plenty of questions. New York, who should be competitive, is gearing up for the future. Washington is expected to emerge but is far from a dominant team. This could be a prime opportunity for the Hornets to stealthily make a move.
– Lang Greene
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.