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2015-16 Charlotte Hornets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Charlotte Hornets’ 2015-16 season.

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The Charlotte Hornets entered the 2014-15 campaign riding high since they were coming off of a playoff berth and a rebranding that had their fans buzzing with excitement. However, the team recorded just 33 victories, missed the postseason and finished 11th in the Eastern Conference standings. The team’s front office spent the summer retooling the roster, but will it be enough to bounce back?

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Charlotte Hornets.

Five Thoughts

Charlotte regressed quite a bit last season after making the playoffs in 2013-14, but they should be better this year. Lance Stephenson, who was terrible during his brief stint with the Hornets, is now gone, and the team has added some veterans who should help the squad win now such as Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lin and Spencer Hawes among others. Even though the team will very likely improve on last year’s 33 wins, it remains to be seen if they can crack the East’s top eight. I don’t think they will – I have Miami and Indiana getting into the playoffs with Brooklyn and Boston falling out – but I do think the Hornets will be just barely outside the playoff picture.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

Were it not for an ill-timed Al Jefferson injury a year ago, there’s a reasonable chance that the Hornets would have made the postseason. But that’s part of the gamble with Big Al and all Charlotte can really do moving forward is hope the same thing doesn’t happen again. Steve Clifford really is a solid head coach, and the addition of Nicolas Batum in trade was a good one for them (he’ll certainly be a better fit than Lance Stephenson was a year ago). Kemba Walker has the skill to be among the league’s most prolific scorers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a respected defensive stalwart and offseason additions like Jeremy Lin, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough and Frank Kaminsky help shore up the team’s bench. They’re deeper than a year ago, but they are, at best, a bubble playoff team in the weaker conference once again.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

The Hornets had all of the momentum heading into last season. The franchise was riding high off of a playoff berth and enjoying the excitement of its rebranding. The fan buzz surrounding the team was riding a wave of electricity. However, the team struggled to win just 33 games during the 2014-15 campaign and never seriously contended for a repeat trip to the postseason. Gone is the team’s marquee free agent signing last summer, Lance Stephenson. Longtime starting shooting guard Gerald Henderson was also shown the exit this past summer, as was last year’s lottery pick Noah Vonleh. From a purely talent standpoint the team didn’t significantly improve. However, the pieces on this year’s roster fit better on paper. Let’s see if this translates into more victories.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

The Charlotte Hornets showed who they believe the future of their team is by inking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a four-year, $52 million contract this offseason. Without Lance Stephenson, who they traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Hornets can have a fresh start on their hopes to return to the playoffs – as they did in 2013. The team added veteran big man Spencer Hawes and Nicolas Batum through trades, Jeremy Lin in free agency and Frank Kaminsky in the draft. Batum and Kaminsky in particular help the Hornets spread the floor, which is centered around anchor Al Jefferson. Many of their Eastern Conference counterparts improved this summer as well so the playoffs will be a challenge, but the look of the team is certainly an improvement.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jessica Camerato

What can I say? I got love for Kemba Walker, representing my New York City proud. The entire city of Charlotte is hoping that he and Al Jefferson can find some sustained health this season and restore the team to respectability, and it’s difficult imagining the Hornets not at least fighting for a playoff spot. Nicolas Batum has long been coveted around the league, as he is a uniquely gifted swingman that impacts every facet of the game. Frank Kaminsky and Tyler Hansbrough will each make an impact for the Hornets and provide a bit of an insurance policy should Jefferson find himself on the shelf for any period of time. As the conference has gotten tougher, and partially out of respect for the Hawks, Wizards and HEAT, I can’t see the Hornets finishing any higher than fourth in their own division. The Central Division toughening up means that they will likely find themselves battling with the bottom-feeding teams in the conference to make the playoffs, but the opportunity will certainly be there. I’d consider the Hornets the epitome of a team “in the middle,” but could not argue against the fact that they have improved immensely this summer. I’ll be looking forward to how it all comes together.

4th Place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Al Jefferson

Jefferson heads into training camp just six points shy of 13,000 for his career, with three seasons of averaging 20-plus points per game on the resume. In a climate where true back-to-the-basket scorers are a rarity, Jefferson is a throwback to yesteryear when dumping the ball into the low block and letting your big man go to work was a necessity to win at a high level in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Here’s some information to consider. The Hornets are 62-55 the past two seasons with Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting rotation and a woeful 14-33 without him during the same time period. While still a work in progress offensively, Kidd-Gilchrist has the ability to guard multiple positions and has the tools to make a push for an All-Defensive first team nod once he reaches his prime. The forward signed a four-year, $52 million contract extension this offseason. Some felt he could make more next summer in free agency, but Kidd-Gilchrist took the guaranteed money upfront – no doubt inspired by his injury history since entering the league.

Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum

Naturally the first place you’d look is point guard for this distinction. But as floor generals go, Kemba Walker is far from a high volume assist machine with an average of just 5.9 dimes per 36 minutes for his career. Expect the Hornets to run a lot of their offense through Batum in order to capitalize on the diversity of his game. Walker may lead the team in assists at season’s end, but Batum will be highly efficient getting his new teammates involved in the offensive flow.

Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker

When the game is on the line, the Hornets will place the ball in Walker’s hands to deliver the goods. From college to the professional ranks, Walker has consistently shown the ability to perform strongly in the clutch during the game’s tightest moments. Last season Walker had already nailed three game winning buzzer beaters before the end of January alone. Walker’s overall offensive efficiency can be erratic at time, but down the stretch the guard turns into an assassin.

The Unheralded Player: Jeremy Lamb

The Hornets’ acquisition of Lamb flew completely below the radar, which isn’t surprising since the guard spent his first three seasons with Oklahoma City struggling to get consistent minutes in the rotation. But consider this: Lamb has a career average of 11.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in games where he’s played more than 20 minutes. The good news for Lamb in Charlotte is that extended minutes are available.

Best New Addition: Nicolas Batum

This is the second straight season the Hornets enter training camp with a new addition at small forward. Last season’s experiment, Lance Stephenson, didn’t pan out and he was shipped to Los Angeles. Batum gives the team much needed versatility as he possesses the ability to score, rebound, assist and defend.

– Lang Greene

Who We Like

1. Steve Clifford: While his head coaching record (76-88) isn’t sparkling since arriving in Charlotte, there’s no questioning his ability to get players to buy into his system or his basketball mind.

2. Al Jefferson: Once thought to be just a guy who put up huge numbers on losing teams, Jefferson temporarily silenced those doubters during the 2014 season leading Charlotte to a playoff berth and being named All-NBA (third team). Jefferson remains one of the most productive players in the league today without an All-Star selection.

3. Rich Cho: The front office veteran has shown the ability to attract free agents, conduct meaningful trades and has had respectable draft selections while under his watch. Retooling on the fly is never easy, but the Hornets head into training camp with five new pieces that are expected to play significant roles in the team’s rotation from day one.

4. Nicolas Batum: The veteran is coming off of a down year, but those who followed closely know the forward gutted it out battling a variety of injuries. Charlotte is expecting Batum, in the last year of his current contract, to be a difference maker on both sides of the floor.

– Lang Greene

Strengths

The Hornets head into the season much deeper than in prior years. At point guard, Jeremy Lin was signed as insurance for Walker, who has been battling injury woes the past two seasons. Lamb, P.J. Hairston and Troy Daniels will compete for shooting guard minutes behind Batum. At small forward Kidd-Gilchrist will get the start but Batum can also slide over to the wing. Look for veteran forward Marvin Williams to also be in the mix for minutes at the three. At power forward and center, Jefferson leads the pack but Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Tyler Hansbrough and Spencer Hawes will be expected to produce nightly.

– Lang Greene

Weaknesses

The Hornets have two main areas to watch that could potentially derail or slow down their progress this season. The first is the team’s lack of a true rim protector on the interior. Jefferson, Zeller, Kaminsky, Hawes and Hansbrough have good size, but none of those guys strike fear into opposing players driving the lane. Secondly, the Hornets ranked at the bottom of the league last season in three-point shooting. The roster additions should help, but this is an area to watch.

– Lang Greene

The Burning Question

Is Al Jefferson in decline or is a return to form in the cards?

Jefferson averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting during his first campaign in Charlotte. Last season, the veteran averaged 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting. In season one, Charlotte made the playoffs. In season two, they struggled and missed the playoff festivities. The Hornets’ success (or failure) will largely be rooted in which Jefferson shows up for the entire season.

– Lang Greene

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