Not many teams enter a season with high-flying expectations, immediately crash and burn, then exceed the new expectations, but hey, the Charlotte Hornets have done just that. All it took was a few trade rumors, some injuries, and a really bad conference. This has been a really bizarre season to say the least.
Feb. 1st, 2014. The month of January is over and the Bobcats just lost to a surprisingly good Phoenix Suns squad. The loss has dropped Charlotte to a 21-28 record, but nobody was particularly disappointed or angry about it, because the Bobcats have exceeded expectations. The defense was light years better than last season, and for the first time in years fans had hope. Al Jefferson returned from injury and his play put a new energy into the team. It feelt like he could take over a game at any point, and whenever Charlotte was in need of a bucket they went to him. Fans started clamoring to name him an All-Star even though he didn't play early on, and had a painfully slow start. Of course, Big Al's success wouldn't be possible without the man standing next to him in the front court. Josh McRoberts became a fan favorite thanks to his crisp passing, and incredible hair style. New head coach Steve Clifford had done a masterful job of using 2013's small progressions to build a team that competes on a nightly basis. With a particularly tough stretch of games coming up it was going to be difficult, but maybe this group of players can make a run at the playoffs. It sounded crazy at the time when they were six games under .500 but crazier things have happened.
Feb. 2nd, 2015. The Hornets have just achieved one of their biggest victories of the season over the Washington Wizards. Without Kemba Walker, and Bismack Biyombo the always-incredible Hornets defense held true and managed to make up for Charlotte's usual lack of offense. Yet, fans are still not too happy. The Wizards are third in the east, and this victory should have counted towards the Hornets seeding in the playoffs. Instead, their win over the Hornets merely gave them some distance between the ninth spot and themselves while they try and hold on to the eight seed. Maybe a shot at the seventh seed is possible in their future, but with the Milwaukee Bucks surging it's hard to see Charlotte reach the sixth seed.
Where did it all go wrong? How are the Hornets in the exact same spot they were last year, but everything is terrible. Hell, they're in a better situation right now because, unlike 2014, the Hornets actually have a spot in the playoffs right now. So what gives? Well, expectations play a whole lot into how a season is viewed. The NBA is for the most part predictable, and when someone breaks that predictability ripples are created. For comparisons sake, the Bucks are the 6th seed in the east and over .500. Milwaukee was supposed to be in the running for a top lottery spot considering they had a brand new coach, a whole lot of youth, and one of the worst records in the NBA last year. A turn around was unexpected and they've turned into one of the NBA's best success stories of the season. Meanwhile, the Hornets were supposed to be battling for one of the upper seeds in the conference, and possibly even make a run at the conference finals. So being under .500 in a weak conference, well below where they were supposed to be at this point has caused an expectations shift.
So how did the Hornets reach this point? Why have expectations shifted, and why is treading water such a bad thing? To start things off we have to go to the beginning of the season where the Hornets got off to their slow start. At the time general thought was that the new players didn't know how to play together, and things would get better once they figured that out. Except things didn't get any better. Blown fourth quarter leads became a regularity, an offense that couldn't score off basic sets was expected, and the defense was a shell of itself from the year before. Things couldn't get much worse, but the the injuries hit. Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson, Al Jefferson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have all missed significant time this year.
When injuries started to hit the Hornets really started to head towards rock bottom. A losing streak set them in a pretty bad situation, and that's when expectations began to shift. Forget a conference finals run. How were the Hornets even going to make the playoffs when their roster was in such disarray? Things really couldn't get worse could they?
Then things got worse, because that's when the trade rumors started. Lance Stephenson was injured, but that didn't stop the Hornets from shopping him around and seeing what they could get for their brand new signing, because his play on the court had been that disappointing. Shortly following the trade rumors were even more rumors that the locker room had been split, because of personality and fit issues. In retrospect, the locker room may have been split just because everybody was tired of losing, but there's no way to know for sure.
Midway through December the Hornets looked pretty dead in the water. Their defense was bad, and the offense was even worse. Things really couldn't get worse and that's a good thing because they never did get worse. Instead it got better.
It started with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning from injury, and then there was a win streak thrown in. It contineud to get better when the schedule eased up a little, and all of a sudden it looked like things were starting to click. Injuries to key players like Al Jefferson, which earlier in the season would have killed all momentum, were survived thanks to players like Bismack Biyombo stepping up.
Now, it's Feb. 3rd, 2015. The Hornets are half a game behind the Miami Heat for the 7th seed, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo are out for the foreseeable future, but nobody is panicking. The Hornets have turned things around in an incredible turnabout. It's still unlikely the Hornets are going to meet their pre-season expectations, but that's okay because those were thrown out the window in December. New expectations are to make the playoffs and get a win in those same playoffs for the first time in over a decade. It might not be the progress that was expected, but it's still progress.