In the Charlotte Bobcats era, had you predicted them to be fourth in the East's Southeast division every year, you would have been wrong only twice. Only once were they the worst team (the infamous 7-win lockout season) and only once did they exceed the fourth spot, ranking third in the division this past season.
The Bobcats have since transformed into the Hornets and are hoping to leave behind such notorious mediocrity and rank inferiority along with their former name.
For the last four years, it has been nigh on impossible for them, or anyone else for that matter, to challenge for a top spot in the division or the conference. The Miami Heat dominated the Eastern Conference, winning about 72 percent of their total games and about 73 percent of their games within the conference.
As soon as the super team of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James was formed, everybody knew they were going to be the favorites to get out of the conference every year. What we didn't know is how short their reign would be. After four years of domination, LeBron James has returned to Cleveland, and everything has changed. His new team is young, and they will need time to develop, mesh and form chemistry as they learn how to play together, leaving the east as wide open as it's been in recent history.
The rest of the Hornets division has made plenty of offseason power plays to make up for LeBron's absence. Miami re-signed Bosh and Wade, and then snagged Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts, as well as retaining some of their other veteran talent. To be sure, they're not as strong a team as they were last year. Losing the best player in the world will make for a sizable hole to be filled. But they should still contend for the playoffs. The main question will be how much scoring will Dwyane Wade be able to pick up after resting for much of the regular season last year to prepare for the playoffs? They won't have the LeBron safety net there to keep them atop the standings.
The Wizards followed up their playoff run by re-signing Marcin Gortat to keep their frontcourt duo with Nene intact, and they replaced Trevor Ariza with Paul Pierce. Though Ariza's three-point shooting was key to their offense last year, he hasn't been the most consistent shooter over his career, and Pierce gives them a much better and more consistent scoring threat from inside and out. Their backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal is arguably the best in the league, and their youth provides them even more room to grow. They also still have Otto Porter, who could be great off the bench as they try to work in the former lottery pick into the rotation.
Atlanta and Orlando haven't made any Earth-shattering moves in free agency, but Atlanta should still be able to compete for a playoff spot. They have a decent core of players -- Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford -- and they added Adreian Payne in the draft, but other teams in the division made bigger additions and might leap them when the season rolls around. The Magic, still mired in their rebuild, hope to take a step forward with Victor Oladipo a year more experienced, Nikola Vucevic, newly drafted Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, and they signed Channing Frye and Ben Gordon in free agency (heh).
As for the rest of the conference, the Bulls got one of their biggest free agent targets in Pau Gasol, which will make them one of the best frontcourt passing teams in the league, and hopefully they might finally have Derrick Rose back for a more considerable number of games than in previous seasons. Indiana tried to replace Lance Stephenson with C.J. Miles and his shooting ability and Rodney Stuckey. The Raptors returned Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and James Johnson and drafted Brazilian small forward Bruno Caboclo. And Detroit bolstered their depth with Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and D.J. Augustin.
Not to be out done by the rest of the conference, the Charlotte Hornets looked for improvements of their own. They struck some luck in the draft, getting a high potential forward in Noah Vonleh and some instant offense in P.J. Hairston, and after a few strikeouts in free agency, managed to pick up Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams. Stephenson will be a major upgrade to their perimeter defense, and gives the team another player that can create his own offense and offense for his teammates as a good passer. They also have plenty of young players looking to improve, notably with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller.
While the East is up for grabs, this still leaves the question, where do the Hornets rank among all of this? Obviously right now the season hasn't started and everyone's 0-0 so they're tied for first with everybody else (or last if you're a glass half empty kind of person), but when the season starts, how will they fare?
While the East is seen as a joke of a conference in comparison to the West, there should seven strong teams next year, assuming all are healthy. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, and Atlanta Hawks all look like a lock for the playoffs. Where do the Hornets fit in this bunch? Right now, it looks like right in the middle.
Last season the Hornets were one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference towards the end of the season. Everything peaked at the right time with ball movement flowing well and the defense playing at an elite level, though they ran into the Heat. I think most would agree the Hornets did get better this offseason with Stephenson, Williams and the additions via draft making up for losing McRoberts, so theoretically they should improve.
With the addition of Stephenson, the Charlotte made a significant upgrade at the shooting guard spot, and to their perimeter defense. The Hornets have arguably the best wing combo on defense in the East, between Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
On the other hand, the Hornets lost one of their best creators, Josh McRoberts, to the Heat. While McRoberts is probably not a starting power forward on most teams, it can't be understated how important his passing was to the Hornets. The team is hoping that Stephenson can pick up some of that lost playmaking ability, but those are two different players.
I personally project the Hornets somewhere in the 6 to 5 range. Not quite good enough to get home court advantage in a playoff series, but an improvement over last year in an entirely improved conference.
Of course, while expectations are set around a middling conference seed for now, Charlotte exceeded expectations last year, there are ways they can do it again this year.
Stephenson is still young. While he was playing under a great coach in Frank Vogel, the offense in Indiana got to be a bit suffocating and stagnant. After a near All-Star caliber season last year, maybe Stephenson makes an unexpected jump in his offensive game with Charlotte. With better inside scoring help in Al Jefferson, he might find himself with some more opportunities. Mix that in with Kemba Walker improving, and an already improved bench, and this team could very well make a bigger jump than expected. As such, their ceiling is probably a 3rd or 4th seed.
While thinking the Hornets can make a jump is a nice thought, it's equally, if not more possible, that they stand where they were in the rankings, or in a worst-case scenario, miss out on the playoffs.
Lets say Lance Stephenson turns out to be a high volume low efficiency gunning disaster. Al Jefferson can't play a lick of defense, Kemba Walker never gets better, Noah Vonleh's a bust, Cody Zeller can't come into the starting power forward role, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist regresses, and somehow Michael Jordan's fashion gets even worse. Meanwhile the Pistons, who just hired Stan Van Gundy, get things together under Van Gundy's fantastic coaching, and steal that playoff spot that seems to have the Hornets name on it. The team regresses, the re-brand was a disaster, and fans are claiming to bring the Bobcats name back because that was the last time Charlotte had any success.
As I said, that's the absolute worst case scenario, of course.
Okay, so all of that happening seems unlikely. But one or two of those things becoming true is entirely possible. Charlotte could easily regress or tread water and stay relatively the same. I'd put the the Hornets floor at barely missing the playoffs, or more likely the 8th and 7th seed. The Hornets are far from structurally sound with their youth and potential risk and haven't earned any benefit of the doubt yet.
Anything can happen with this Hornets team next season, but it says a lot that their floor is within touching distance of the playoffs, and the ceiling is within shouting distance of the conference's best teams.