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NBA Saturday: Hornets Making Their Move

For two straight summers the Charlotte Hornets have been able to lure All-Star caliber talent to town in free agency

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Hornets eyeing bigger things than just playoff appearances

The 2012 and 2013 campaigns represented rock bottom for the Charlotte Hornets franchise. The team won only 28 games during this span and were largely considered to be laughingstocks of the league.

What a difference a year makes.

The Hornets finished last season 43-39, reaching the playoffs, before ultimately being eliminated by the two-time defending champion Miami HEAT in the first round.

While the struggle years helped the Hornets stockpile a solid mix of young assets in the draft headlined by Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, it has been the team’s success in free agency the past two summers which has the franchise’s trajectory on an ascent.

Last year the Hornets opened up their wallets and were able to lure talented big man Al Jefferson to town on a lucrative three-year $41 million deal in free agency. Jefferson immediately responded by leading the team in scoring (21.8), rebounding (10.8) and blocks (1.1) per game last season, while garnering All-NBA (third-team)  honors.

Heading into free agency there were questions concerning Jefferson’s work ethic defensively, but the Hornets were one of the worst teams in the league scoring in the paint and elected to focus on what the big could do to help their needs.

This week the Hornets pounced on another All-Star caliber performer with his own set of question marks. The club signed guard Lance Stephenson to a three-year $27 million deal luring him away from Indiana where he was a key cog in their championship aspirations.

The knock on Stephenson doesn’t relate to his intensity or work ethic. The guard is known to give maximum effort every time he laces up the high tops. Instead, skeptics are worried about Stephenson’s penchant for extracurricular activities on the court – most notably blowing in four-time MVP LeBron James’ ear during the playoffs last season.

Stephenson understands the whispers surrounding his mental approach to the game and says he’s on a mission to silence them completely.

“I bring more to the table than blowing in someone’s ear,” Stephenson said during his introductory press conference according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. “He’s one of the greatest players in the game. So by me doing that to him, it became real big. It overshadowed what I can do on the court. I’m a playmaker, a defender and a leader on and off the court.

“I’ve just got to change that around and learn from it.”

Hornets owner Michael Jordan met with Stephenson in Las Vegas earlier in the week and had a discussion on what he expected of the emerging guard should they join forces.

“He told me what he likes about me, he told me what I need to calm down on,” Stephenson said regarding his meeting with Jordan. “He told me how I can contribute to the team. And he told me he believed in my talent. He likes my competitive edge.”

Stephenson represents the ultimate risk or reward scenario. The New York native averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists for Indiana last season while shooting 49 percent from the field.

The Hornets have been in desperate need for additional scoring from the wing and a strong defender in the backcourt and may have just signed the bargain of the entire free agency period.

Charlotte initially offered a maximum contract to restricted free agent forward Gordon Hayward earlier in free agency worth $63 million over four years. But the Utah Jazz ultimately elected to match the deal retaining Hayward’s services.

While most aren’t ready to place the Hornets into the land of title contention just yet, it is obvious Charlotte is becoming a free agent option for marquee players which bodes bright for the franchise’s future hopes of competing for a championship.

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Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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