NBA

Can the Charlotte Hornets Contend Out East?

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It is 2014 and after 10 years, the Charlotte Bobcats have become extinct.

The utterly forgettable decade will be mostly marked by Gerald Wallace’s ascension to NBA All-Star in 2010 and being Larry Brown’s final stop as an NBA head coach.

In March 2010, when the NBA Board of Governors approved the sale of the Bobcats to Michael Jordan, the chance for a new beginning was nigh. Four short years later, Jordan has his team ready to go back to the future.

Now, the Charlotte Hornets are back and so too will be the winning ways and expectations of the franchise’s distant past.

After leading the University of Connecticut to a National Championship in 2011 and being one of the nation’s standout pre-professional players, Kemba Walker became a Bobcat and has since squashed any concerns as to whether or not he has the aptitude or attitude to excel as a point guard in today’s NBA.

Walker’s greatest gift has always been his quick feet and explosive first step. His court vision? His decision making? His ability to capably score against the NBA’s bigger and stronger guards? Those were some of the doubts that he faced.

Those were the questions that allowed the likes of Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo and Brandon Knight—all players still searching for themselves after three years in the league—to be selected before Walker.

Now, after toiling, with Al Jefferson and the newly signed Lance Stephenson joining him in Charlotte, Walker will lead these Hornets back to the future—back to an era marked by passionate basketball and a place amongst the conference’s giants.

From Mugsy Bogues and Rex Chapman to Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson, to Glen Rice and David Wesley to Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis, since their inception in 1988, the Hornets were quickly revered. Qualifying for the playoffs seven times and winning at least 41 games in nine of the 14 continuous seasons they spent as Charlotte—it was something to be proud of. In the playoffs, they were anything but an easy out. Scratching, clawing, stinging, the Hornets came to play, even if they were never able to win a conference title.

The same cannot be said for the Bobcats, as the franchise managed to make the playoffs just once before Jordan took over as majority owner. Overall, the legacy of Bobcats basketball in Charlotte will be nothing more than an era marked by futility and poor basketball decisions. Draft picks were botched, head coaches were quickly dismissed and the overall lack of a franchise player was all too apparent. It was a recipe for disaster. And it was.

Today, however, a new beginning awaits.

Today, instead of Emeka Okafor, Al Jefferson is holding pivot in the lane.

Instead of Raymond Felton running the point, it is the aforementioned Walker that is calling the shots.

And instead of Adam Morrison hoping for an opportunity to prove himself and his worth, there is the newly signed Lance Stephenson—the hungrier, humbled version of Stephenson. With Walker and Jefferson, it is he who could be the ultimate difference maker in Charlotte, and it is he who may hold the key to the Hornets’ future.

Without question, Stephenson has emerged as one of the league’s premier perimeter players. He can effectively guard three positions and has an offensive game that is both polished and well-rounded. Like many before him, though, it is not Stephenson’s talent that may could be his downfall. It is his antics.

This past offseason, after seeing the Hornets sign Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $63 million maximum offer sheet before the Utah Jazz opted to match it and seeing Chandler Parsons get paid a similar annual sum with the three-year, $46 million commitment he secured from the Dallas Mavericks, Stephenson saw a few of his peers paid much more handsomely than himself. That matters to NBA players.

It is no coincidence that the Hornets would only give Stephenson a three-year deal worth just north of $27 million with only the first two years being fully guaranteed.

So it is here and now that Stephenson joins a team that is certainly on the rise and one that certainly has two strong pillars upon which a proud challenger can be built.

It is here and now that Stephenson, if he grows up and matures, can prove that it is he who helped the Pacers rise up from the doldrums and not vice versa.

Joining Walker and Jefferson and the 43-win Hornets of last season, together, these three have a ceiling that is truly unknown. With a strong supporting cast consisting of other new faces in Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts and rookie Noah Vonleh, the Hornets will suddenly look around in the Southeast Division and wonder if they are really that far behind the likes of the Miami HEAT and Washington Wizards as the teams with the greatest opportunity of winning the division and securing the top-four seed come playoff time.

Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Gary Neal fill out what suddenly becomes a nice 10-man rotation in Charlotte. As always, it remains to be seen how the pieces will fit, but there is no question that Steve Clifford will have a more talented bunch at his disposal this year than he did last year.

It may have been just slightly more than two years ago that the 7-59 Bobcats finished the lockout-truncated 2011-12 season with the worst single-season winning percentage in NBA history. But that may as well be ancient history.

With Walker, Jefferson, Stephenson and the genesis of a once proud franchise, Charlotte will once again become a place where opposing NBA teams will walk away without a win.

And as the Eastern Conference appears as open as it has been since LeBron James entered the league back in 2003, the Hornets will enter training camp this season asking themselves one simple question: Why not us?

It is a question, at the very least, one would have to seriously ponder.

About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.