1. What are your reasonable expectations for the Hornets this year?
Chris Barnewall: Predicting them to at least compete for a playoff spot should be fine, but anymore than that is stretching it. The Hornets are going to be better than we feared following the MKG injury, but they still don't have a true defensive anchor, and that's going to matter in the long run.
Russell Varner: I still believe it is reasonable to expect this team to compete for a playoff spot in the East, particularly given how effective the team’s offense was in the preseason. Unfortunately, with the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets will probably earn no better than a seven seed (if things go their way) and will get swept out of the first round again. But it’s not completely insane to say this could be a playoff team. (Thanks playing in the Eastern Conference!)
Austin Peters: There is so much unknown with this team now given all the roster turnover and the injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. I could see this team outperforming their expectations and sneaking into the 8th seed or completely combusting and heading for the lottery. Both scenarios are realistically on the table.
Tucker Warner: There's no way around this: the Eastern Conference skews EVERYTHING. That includes expectations. If the NBA removed the mostly-arbitrary and likely obsolete conferences and divisions, leaving the standings table an amorphous blob, and finally getting balanced schedules, we'd probably all be more pessimistic about this team. Instead, the NBA plays in an archaic, geography-based system designed to drag down more talented teams so that they can garner as much advertising money as possible from east coast viewers who do things like "have a reasonable bedtime" and "hold steady jobs," instead of watching west coast basketball for hours every night. Anyway, this benefits the Hornets in many ways, not least of which includes their outlook for this season. Because of this, the playoffs are on the table, despite losing their best player to injury for the entire season. I wouldn't expect them to make the playoffs, per se, but I think they'd definitely fall short of my expectations if they were eliminated from playoff contention with more than five games to play.
2. How much impact does Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury have on the team?
Chris: For me it was the difference between making the playoffs and not making it.
Russell: You would be lying if you say it does not make a big impact. It takes a team near-guaranteed to make the playoffs and now most likely leaves them on the outside looking in. I don’t think I need to remind everyone of the team’s record without MKG in the lineup, and now without him and Bismack Biyombo, a big component of the Hornets’ defensive identity is now gone. Will the team be able to find it again, or will they now have to switch their identity to a run and gun team?
Austin: Defensively, he was everything for that team. Steve Clifford could run a conservative style with his bigs because of guys like MKG hounding the ball. Now the burden falls on the shoulders of guys like Cody Zeller and Nic Batum to anchor the defense. We will just have to wait and see.
Tucker: Huge but not catastrophic? Kidd-Gilchrist is the best player on the team when healthy, and his impact on the team cannot be understated. At the same time, the defense might actually be okay without him, which is the biggest concern about his absence. The Hornets are now definitely lacking for players with his defensive reputation (as is, to be fair, just about every other team in the league), but Clifford's defensive system isn't rigid and is designed to work with the talent he has, and won't squeeze players into roles that they can't handle. The offense looks like it has taken strides, so if the defense only ranks about 16th in the league in efficiency, that might end up being enough to keep the Hornets in playoff contention. No matter what, though, the team would be considerably better with Kidd-Gilchrist in the lineup.
3. Which Hornet takes the biggest step forward this year?
Chris: Kemba Walker is going to finally have an efficient season offensively. He's healthy, there's guys around him to get the ball to, and those secondary creators in Jeremy Lin and Nicolas Batum are going to be so incredibly helpful for him. Expect a good season for Walker offensively.
Russell: Cody Zeller. With a new 3-point shot added to his offensive arsenal, Zeller will play a very large role in how well or poorly the Charlotte Hornets do this season. He is now considered the team’s rim protector and arguably their best post defender. If he can become a 3 and D player at the 4, *drools*.
Austin: It is going to have to be Cody Zeller. He is their only defender at the big position that has a chance at stopping anybody or protecting the rim and the way the Hornets new offense is structured, he is the guy that will be running a lot of the actions from the top of the key and elbows. The evolution of his three point shot as well is going to be huge for their spacing as well.
Tucker: No disagreement here. Cody Zeller seems primed for a breakout season, even though the only reason his breakout didn't happen last season was because nobody outside of Charlotte noticed. His defensive metrics were terrific, but his lack of defensive fantasy stats and proximity to players whose defensive talent is more obvious (Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo), you had to be watching closely to notice. With an increased role on defense, and an improved offensive game, people are going to notice this year.
4. Which Hornet takes the biggest step back this year?
Chris: I'm a little concerned with how Cody Zeller is going to fit into this new offense. He's not quite there as a 3-point shooter yet, and while he's a very good player, his skill set might not fit what the team is running. That said, he'll still be a good player. There just might be a production decrease.
Russell: Al Jefferson, but mainly due to the team moving away from Al-fense and focusing more on 3s. Big Al will still be great and a key component to the Hornets, but I doubt he will be putting up the All-NBA number he was two years ago.
Austin: Brian Roberts. With the new signing of Lin and other wing players in the rotation, it doesn't seem likely that Roberts is going to be a part of this team moving forward. He is in the last year of his deal, making it seem like he is the odd man out.
Tucker: This has to be Marvin Williams. To touch on the other top candidates quickly, I like Jefferson's chances of bouncing back this year, and I think Roberts entered his downward spiral last year. Marvin, on the other hand, was up-and-down last year, and I think this year he'll be mostly down. He still offers a veteran presence on the floor, solid but unspectacular three-point shooting, and decent passing ability, but his defense presents a lot of issues. He's almost thirty years old, has played over 20,000 career minutes, and already looked to be slowing down. He can't really match up with most starting NBA threes anymore, and he's smaller than most fours. He'll still stop guys at times, because he's a smart player, and that'll extend his career, but I have a feeling Marvin won't look as crisp this year as he did in his younger days.
5. How many games will Frank Kaminsky start?
Chris: Less than 10. Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, and maybe even Spencer Hawes are going to play over Kaminsky this season. If he's starting then he either adapted to the NBA far quicker than expected, or there's a ton of injuries to the front court.
Russell: Not as many as most will expect. Clifford has shown that he is not one to throw rookies right into the fire, preferring instead to bring them along slowly (see Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh). Kaminsky will maybe get 10 starts, but they will all come in 2016.
Austin: If everybody is healthy, hopefully zero. Marvin and Cody will both play the majority of the minutes at power forward and Al Jefferson is the starting center. Kaminsky can probably be better than Spencer Hawes, which isn't to tall of a task, this season already, so backup center is what I'm expecting the majority of his minutes being.
Tucker: I can't envision this team having the injury luck of last year's Warriors, so at some point I'm sure Al Jefferson will miss a few games, and Cody Zeller will probably end up doing the same (but Spencer Hawes probably hunted the concept of bodily injury and mounted it above his fireplace, so I assume he'll play 80 games), so that should open the way for Kaminsky to start a few games. If injuries aren't too bad, it'll probably only be five at most. With the expected amount of injury luck, I think Kaminsky will start twelve games this year.
6. Which new acquisition will benefit the team the most from day one?
Chris: Nicolas Batum was great in Portland, and there's no reason to think he won't be great in Charlotte.
Russell: Jeremy Lin. I’ll admit it — I’ve become a Lin fan (mostly thanks to his off-the-court antics), but he also seems like a perfect second or third ball handler for this team and someone who can share the floor and thrive with Kemba Walker, unlike Lance Stephenson. I think Lin will become a revelation for the team coming off the bench.
Austin: Nic Batum. He can do a little bit of everything and the Hornets are going to use him that way, handling in pick and roll, shooting off the dribble, guarding the other team's best player. With how thin they've been on the wing in the past, Batum is going to be a nice addition.
Tucker: I'm a big fan of Jeremy Lin, but Nicolas Batum is going to have the most chances to help this team on both ends of the court. He's the de facto Kidd-Gilchrist replacement on defense, and if he bounces back from last year's injury (I think he already has), he'll be a big part of the offense as well.
7. Which new acquisition will struggle the most?
Chris: Spencer Hawes is awful on defense, and he's likely going to be playing with the second unit where he won't have a lot of talent to pull him up. Maybe his jumpshot returns to him this year, but I'm not confident.
Russell: Jeremy Lamb. I’m still not sold on Lamb, and his preseason didn’t expect do much to help his case. I’m still waiting for that Kemba Walker/Jeremy Lamb magic to rekindle.
Austin: It is easy to see Kaminsky struggling in his rookie season. He is in a minutes battle with some already established big men and with the win-now mantra the team has, Clifford is probably going to have a short leash on him. He isn't going to be allowed to play through mistakes like some rookies have opportunity to. If he can't hang around on defense especially, I can see Coach Clifford pulling him for Hawes.
Tucker: Tyler Hansbrough probably won't crack the rotation unless somebody gets hurt, so I'll say him, but honorable mention goes to Spencer Hawes, who has always been a high-risk, moderate-reward player. Here's hoping we see the good version of Hawes this season.
8. How many games will the Hornets win, and how many postseason games will they appear in?
Chris: 36 wins and no playoff games. If MKG was here then I would have given them 44 and five playoff games, but sad days.
Russell: I hate saying this. Dang it, I hate saying this so. 37 wins, zero postseason games.
Austin: Before the preseason and after the MKG injury, I had them for under thirty wins. After watching how nice the offense is in the preseason and knowing that coach Clifford is going to get those guys to sit down and guard, I am going to go with 34 wins, but missing the playoffs. The middle of the East is crowded, and one major injury puts you out. MKG was the heart and soul of this team, and unfortunately that leaves them on the outside looking in to me.
Tucker: 38 wins, 4 postseason games. If they get into the playoffs at all, it'll be as the seven or eight seed, meaning they'll play the Cavaliers or Bulls in the first round. The search for the first playoff win in franchise history will probably have to wait a little longer.
9. What is your NBA Finals prediction?
Chris: Clippers vs Cavaliers with LeBron James making an insane fifth straight appearance. The drought in Cleveland will finally end as the Cavs defeat MVP Chris Paul in six games.
Russell: The East seems pretty easy. The Cavaliers have LeBron James and there doesn’t seem to be much competition for them. The West, on the other hand, has four or five legitimate contenders (Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder, Clippers). I’ve been going back and forth between three of those teams all day, but I just find it hard to think that this Warriors team, when they are on their game, can be beaten, particularly in the madhouse that is Oracle Arena. I’m predicting a repeat of last season, with the Warriors defeating the Cavaliers again in the Finals.
Austin: Golden State beats Cleveland in seven. I can't pick against this team, especially with how awesome they were opening night. They brought back the same exact team, a core full of young and budding stars either entering or in their prime. I can't pick against them. I just can't.
Tucker: Cleveland beats the Clippers in seven games. The Warriors weren't lucky with their play last year, but every other contender had it tougher with injuries and scheduling. Also I'm not sure their defense holds up like it does last season. The Clippers turned their biggest deficiency (bench play) into a huge asset this season, and will have their best team in franchise history ready for a deep playoff run. At the same time, the Cavs should breeze through a weak Eastern Conference in the playoffs, and will be rested for the Finals. If they're healthy, the Finals could be theirs for the taking.