Exceeding expectations is nothing new to a Charlotte Hornets squad that for the last few years has consistently found themselves having to shake off the stench that almost a decade of losing brought on. They had to prove that giving Al Jefferson a contract was not yet another short sighted move from the Michael Jordan regime. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has had to prove that yes, his jumpshot will improve. The franchise has had to prove that they weren’t the same ole franchise when a re-brand to the Hornets began a new era of Charlotte pro basketball. The Hornets have spent the entire Steve Clifford era battling with expectations — both good and bad — and have so far managed to come out on top when they were discounted. However, expectation is a dangerous thing and the Hornets are no longer a team that will be overlooked despite what they enter the upcoming season with.
Clearly the Hornets are a playoff lock. Wait, no — they’re actually going to barely miss out. Well, maybe they’ll get in, but they’re going to be in the lower end of the east. Actually, they’re going to bottom out entirely. They just lost too much and the East got better. The projections are all over the place.
There’s no real consensus on the Hornets this year with some sites such as ESPN using early projections to slot them into a low playoff spot, and other writers putting them as one of the teams from last year’s playoffs to have a drop off. The most optimistic of fans point out that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is returning to shore up the defense, but critics are quick to point out the loss of key players such as Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin, and Courtney Lee. This lack of consistency across how everybody feels on Charlotte makes them one of the more interesting cases across the NBA, but why is there such a low opinion on this group at all?
Charlotte entered last year’s offseason with one goal in mind and that was to retain the core that helped them reach the playoffs, and have their best season since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004. They maxed out Nicolas Batum and convinced Marvin Williams to come back on a contract worth less than what competitors were offering them.
These were good and necessary moves that had to be made if the Hornets were going to remain relative in the NBA landscape. Where most of the disagreement seems to come from is Charlotte’s three biggest losses. Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin, and Al Jefferson all left for different situations for a variety of reasons. All three players were extremely valuable to the Hornets last year, and replacing them with Marco Bellinelli, Ramon Sessions, and Roy Hibbert is obviously a downgrade. However, as much as these players are going to be missed, this goes against how we value every other team in the NBA.
Of the three players listed, the only one that played even close to a full season with the Hornets was Lin and he was coming off the bench for all but 13 of his 78 games. This isn’t to take away what Lin did with the Hornets. He was their most consistent bench player on a nightly basis and his flashes of Linsanity were some of the most fun basketball a fan could watch. However, for every 20 point night was a 2-for-7 night with four turnovers. He’s a solid sixth man guard and someone you cheer to succeed. The Hornets are going to miss his production, but he’s still a bench player. That made him replaceable.
Courtney Lee wasn’t on the Hornets for the majority of the season. When he was brought in he played consistently good defense, and his 3-point shooting was a welcome addition to the perimeter. However, when the Hornets started off the year as hot as they did their starting two guard was P.J. Hairston and Jeremy Lamb was playing major minutes. Charlotte has already won games with the majority of this core without Lee, and they can do it again.
Al Jefferson is a tough one to judge. Everybody that has watched him knows he’s gotten a step slower every year since his first in Charlotte. Defensively, as good as Charlotte was on that end, he still individually struggled. He missed a large chunk of last season with injury, and suspension. When he returned he mainly played a bench role that suited him very well. If he had returned the Hornets would have likely continued to play him on the bench. As disappointing it was to see Jefferson go, he was a replaceable player and Charlotte couldn’t spend too much money on a slowing veteran.
The replacements for these three leave a lot more questions than answers, and at face value it makes sense why one would expect a step back from this group. However, if there’s one thing the Steve Clifford era Hornets have done it’s get the best out of players that nobody would expect. Chris Douglas-Roberts was a useful rotation player on a playoff team under Clifford. Spencer Hawes looked like an honest to god good player last year. Jeremy Lin had one of the best seasons of his career under Clifford. The man can flat out coach, and he knows how to make players succeed. There’s no reason this upcoming group can’t be any different.
In the end, everybody that has left the Hornets can be considered replaceable. Is it disappointing that they’re not around? Yes, but sometimes bringing the band back together is not always the best or most realistic option. Charlotte chose to sacrifice the bench for future spending options, and kept the key pieces of their core together. One of those key pieces is going to be returning with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Has the competition around the Hornets really increased so much that they won’t be able to at least tread water and stay in the middle of the playoffs? This is a team that has time and time again exceeded the expectations put in front of them. That’s just what Steve Clifford teams do.
As the Hornets once again fight with expectations don’t be surprised to see them sitting in the playoffs once again. Right where they shouldn’t be.