How Much Have the Charlotte Hornets Improved?

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In the grand scheme of things, the NBA preseason doesn’t count for much, so the Cleveland Cavaliers and their current five-game losing streak isn’t exactly sending shockwaves across the region.

Likewise, the Charlotte Hornets getting off to a fast start doesn’t necessarily make them the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Heck, it doesn’t even make them a lock to qualify for the playoffs.

But, could it be indicative of what may lie ahead?

After winning 43 games during the 2013-14 season, many expected the Hornets to take another step forward last season, but those hopes were dashed by injuries to Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That trio missed a combined 64 games. For all intents and purposes, in hindsight, it certainly appears as though the Boston Celtics managed to capitalize and improbably sneak into the playoffs ahead of both the Hornets and the Miami HEAT.

Now, as the franchise attempts to figure out how it will survive without the contributions of Kidd-Gilchrist, the team can at least find solace in the fact that the overall roster is deeper, more talented and perhaps stocked with more upside than its predecessor. Nicolas Batum, Tyler Hansbrough, Spencer Hawes and Jeremy Lin are among the veterans added to what was already a decent core. Newcomer Jeremy Lamb and Cody Zeller have a ways to go before we can certainly determine their NBA ceiling. Meanwhile, Aaron Harrison joins prized lottery selection Frank Kaminsky as a pair of rookies who should make the Hornets a deeper team than they were last year.

Still, through it all, aside from Jefferson or Walker, it is probably Batum who will determine how far the Hornets will go this season, especially after head coach Steve Clifford made news by proclaiming that Batum would be his first or second option on offense. The proclamation was eyebrow-raising considering that Batum is coming off of a less than stellar season in which his numbers were down across the board from his 2013-14 campaign.

A change of scenery, though, can sometime be rejuvenating, particularly when a player finds opportunity and appreciation that failed to materialize in a prior destination. Batum has always believed himself to have star potential, and now, he has the opportunity to earn his keep.

To call a healthy Batum “well rounded” would be an understatement, as he is a rare find in the NBA. Guys who can grab eight rebounds and dish out five assists while shooting 35 percent from behind the three-point line are fairly rare. In fact, last season, only three players in the entire league accomplished that in a game. One of them was the league’s Most Valuable Player, Stephen Curry. Another was his runner-up, James Harden. The third was Chris Paul—one of the best players of this generation.

Of course, the thought was that the acquisition of Lance Stephenson would have had positive effects on the Hornets as well. That didn’t really turn out positively, did it?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and I’m about a smart as a pair of wristbands.

In other words, new faces do not necessarily mean better fortunes, but considering the things that the Hornets do have going for them, it certainly does make them an interesting team to keep an eye on as we enter the 2015-16 season. Like Amir Johnson in Boston, Batum’s move to Charlotte presents an interesting opportunity for a player who is believed to have been seeking exactly that.

Without the contributions of Kidd-Gilchrist for an extended period of time, it is difficult to imagine the Hornets in the playoffs, particularly when there appear to be six shoe-ins out East, at least on paper. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks are all but certain to get in. The Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT each seem like safe bets to qualify  too, but the Pacers are a younger team whose personality has undergone a seismic shift. Without the emotional leadership of David West, the defensive presence of Roy Hibbert and the versatility of Lance Stephenson, it is simply difficult to predict their trajectory, despite Paul George’s greatness.

For the HEAT, it all boils down to the health of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. If both are anywhere near 100 percent, one could make a very solid argument that the HEAT are a top-three team in the conference. But if one or both are less than stellar, not even Justise Winslow would be able to save them.

Each year, there’s usually at least two surprises in each conference. One team surprises by underachieving, the other by overachieving.

I, personally, wouldn’t be surprised if the overachiever among the batch of East teams that do not seem destined to make the playoffs ends up being the Hornets; that is, of course, so long as they remain healthy.

As is stands right now, though, it seems like that is all going to fall on the shoulders of Batum. Without Kidd-Gilchrist, the weight will be twice as heavy.

But then again, especially with Batum, so is the talent level in these Hornets.