With the NBA preseason over and the regular season just days away, we decided to ask our writers about what to expect from the Hornets this year. Most of us were on the same page, but some of our predictions might surprise you.
What are the Hornets better at this year compared to last?
Bryan Mears: Shooting. They surprised everyone with their top-10 defense a season ago, and their biggest need this offseason was acquiring shooters. Losing Josh McRoberts to the Heat didn’t help in that regard, but obtaining good 3-point shooters in Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams, as well as good projected shooters in the draft with Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, will make the Hornets a much better perimeter shooting team.
Chris Barnewall: Definitely 3-point shooting. Every perimeter player the Hornets signed this offseason has the ability to shoot the three ball, and I expect the Hornets to fire off a lot of them this year.
Nick Denning: 3-point shooting, though I say this hesitantly. Aside from their home win against Washington in which they shot 47.4 percent from behind the 3-point line, the Hornets haven't been shooting the ball particularly well from beyond the arc in preseason. With that said, the team just didn't have a lot of 3-point threats last season, particularly in the backcourt, so the additions of Roberts and Hairston, and Stephenson to a lesser degree, should make them a better team from behind the arc.
Russell Varner: I think the answer to this is pretty easy: shooting. Yes, they lost players like Josh McRoberts and Anthony Tolliver, but look at who they added — Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston. Know what all those players have in common? They can all shoot from range. Add MKG’s new and improved jumpshot, and there is no reason that this team shouldn’t be able to stretch the floor more than last year and give Big Al more one-on-one situations in the post.
What are the Hornets worse at this year compared to last?
BM: It’s tough to say exactly where the Hornets took a step back, but my biggest question will be on defense. They had an elite defense without a viable rim-protector, which doesn’t happen often in the NBA. Was last year a testament to Clifford’s creativity and coaching on that end, or did the Hornets overachieve?
CB: For lack of a better answer, passing. Josh McRoberts is one of the best passers in the league, and while Lance Stephenson is a quality passer himself, nobody can create open lanes for players, through passing, the way McRoberts can.
ND: Dare I say it, but defense? They have struggled on the defensive end this preseason, and some of that could carry into the early parts of the regular season. Henderson's return will help, and the Hornets still have the makings of a top-10 defense, but they could slightly regress from last season.
RV: I am honestly a little worried about this team’s defense. I know it's preseason and I know defense was this team’s bread and butter last year, but the team just has not looked as good defensively as they did even at this time last year. I’m sure with time the defense will get better, but unfortunately I think the defense overall may take a step back from last year.
TW: I don’t think the Hornets got significantly worse at many things, if anything, so I’ll say ball movement. Losing Josh McRoberts is a big factor in this, as he was a terrific passer in the halfcourt, both playing on the inside and on the perimeter. He’s been replaced with Marvin Williams, who can pass but doesn’t specialize in it, and the backup options range from Zeller (not a quality passer), Vonleh (inexperienced professional basketball player), and Biyombo (doesn’t touch the ball on offense). Meanwhile, although Luke Ridnour occasionally gave me fits last season, his presence and court vision led to him extending plays and finding looks for his teammates; that is to say, Ridnour did shoot and miss way too often, but the second unit offense ran through him, and he knew what he needed to do. I don’t feel the same way about current backup point guard Brian Roberts, who does play with a shoot-first mentality. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but if his shot can’t fall for stretches, and if he’s not finding teammates, that’s only going to exacerbate the issue.
FB: The Hornets will struggle to defend opponents' fast break points this year. As a result to running more fast breaks as a team, they should struggle to defend the break as well. Last year, preventing fast break scoring was a focus for coach Clifford, but with the addition of Lance Stephenson, the team will likely run more and Clifford will likely take the good with the bad.
Which player do you expect to have a breakout year?
BM: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He showed last year that he can truly be an elite perimeter defender, and we obviously know about his shortcomings with his jumpshot. If his shot is merely closer to average and allows Clifford to keep him on the court for extended minutes, MKG could be in for a Most Improved Player bid.
CB: I'm gonna regret this answer at the end of the year, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Not only does his jumpshot look better, but he's shown an aggressiveness in the preseason we haven't seen from him before. One of my biggest complaints about him was his reluctance to attack the basket, despite being so good close to the rim. If MKG is being aggressive, watch out NBA, this guy could be good.
ND: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His jump shot still has a ways to go, but his confidence on the offensive end is at an all time high. He's attacking the hoop more aggressively and drawing more fouls, and his free-throw percentage is way up to 72.2 percent. I'm tempering my expectations as to just how much better MKG could be this year, but of all the Hornets he will likely show the most improvement.
RV: This may sound a little weird, but I believe that Al Jefferson will have a breakout year. Yes, he will have a breakout year one season after he had a breakout year. Hear me out: this team is built entirely around Jefferson. The team now has shooters to surround Jefferson with, much like the Magic did with Dwight Howard during their run to the NBA Finals. If Jefferson does indeed get one-on-one post matchups for the majority of a game, he should be able to eat whoever is guarding him alive. Al Jefferson may have been third-team All-NBA last season, but I think he will get second- or first-team this year.
TW: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He’s already a terrific defensive player (maybe not elite, but very good nonetheless), and offensively he’s looking a lot more confident and, well, better. His improved jump shot is going to be a big factor into this, but he’s always been good attacking the basket and in transition, and if defenders can’t slack off him in the mid-range any more, that’s going to be a huge plus to both his game and the team as a whole. And even if that doesn’t happen this year, at the very least, people will finally notice how much of a net positive he is to the Hornets.
FB: It's the popular answer, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the most likely for a pretty good reason. Anyone who has watched the available preseason footage of the Hornets this year will tell you that MKG looks like a completely different player. Check out this highlight from the NBA.com if you need proof. A pick and roll to his left hand at the 3-point line, a smart drive, and an incredible finish through Roy Hibbert? Bank this one.
Which player do you expect to have a down year?
BM: Gerald Henderson may not have a statistically down year in terms of advanced metrics, but his minutes and per-game numbers will probably take a hit due to the Hornet’s increased depth. How he handles a possible sixth-man role this year will largely dictate his future in Charlotte.
CB: Brian Roberts just hasn't looked comfortable with the Hornets so far. Maybe it's the new offense, or maybe Steve Clifford doesn't want him gunning the way he did in New Orleans, but he hasn't looked too good. I don't think he'll be bad, but a step down from last year wouldn't surprise me.
ND: Gerald Henderson, at least from a numbers standpoint. He was supposed to compete with MKG for the last starting spot, but injury has kept him out. Now, he's likely coming off the bench, and in a sixth man role his numbers will decrease. He still should be an impact player for us, just not in the same role as the past couple of seasons.
RV: Noah Vonleh has missed the majority of the preseason and never really got to get into form with the team. We all remember how long it took Cody Zeller to adjust to the NBA last year, and he was able to play throughout the preseason. I believe that Vonleh will have a down year because the majority of it will be spent trying to adjust to the NBA. I believe he will put it all together this year though, just in the last month or two.
TW: You know, I don’t really think anyone will have a down year. I’m not sure any of these players are really going to perform below expectations/projections. If I have to pick a few players who could, I’d say Marvin Williams, Kemba Walker, or Gerald Henderson. But I don’t really project any of them to struggle this season. I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong, though. Optimism is a terrible thing.
FB: The obvious answer is Gerald Henderson, who will likely lose his starting spot to Lance Stephenson this year and then come off the bench to guard opposing small forwards. However, this role could suit Henderson, who may see a dip in scoring, but could improve in advanced metrics like Net Rating and Real Plus Minus. So for a true down year? Although not likely popular with fans, Bismack Biyombo could see another drop in production this season. Coach Clifford seems set on giving Jason Maxiell a legit opportunity to be Al Jefferson's back up.
Are the Hornets contenders?
BM: Contenders for a top-three seed? Yes. Contenders to win a title? No. The two-seed is probably the Hornets’ ceiling, depending on what happens with Derrick Rose in Chicago. However, the Hornets are probably a piece or two away from actually vying for true Finals contention.
CB: Contenders to make the conference finals? I think so in the sense that if things go right for them, they can get there. For the NBA finals? Probably not. Not only is winning the division going to be a challenge for the Hornets, but then they have to get through a much tougher East.
ND: Playoff contenders yes, but I'm not convinced they are good enough to be a top-half playoff team. How far they go really depends on how Stephenson fits with the team, and how much the other young players develop. I see them finishing as the 5th or 6th seed in the East, and best case scenario they win their first playoff series (winning their first playoff game would be great too).
RV: Well, it depends. Contenders for what? For the division title? Absolutely. I think the team has done enough to put themselves above the Hawks, right up there with the Heat and just behind the Wizards. For the East? I think they are still few years off that. The road to the NBA Finals will run through Cleveland and/or Chicago, and as much as I love this team, I don’t know if they have the firepower to compete with those teams just yet. For the NBA title? Well, if they aren’t contenders to win the East...
TW: This is a tough question to answer yes or no to, so I’ll say this: the Hornets could contend for the Eastern Conference title if a few things happen. That’s going to be: Cody Zeller improves his progression, Al Jefferson stays healthy, Lance Stephenson finds his focus, Kemba’s jump shot improves (even marginally), and a definite role is found for either Gerald Henderson or Noah Vonleh. They might also need to make a trade at the deadline to fix a first-half flaw. The odds of all of that happening probably aren’t as low as they might appear, but that’s probably what it’s going to take in order to win two playoff series. And, quite honestly, if you can get to the conference finals, no matter how poorly you might have played in the regular season, you’re a contender. So what will it take for the Hornets to do that?
FB: Depends how you define "contenders." Will the Hornets contend for home-court advantage in the playoffs this year? Yes, although they could easily fall short of that goal and end up with something like the six seed in an improved Eastern conference. However, if you mean contend for a championship, then the answer is no.
What storyline are you most excited about?
BM: That’s tough — there are so many exciting storylines. Obviously MKG’s shot, Stephenson’s arrival, and the Hornets’ defense are up there. If I had to pick one, I would probably go with the development of the young guys — second-year big man Cody Zeller and rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston. Only Zeller may be a big part of the rotation this year, but the Hornets have a lot of young talent that could develop into something special.
CB: The return of the Hornets of course! Teal and purple uniforms, Hugo, and the entire NBA can't stop talking about it. That alone is gonna make this year fun.
ND: The backcourt of Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson. These two have already been fun to watch in preseason, and I have a feeling by seasons end fans and critics will view them as one of the better backcourts in the league. They are both polarizing players, and seem to feed off each other's games well. Also, prepare yourself for endless amounts of, "How MKG turned his career around" stories if he makes significant improvements this season.
RV: The Hornets’ return to Charlotte (and the city re-embracing the team and the name) is a great story, but I’m more excited to see what Lance Stephenson does this season. He reminds me a bit of former Carolina Panther Steve Smith, Sr. — someone who plays better with a chip on his shoulder. Does anyone in the league have a bigger chip on his shoulder than Stephenson? He has everything to prove after a career year last season and seems to be embracing his new team and new home (you rock a Larry Johnson retro jersey in your music video and I think it’s safe to say you will be loved in Charlotte). Will we get more of good Lance or bad Lance this year?
TW: Really, I’m just most excited to have a talented team with legitimate expectations in Charlotte this year. This is the first time since the 2004 expansion that the HornCats have actually been expected to make the playoffs, and I’m just giddy about the possibilities.
FB: Doubling up on my pick for breakout player, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and his improvement is the most intriguing storyline this year. Can he take the Hornets' offense to another level? Can he gain respect as a mid-range shooter and therefore give the offense the spacing it needs? If he can, will coach Clifford stick with him in the fourth quarter?
Is anyone going to be traded this season?
BM: It’s obviously very hard to predict a trade, but if anyone in the rotation would go, the likely candidate is Gerald Henderson. He has started his whole NBA career, but will likely not get that chance with the Hornets. If the Hornets get a good enough offer, they would probably pull the trigger. Bismack Biyombo’s expiring might be interesting to teams as well.
CB: I think, no. The roster feels pretty solid right now and I can't think of any major improvements that can be made through a trade. Not to say the team can't improve, I just don't know how they'll be doing that through trade. If anybody does get traded, it will probably be Gerald Henderson, but the Hornets won't trade him unless they're getting a real upgrade back.
ND: I could see Henderson being traded if his role begins to diminish more than expected, and Biyombo since he is on an expiring contract. However, unlike last season when it seemed very likely Ben Gordon would be traded (and of course that didn't happen), no one on this roster looks half way out the door at this point.
RV: It hurts to say this because he has been around this team so long, but I think Gerald Henderson could be traded. After spending most of his career as a starter, Hendo will now be coming off the bench this year (unless Clifford shocks the world and starts Hendo over MKG). If he struggles as a sixth man, he could be let go. Heck, even if he plays well, he seems like the most valuable movable piece the team has. If the Hornets need to make a move in order to improve the team come the trade deadline, Henderson could be finding himself a new home.
TW: I’m sure someone will be traded in a few months — Henderson, Neal, and Williams probably have the biggest odds of being shipped out at some point — but it’s way too early to predict anything beyond "This is what I would do" speculation. That said, Rich Cho likes him some trades, so I’m sure something will happen this year.
FB: Of course, general manager Richard Cho has proven to be a very savvy deadline deal maker. Grabbing Josh McRoberts for the corpse of Hakim Warrick two years ago and then getting Gary Neal for last year's playoff push were two great moves. Someone will get dealt this year. Mike Dunleavy for Gary Neal anyone?