Sure, it ended on the sourest of sour notes possible, but make no mistake — the 2015-16 season was a major step forward for the Charlotte Hornets.
After a disappointing 2014-15 season that saw the Hornets miss the playoffs in the first year the purple and teal returned, owner Michael Jordan gave the team an ultimatum in the offseason — the success or failure of the 2015-16 team would depend on its ability to make the playoffs, and he would accept nothing less.
This made Charlotte reconsider what they were doing. It made Steve Clifford rethink his offense and rebuild it from the ground up to focus not on an inside-out post game, but instead on spreading the floor to take advantage of the team's newfound ability to hit 3-point shots. The team made moves to radically change the roster and go all-in for this season.
And one could make the argument that it worked quite well. Despite missing the team's best defender and rebounder in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for all but a handful of games, the Hornets finished 48-34 as a part of a four-way tie for the third-best record in the East. It was the fifth-best record a Charlotte basketball franchise has ever had in a season, as they improved their win total by 15 games, thanks in part to shooting the seventh-most 3's any team had ever attempted.
Kemba Walker took major steps in his game, too, as his 3-point shooting began to match his killer crossover. Nicolas Batum showed what he could do when he was entrusted with a larger portion of an offense, and is now the Hornets' highest priority this offseason. Marvin Williams had a career rebirth as he rediscovered his shooting touch and took over Kidd-Gilchrist's role as the defensive quarterback. Jeremy Lin had a rebirth of his own, introducing the world to Linsanity v2.0. Courtney Lee, acquired at the trade deadline, did his best impression of Kidd-Gilchrist as a defender and gave Hornets fans one of the most memorable shots in recent history with his game-winning 3-pointer in Game 5.
The Hornets did all this offensively while keeping their defensive identity in check, finishing the season as one of five teams in the top 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency (the others: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers). It all lead to the team winning their first playoff game in almost 15 years, and then two more on top of that, all while pushing a 3-seed to Game 7. Clifford established himself as one of the top coaches in the Association, and earned a fourth place finish in the Coach of the Year voting for it. General manager Rich Cho should earn similar recognition when the Executive of the Year award is announced later.
But the future for this Charlotte Hornets team is cloudy and uncertain, at best. Only half of the team's roster is under contract for next season, and it'll be even more than that when Lin opts out of his deal. He would join Batum, Lee, Al Jefferson and Williams as key contributors to the Hornets' success this season that may be gone next season. The team will have more cap space than they know what to do with, but so will every other team in the league, for once.
An owner like Jordan will more than likely not be satisfied with another playoff appearance. The team reached his goal of making the playoffs and came within one game of advancing to the next round. To be that close, to have a taste of the second round of the playoffs and come up short probably killed Jordan more than any Hornet. But what will Jordan and Cho do? Will they try to keep the core together? Will they blow it up and radically alter the lineup?
If the team does decide to blow it up, who will they bring in instead? They were likely out of the Kevin Durant sweepstakes before they even started. A player like Dwight Howard seems to fit exactly what the team needs, but would he be worth the money? Where would this rank next to resigning players like Batum and Lin on the team's priority list?
It's hard to say. With the season over, the Hornets face far more questions than they could possibly have answers for. But that is what makes this time so exciting for Hornets fans — the future of this team is bright, but also simultaneously cloudy. But things are much brighter than they were one year ago, and it keeps getting brighter by the day.