Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part One

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Open browser > Navigate to DraftExpress > Talk myself into prospects. Oh my. Oh dear. How did this happen again? Is it real? How did the Hornets rebrand season – once so full of promise – nosedive into a Bobcats-worthy dumpster of lethargy and chaos?

So many things had to go wrong for Charlotte to miss the 2015 Playoffs. Injuries were a legitimate problem but the roster construction did plenty of damage before the neo-Hornets ever stepped onto their honeycombed court. Seriously, has a prized free agent ever tanked as mightily as Lance Stephenson? It happens in the NFL all the time (Sean Gilbert, Albert Haynesworth) but in the NBA, a dramatic fall like “Born Ready’s” is nearly unheard of. And how could a seemingly minor roster move like replacing Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams prove so tone deaf in retrospect? How did a coaching staff once so promising completely lose the players’ focus when it mattered most?

If we learned anything this season, it’s that successful NBA franchises function as unified organisms. They embody singular visions of HOW WE ARE GOING TO WIN which is ultimately manifested on the court. The coach, the GM, the scouts, ownership and the roster are all on the same page; all focused on the same goal. The Spurs are the obvious example of this kind of vertically integrated masterplan – but so are the Hawks (Spurs wannabes), the Grizzlies (finally rid of the curmudgeon Lionel Hollins), the Warriors (perfect front office/coach/roster combination), the Rockets (superstars, superstars, superstars) and the Clippers (GM/Coach = same dude). The Bucks are on their own unified, distinct path and could very well rule the East over the next half decade.

When I look at the Hornets I see a fractured blueprint from roster to ownership; a team that hasn’t committed to one direction. A team that’s trying to be good now while also trying to develop (very) raw talent. An ownership group that staffs up one of the league’s largest analytics teams and then proceeds to place a few of the chairman’s relatives into key positions. A front office that (rightly) attempts to mine the draft for superstars in the rough and then signs Win-Now veteran free agents to hog all of their precious developmental minutes. A coach who preaches players’ untapped potential and versatility and then stifles any display of it with an ultra-conservative offense from decades past.

To be clear, I still believe that Michael Jordan, Rich Cho and Steve Clifford have the potential to build a perennial winner in Charlotte. These are high-level, smart and experienced people. MJ wants to win and has spent the cash to make it happen. Cho skates to where the puck’s going. Clifford is respected by his players and his peers. And in order to succeed, they’ll need to get on the same page and answer some very tough questions about the franchise’s future.

PART I: THE KEMBA CONUNDRUM

Starting in July, Kemba Walker goes from being a nice young player on a rookie deal to a guy in his mid-twenties making $12m per season. And yes, I know the cap is rising and that $12m won’t be AS painful two seasons from now. Still, the fact that we’re even talking about it potentially being a problem is a problem.
If you were the most casual of casual Hornets fans you would be forgiven in believing that Kemba is the team’s best player. Google “Hornets highlights” and one of his step-back, crunch-time jumpers will inevitably flash before your eyes. By virtue of UConn’s storied 2011 Final Four run, Walker is perhaps the most recognizable name on the roster outside of Lance and his size and character are ready-made fan favorite qualities. Indeed, there are games when Kemba is the Hornets best player – he’ll single-handily swing games by hitting tough shot after tough shot while his teammates cheer even louder than the fans.
And then there are the other games. The ones the casual fans either don’t see or don’t want to admit to seeing.

Antithetical Prototypes

The QC’s own Steph Curry just won the MVP of the league. He did this by distilling his game into the perfect modern, post-D’Antoni Point Guard. A lead ball handler who can devastate defenses off the pick, Steph dares you to go over OR under. On the ball or off, Curry panics defenses at every turn. He’s an exquisite shooter with fantastic court vision and surprisingly good handles. Like Steve Nash before him, Steph forces you to pick your poison – and they’re all deadly.

Let’s contrast this with Walker. If you’re an opposing defense, does Kemba terrify you at the point of attack? Hardly.
Walker is statistically a very below average shooter (he’s at 39% from the field for his career, 31% from three) and lacks above-average rim-finishing skills or court vision (his per 36 and per 100 possession assists dipped even further last year) to make up for it. Most alarming: despite his shooting limitations Walker is often stricken by what hoops optometrists refer to as “tunnel vision”. Squint and you’ll almost see Allen Iverson out there running a one man show. Squint a little more and you’ll realize that it’s the Detroit version of AI.
And even if Kemba was the second coming of peak-Iverson, would you want that sort of player leading a team in 2015? The modern NBA is all about ball movement and disruption. Never allow a defense to get comfortable; attack them anywhere and everywhere. Give Doc Rivers credit, he’s let Chris Paul and Blake Griffin improvise for much of the Playoffs and it’s worked wonders keeping elite defenses on their heels.
With Kemba, an opponent requires only one strategy: let him shoot it. So what if he gets hot? At sub-40% shooting you’ll live with that choice – and, better yet, a suddenly hot, myopic Walker negates any need to waste intellect or energy defending much easier buckets from open teammates. Yes, Kemba is fast and can penetrate with the best of them. Again, so what? If he’s unable to hit guys with easy looks underneath or finish at a higher than average rate, let him have it. A seven game series is a law of averages and eventually Kemba’s averages will win (or lose) out.

Repair or Replace?

Previous issues aside, if the Hornets are intent on moving forward with Kemba as their starting point guard, there is a way to make it work.
During the season that earned Kemba his $48 million extension (the Bobcats finale) Walker thrived due to the simple fact that he didn’t really have to play point. The team had Josh McRoberts to handle the rock in the half court, to stretch the defense, to shift opponents with crafty dribble post-ups across the paint, to notch hockey assists. Cho attempted to find a younger, similar player to team with Kemba longterm but the Jazz matched the Hornets’ max-contract offer to Gordon Hayward. McRoberts subsequently took his talents to South Beach* after the team de-prioritized him and the Hornets’ offense fell apart. (*credit Pat Riley for completely disrupting an up and coming division rival for the low cost of the mid-level exception. Riles proves once again that he is as ruthless and brilliant as his old pal Gordon Gecko.)

Here’s the issue going forward: Outside of McRoberts, Hayward, Boris Diaw, James Harden and a few others, there simply aren’t many other non-point guards who can run a team. Cody Zeller may eventually develop into a lite-version of that player in time with any luck but the Hornets need more than hope and they need it soon. Finding the perfect roster mate who can compensate for Kemba’s weaknesses will be difficult AND - here’s the big AND – even if Charlotte does find that guy, they have to make certain that peak-Kemba is worth constructing your entire roster around. If the answer to that mega-question is “no” then the team will need to explore other options:

Option 1: Crawford, Jamal Crawford.

When the cap rises to $80 million plus, Kemba’s $12m per deal could be palatable for a sixth man. The team could then limit Walker to a single developmental objective going forward: take better shots and make them, forgoing all other point guard related tasks. Sixth Man Kemba does one thing and one thing only, put the ball in the basket when the rest of the team can’t. The entire second unit is his to dominate (Hey, it’ll be like old times in 2011!) and Walker finishes games next to a bigger point guard in crunch time (#Pray4Mudiay or #Don’tHustle4Russell).

Option 2: Trader Cho.

The team packages Kemba with an asset in order to both A.) clear $48m from the payroll and B.) upgrade the position. Ty Lawson is the obvious candidate du jour. Given Cho’s modus operandi when it comes to asset management, I’d put the chances of this sort of deal at less than 25%. That said, the team should at least consider it because a point guard who can’t get other guys involved risks DEVALUING all of your assets. Bismack Biyombo may be the next Tyson Chandler for all we know. Noah Vonleh could be Kawhi meets Bosh. Doesn’t matter if Starbury 2.0 is playing solo in the halfcourt.

Up Next
Of course, the Kemba Conundrum isn’t the only major issue facing the Hornets this offseason. There’s the matter of Big Al’s waistline, Hendo’s player option, Biyombo’s restricted free agency and Lance – Lance is always a major issue. Those issues and more coming up in Part II.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

A Disruptive Force

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Big Al Jefferson. He is a plodding, slow-to-react defensive liability. He hesitates to pass out of doubles. His mere presence throws the games’ pace back to the mid–90’s. And he’s by far the Hornets’ most important player.

This is not up for debate. Why? Because the other team actually has to scheme for him. He’s Disruptive with a capital D. There is literally no other player on Charlotte’s roster who inspires this sort of effort from an opponent. As young and promising as some of the Hornets’ prospects are, no player outside of maybe (fingers crossed) Noah Vonleh will ever put this type of pressure on a defense. It’s a simple fact.

Complementary Players Everywhere

We all love Kemba Walker. He’s the definition of gritty & tough but his style of play inspires little fear in the opponent. He can’t consistently kill you in the paint – either on the dish or the drive – and he’s at best a mediocre three point shooter. Walker does most of his damage on iso fall-away two’s and the occasional spotup three. In fact, it’s better for an opponent if he’s hitting those shots because he’ll get tunnel vision. “Please, play the poor man’s Iverson game,” opponents beg. It’s pretty low efficiency stuff and easy to defend. Remember that Gerald Henderson and Kemba ran this type of show together back in 2012–2013 as a “promising young backcourt” that averaged a combined 32.5 points per contest and won 21 games all season.

Opposing teams will live with guys like Kemba, Gerald and Gary Neal going for a team high 28. Keep them outside of the lane and you’re good. None of the Hornets’ complementary scorers are exceptional three point shooters and none of them can force their ways to the bucket. Rudimentary pro defense can stop that. But a healthy, engaged Big Al is dangerous. He will get your bigs in foul trouble with pumps and fakes on the low block. He will command double teams. He will hit sixty percent of his shots from the low block. If he goes for 30, the Hornets have a legitimate shot of beating a good team. Opponents have to stop him.

Disruptors Disrupt

Big Al is a prime example of why this league is all about Disruptors: Guys who do things opposing defenses don’t want or aren’t prepared for them to do. There are many Disruptors out there and most of them are superstars: Lebron, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker. But there’s also guys like Kyle Lowry, Big Al and Kyle Korver. Players who specialize in dominating either of the two zones modern NBA defenses are setup to protect at all costs: the rim and the three point arc. Check out the following shot charts:

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Now check out Kemba and Gerald:

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Sure, Gerald hits a high percentage once he actually gets inside but because he can’t shoot, the defense sags off and prevents the push into the lane. Same goes for Kemba’s poor numbers. Even with his improved three point percentage in December, teams are hardly running Walker off the line. And once Kemba gets into the paint, a good defensive opponent will live with sub-50% finishing at the rim. The ugly truth is that none of the Hornets secondary “threats” are worth losing sleep over defensively.

Build Around the Disruptor

Both Atlanta and Toronto have played it smart. Even though their Disruptors are minor stars, they’ve built entire systems and rosters around maximizing their Disruptors’ advantages. Atlanta has emphasized crazy offensive rotations and ball movement to free up all of the other shooters around Korver. The Hawks have added size, length and toughness inside, at the wing and at the point of attack to neutralize Korver’s average abilities at the other end. Lowry is a bowling ball that wreaks havoc in the paint and he’s upgraded his ability to find shooters on the dish. The Raps have also surrounded Lowry with long, organized defenders and big, rangy backcourt mates who’ve now been together as a group for nearly three seasons.

If the Hornets are going to build around Big Al’s Disruptive force, they’ll need to go back to the three keys that made his game so effective last season:

  1. Get Al quality looks. Find ball-movers and passers either at the four or on the perimeter who can shift the defense and get Al easy entry looks. Josh McRoberts worked that very role to perfection last season and the Hornets ended up replacing him with a spot-up defensive-liability (Marvin Williams) and a ball-dominant iso player who can’t shoot (Lance Stephenson). With those moves, the Hornets’ front office literally did what few teams could do last season: completely neutralize Big Al.
  2. Give Al space to work. If the entire defense is focused on both stopping Big Al in the paint AND stopping any Charlotte defender from getting into the lane – guess where the entire defense is going to be hanging? You guessed it. McRoberts brought deep shooting that the new starting PF, Cody Zeller, doesn’t have. Lance, Gerald and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scare NO ONE from deep. Gary Neal, Kemba, Brian Roberts and Marvin either take too long to shoot or are so inconsistent that you’ll live with giving them open looks. P.J. Hairston is the team’s only hope as a pure shooter and he’s currently hitting 29% from downtown. The Hornets’ front office has done a tremendously poor job at opening up space for Al to work with. Names like Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow and Evan Fournier were out on the market last summer and Charlotte either passed or didn’t get involved. That can’t happen in today’s modern NBA – Big Al or no. One can only imagine how much wing shooting would improve Kemba’s drive and dish game going forward.
  3. Give Al a frontcourt mate who can defend. Cody gets pushed around regularly. Vonleh isn’t ready. Marvin is a liability. McRoberts played big last season and helped erase some of Jefferson’s defensive shortcomings. The front office needs to find a stout defensive presence at PF who can complement Big Al – at least until Vonleh is ready. They had one and let him walk.

Building Around Big Al is Dumb (Wait, Wha-?!)

This is the point where you say “Al Jefferson is old and is limited, why build around a guy like that?” First of all, he just turned 30. Second, he’s logged under 23,000 career minutes. Keep in mind that Lebron is the same age and just crossed 40,000 (which doesn’t include stints playing for Team USA).

More importantly, if the Hornets don’t build around Jefferson, who will they build around? Kemba? We’ve already covered that topic. He’s at best a complementary semi-star. MKG? Again, a nice glue guy but he’ll never force an oppenent to alter their scheme. Cody? Too passive and is a terrible finisher at the rim. Complementary role player.

Outside of Big Al, the Hornets have exactly three shots at finding another Disruptor over the foreseeable future:

  1. Win this season’s Lottery and select Jahlil Okafor. It may take another three seasons but he projects as a major Disruptive force in the middle.
  2. Vonleh realizes his potential. He’s a 6’9”–6’10” PF with a strong lower body, crazy wingspan and giant hands who handles the ball like a small forward and has a natural three point stroke. He’s also 19 and has at least another season and half to go before he’s ready to impact a meaningful NBA game. And there’s always the chance that both Noah and Okafor could bust out of the league entirely – as longtime Charlotte hoops fans know, there are no guarantees with prospects.
  3. Lure a big-name free agent superstar. I’m not talking Lance or even Gordon Hayward. I mean a real deal, legit, functioning NBA superstar. The only one I can imagine taking the Hornets money in the foreseeable future is Steph Curry – and that won’t happen until July of 2017 (if ever at all).

Conclusion

So this is where we are in 2015 with this Hornets team. Like it or not, Charlotte’s fortunes are tied to Big Al. And if they want to take advantage of his prime, they need to get everyone on the same page (coaching, front office and ownership) and do something about it now.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

Five and Fifteen

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The Problem with Charlotte’s Roster Explained in Six Easy Steps:

1. The team’s biggest offensive threat – BY A COUNTRY MILE – is Big Al Jefferson. How do I know this? Because every time he gets the ball close to his kill spots (low block) the opposing defense bails on the other four guys to collapse on him. They know he’s a legitimate threat to score the ball on every posession. The message is obvious: stop Jefferson and let one of their other guys beat you.

2. The easiest way to punish a defense for triple teaming your best guy is to punish them with open three point shooters. The problem is, as it was last year, Charlotte doesn’t have those types of shooters. Y’know, quick release, dead-eyed long ballers who don’t need to dribble ten times or execute a couple of head fakes before launching a (by now) contested shot.

3. The few guys the Hornets do have who can shoot deep and quick are turnstiles on defense. A lineup of Big Al, Marvin Williams, P.J. Hairston, Gary Neal and Brian Roberts could cure the spacing issues in an instant but then give up a billion points at the other end.

4. After ascending into the league’s Top 10 defenses last season, Steve Clifford’s squad has slipped back into the Bottom 10 thus far this season. The team’s best defensive center, Bismack Biyombo, is barely functional on offense outside of a new-found dive game. The best wing defenders have either been injured (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) or suspended (Jeff Taylor) and while Taylor has shown promise as a ‘three and D’ guy, neither he nor MKG could be mistaken for an offensive terror.

5. The team has major investments – either financial, thru draft status or both – in three other players (Lance Stephenson, Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller) who are neither great long distance threats nor high-end defenders. Kemba is an (at times) very good off the dribble scoring threat who can hit from deep just enough to force the defense to account for him but he’s small, can’t fight over screens and owns an overall shaky jumper. Cody Zeller’s eighteen-footer has come a long way from last season’s abominable percentages. He’s shooting around 40% from outside the paint and the form looks pure. The problem is that the shot is neither fast enough nor far enough to really stretch a defense. Josh McRoberts’ release had a methodical wind-up but the fact that he was several feet back gave Big Al more time and space to make a move. Zeller’s made progress on defense but is still out-muscled down low and struggles on the perimeter guarding stretch fours. And then there’s Lance…

6. Stephenson has been an all around disaster. As a shooter, he’s 7-42 from beyond the arc (16.7%) and 32.7% from outside the paint. Keep in mind that the guy he was supposed to be an upgrade from (Gerald Henderson – never confused with Kyle Korver) has gone 30% and 46% from those same spots. Also, Lance may put up a beefy stat line but most of his rebounds are of the “gimme” variety – defensive boards grabbed out of the hands of a teammate with nary an opponent in sight. “Born Ready’s” 5.4 assists per game come at the price of 2.6 (often egregious and unnecessary) turnovers per and any on-ball defensive benefits are easily out-weighed by his loss of focus off the ball. In short, Lance is good at things the Hornets don’t need and he’s bad at all the things the Hornets do need.

What to do about it

The obvious conclusion is to either trade Lance – who is still young, talented and on a no-risk value contract – OR trade peripheral pieces plus an asset or two (2015 1st Round pick, Noah Vonleh, Zeller) for a two-way, tough-defending three point threats.

The problem is that shooting is extremely valuable in today’s NBA. And guy’s who can make you pay from deep while hounding their man at the other end don’t grow on trees. Take a look at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings: Orlando, Boston, New York, Indiana, Charlotte, Detroit and Philly. Aside from the Knicks and the surprising Magic, every single one of those squads rank in the bottom third of the league’s top distance shooting teams (Charlotte ranks 29th). The entire league is on the lookout for the same guys which explains why Klay Thompson is a max player and why Danny Green may get eight figures per next summer.

This is where Cho’s magical ability to find Bargain Bin Ballers needs to come into play. Finding the next Chris-Douglas Roberts, Anthony Tolliver, McRoberts, etc – is the best way to shore up the team’s weaknesses without mortgaging any of the future. Obviously, the team made a huge mistake not re-signing McRoberts in the first place and while I’d love to see the team make a move to bring him back from Miami, Heat President Pat Riley has absolutely ZERO incentive to empower a division rival. My guess is that they would only trade McRoberts in a package for either Zeller, Vonleh or a first rounder. That’s a tremendously steep price for a guy you could’ve just re-signed five months ago.

The Knicks are a natural landing spot for Lance but what do they have to trade back? Tim Hardaway has a fantastic stroke but would add yet another one-way player to the Hornets’ roster. Iman Shumpert is likely a downgrade from Gerald Henderson. The Nuggets could be convinced of Lance/Arron Afflalo swap. Something like that is the best case scenario if the organization wants to steer clear of the asset carpet-bombing days of Larry Brown and Rod Higgins.

That previous era’s lack of patience and long-term roster construction lies at the heart of the Charlotte’s current crisis: Ensure competitiveness in the re-brand year or take the PR hit today and keeping adding assets. It’s a huge question that doesn’t have an obvious answer. One good, costly trade could elevate the team today and push them into the thick of the East’s Playoff picture come April. The city would buzz and the Hornets would be relevant. But if that kind of trade were to backfire…well, all I can say is Google the phrase “2011 Bobcats”.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Four and Eleven

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It’s November 25th and Charlotte’s NBA team is a disastrous 4-11. The rebranded Hornets were supposed to erase the fanbase’s memories of the Bobcats yet the slow, sloppy start has only brought back memories of that franchise’s blunders.

Steve Clifford’s squad has played unfocused, disjointed and undisciplined basketball; last season’s chemistry a distant memory. Can this ship be turned around before it’s too late? Bradford Coombs and I answers some tough questions:

1. The Hornets’ struggles are mostly a result of A.) roster makeup, B.) coaching philosophy, C.) injuries.

Bradford (@bradford_NBA): A fair amount of A and a little bit of B. For a team whose identity is supposed to be defense, the pieces aren’t a perfect fit. A single rim protector can cover up a lot of mistakes. MKG is the best defender on the team and missing him hurts. He can cover up some mistakes, but a wing defender’s impact isn’t nearly on the level an individual rim protector. McRoberts was a solid team defender that was willing to mix it up. The Hornets are 7 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Williams on the court. By comparison, McBobs was a -3. That’s a pretty big difference. The real problem is that Williams also has a negative impact on the offense while McRoberts had a decidedly positive impact. Clifford is being patient with moving Cody into the starting lineup, but the numbers and the tape speak for themselves. It shouldn’t be too much longer.

ASChin (@BaselineBuzz): I’ll cut Clifford some slack and say it’s 70% A and 30% B. MKG’s the team’s best defender by a mile and his absence has turned a once proud Charlotte defense into one of the league’s bottom third. Opponents are shooting nearly 47% against the Hornets and the team’s 18th overall ranking in points against belies Charlotte’s slow pace. Yet MKG’s absence wouldn’t hurt nearly as much on another team. Big Al and Marvin might be the worst defending 4/5 combination in the league which is why we’ve seen so much Cody over the past week and a half. If you’re going to build a team around Big Al – who, make no mistake, is excellent at what he does – you need to surround him with rim protectors and shooters. Period. The Hornets haven’t done that.

2. If the struggles continue, who is most likely to be shipped out of town during the season: A.) Steve Clifford, B.) Lance Stephenson?

Bradford: I would bet my life savings on neither. But I’m a good sport. You don’t need to look any further than his contract to see that the organization is being cautious about Lance as a Hornet. They were willing to break the bank for Gordon Hayward in the offseason, and really for Al Jefferson the year before. Lance got much less than many expected with a team option to boot. The facts speak for themselves I think.

ASChin: The organization can’t afford another coaching carousel. If one of them gets shipped out of town, it’ll be Lance – who is a much easier scapegoat. Kemba and Lance are a terrible backcourt pairing due to their overlapping strengths and weaknesses. Either their minutes need to be staggered or one will have to go. Walker’s cap number isn’t getting any smaller so I’m betting it would be Lance.

3. Has the rest of the league figured out Clifford’s defensive scheme OR is MKG’s absence to blame?

Bradford: Clifford’s defensive scheme isn’t unique in the NBA. To say the league has figured it out would be to condemn everyone else running the Van Gundy/Thibbadeau principles. I spent some time looking at opponent scoring numbers after the Miami game. The biggest discrepencies from last season to this season are in opponent FT% and opponent 2 point %. It will be interesting to see how the defense performs when MKG and Cody are in the lineup. MKG’s defensive numbers aren’t great this season, but he’s only played 6 games. If Lance can clean up some mental errors, the MKG/Cody/Lance trio should be able to do some really nice work on that side of the ball.

ASChin: I’m with Bradford on this one. Clifford’s system is fine – injuries have forced him to play some hyper-flammable lineups. We’ve seen way too much of Marvin/Al, Neal/Kemba or Roberts/Kemba. Very much looking forward to the following lineups once everyone’s healthy: Al/Cody/MKG/PJ/Kemba and Biz/Marvin/JT/Lance/Neal (or Roberts) – those groups have balance at both ends, especially on D.

4. Is MKG the next Gerald Wallace in a bad way? (i.e. misses 15-20 games a year due to reckless playing style)

Bradford: I’m not going to pretend to know anything about an individual’s health, but it’s certainly a concern. I’m not sure MKG is capable of dialing it back. It’s really disappointing as he has looked like a most improved player candidate early.

ASChin: He missed 4 games his rookie season, 20 games as a soph and 9 thus far this season. The guy plays full-on and refuses to turn it down a notch – which is admirable. He dives into the paint like it was a mid-90’s mosh pit and takes risks in transition. We watched Crash do similar things for nearly a decade. Let’s hope the sequel has a better ending.

5. Are Kemba’s struggles a result of plateaued development or is Lance just a poor backcourt mate with his overlapping strengths/weaknesses?

Bradford: Save the 2012-2013 season, Kemba’s shooting has been consistently below average. That has nothing to do with Lance and everything to do with Kemba. If he can’t be a consistent 3 point shooter and can’t finish in the paint….

ASChin: Then he’s a lesser version of Isaiah Thomas and significantly overpaid. I’m holding out hope but he turns 25 in May and is on the books for $12 million per for the next four seasons. All those step-back, fade-away J’s look great when they go in but I’ve yet to see Kemba develop a reliable spot up shot ala Tony Parker. Walker’s leadership qualities are solid and he’s become a better distributor in some ways but his inability to consistently finish in close or knock down shots should keep Rich Cho up at night.

6. Do the Hornets build around Big Al by finding or developing a high post PF who can protect the rim or do they let him walk and build around Cody and Vonleh?

Bradford: This is the million dollar question. Al is such a unique player in the league and really has to have an entire roster designed to maximize his skills. And even if you were to do that, would it be the type of team that could compete at the highest level? I honestly don’t know. I was pretty vocally against his signing for this very reason. I feel comfortable saying I was wrong in the short term, but that decision will have to be made again when he opts out after this season. If I’m being honest, Cho has to hope the answer is a Zeller/Vonleh front court, but it’s impossible to know if that’s realistic.

ASChin: In an ideal world, Cody develops into a borderline All-Star big this season with Vonleh turning into an everyday contributor next season. Big Al plays out his option and Charlotte either re-signs him at a similar number until Noah is ready to start or let’s Jefferson walk for bigger money. I LOVE Big Al and everything he’s done for the team in his short time here but if the organization can’t find the perfect pieces to surround him with, their ceiling will remain low. Either way, the team needs to keep their long-term strategy the same: build around the Cody/Vonleh/MKG core.

7. What’s a realistic trade scenario the Hornets could make between now and the Deadline?

Bradford: It’s way too soon for me to have an answer to that. It will be at the deadline if at all.

ASChin: They need three and D guys on the perimeter and an upgrade over Marvin at the four. I could see McRoberts coming back for the right price (Riley will ransom him). If the poop really hits the fan, I could see Big Al being traded to a contending team out West. Can you imagine a Davis/Big Al/Asik/Anderson rotation in New Orleans? Too bad the Pellies don’t have any picks to send back.

8. Will the Hornets make the Playoffs?

Bradford: Look, this has sucked. But it’s the east. The schedule will let up at some point, the 76ers and Pistons will come to town, and Charlotte is as viable a candidate as there is to do what Brooklyn did last year. The track record is there. And I’m an optimist. There’s a good team in those jerseys. We’ve seen it for stretches. Go home, eat some turkey, and things will get better. Right?

ASChin: Given the pressures of the rebrand, the assets available for trade and the veteran leadership within the lockerroom…I’m going to say yes. Barely.

Baseline Observations: Three Games In

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A few quick notes on what we’ve liked and what we haven’t EARLY in the Hornets’ rebrand season:

    • THEY COULD BE 3-0. Change just a handful of late game possessions and Charlotte could be undefeated. The Memphis loss came down to some atrocious 36% shooting and a few key 4th quarter defensive lapses. The loss in New York could’ve been avoided with an impartial ref and a healthy MKG. Encouraging stuff for a team that hasn’t really figured each other out quite yet.
    • LANCE + KEMBA. Two guards who love dribbling. Lance is a good one-on-one player who is under the impression he is great; turnovers ensue (3TOPG – YIKES!). Kemba started the season 10-37 from the field. If Coach Clifford is going to play these guys together in crunch time, Kemba will need to become a better catch and shoot player while Lance refines his drive and dish game. It’s either that or one sits in favor of Brian Roberts or Gary Neal.
    • FREE BIZ! I get Clifford’s reasoning for going Maxiell over Biyombo at the backup center. Maxiell is (theoretically) a better all-around player. He knows where to be on both ends. He (theoretically) has better hands and is more of a threat to actually hit a mid-range jumper as a safety valve. He’s a banger and a veteran. The problem is that A.) Jason hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire with his shooting (3-7) or rebounding (1.7 per) and has already logged a 3 turnover game AND B.) the Hornets are giving up a way too much stuff at the rim (see Bradford’s tweet below). So if you’re going to play an offensive liability as Big Al’s backup, why not give Biz one more shot to prove himself? $100 says Charlotte trades for a two way backup center before the deadline.

    • WING ISSUES. Jeff Taylor really screwed the pooch. The team desperately needs another big wing who can guard oversized SFs and Taylor had the gig lined up until his Michigan Mishap. DV is no laughing matter so I’ll stick to discussing the incident’s impact on the court. Once MKG went down at the Garden, the Hornets had to rely on Lance as a Melo cover and it just didn’t work. Stephenson has the strength to guard big threes but lacks the length and has to save too much energy for the other end. Hendo gives up even more size. I’m not as high on Taylor’s upside as some but I’d love to have him for 10-15 minute spot duty against certain matchups.
    • THEY’LL GET BETTER. Let’s face it, these Hornets have no idea how to play together yet. But last year’s Bobcats started slow too. Once Clifford sorts out the Lance/Kemba dynamic and the team re-learns the defensive harmony that worked so well last season, the Hornets should take off. There is just too much talent for them not too.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Baseline Buzz Hornets Season Preview 2014-2015

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FIFTEEN FOR FIFTEEN! Baseliner’s Dr. E, Bradford Coombs and A.S. Chin answer fifteen burning questions as we head into the neo-Hornets era:

1. The season is just hours away. We’ve been through the Draft hype, the Free Agency hype and now the Preseason hype. What are you most excited to see from these neo-Hornets?

Bradford: Without question it’s MKG for me. I expect incremental improvement from his jump shot and think it’s still a couple years away from being a reliable weapon. But anyone who has seen the preseason has noticed the aggressiveness that has come with his newfound confidence on offense. I think the improvement everyone expected from year 1 to year 2 is going to manifest itself in year 3. I’m probably too old to be buying jerseys, but I might need an MKG jersey.

Dr.E: Two things: A) MKG taking a step forward to become a more confident offensive player and B) How Lance Stephenson fits in. From a strictly basketball point, some of Hendo’s minutes going to Lance should be a good thing — all those fadeaway long twos Hendo had to take at the end of the shot clock when the first option on offense had been stifled? Many of those are going to be Lance drives to the basket now. But the chemistry thing is what I’m more interested to see — I still worry that Lance was a big part of the Pacers undoing last year.

ASChin: The Cho Show. It was the least hyped event of the Hornets offseason yet MJ’s decision to dump Rod Higgins in order to let Rich Cho run the basketball side solo could turn out to be the organization’s best move. Higgins track record was horrendous and while Cho hasn’t been perfect (drafting Biz over Klay/Kawhi/Faried/Vucevic), he’s been way more successful and consistent in his transactions than Cory’s father ever was. Hornets fans haven’t had a legit GM running the show since Bob Bass skipped town over a decade ago. This could be the start of something good.

2. The Hornets starting PF at the end of the year is…?

Bradford: Marvin Williams will start, but Cody Zeller will be a better player and have the better year. Vonleh will barely see the court. I love Cody’s playmaking in the preseason. He’s driving and kicking to the plethora of shooters in the second unit. Williams has the better shooting range, which the starters desperately need.

Dr.E: I’ll go chalk here and say Marvin Williams. I know he’s had a quiet preseason, but he’s a reliable vet who’s learning a new system — he’ll be fine.

ASChin: I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Charlotte is the only team in the league that has a ‘Cody’ backing up a ‘Marvin’. Also, I’m gonna go out on a longer limb and say that Cody is the starter by Playoff time. The mid-range release has looked faster during the preseason and he looks more confident shooting it. Zeller’s playmaking isn’t as flashy as McRoberts’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as effective. Cody makes smart basketball plays and goes hard for contested boards. He looks stronger too. A little bit more consistency and he might be too good to keep on the pine.

3. True or False: Rich Cho purposefully timed Lance’s final year (team option) with Gordon Hayward’s player option.

Bradford: True. But mostly for fun. Utah’s cap sheet is going to get interesting quickly having made so many draft picks so quickly. And if you’ve been watching Hayward whipping cross-court passes out of the pick-and-roll you can see what Cho liked. It’s pretty interesting that he was able to get such a team friendly deal with Stephenson. I can’t be the only one who thought, “They meant player option, right?” when I saw the headline.

Dr.E: I think it’s safe to say that both sides (Lance and the Hornets) wanted the contract to be on the short side. Lance knew he cost himself some money with his antics last season, and wanted to bet on himself with a shorter contract that expires when the salary cap will be significantly higher. The Hornets want future flexibility in general, as much for Steph Curry as Gordon Hayward probably.

ASChin: True. As the Baseline’s resident conspiracy theorist, I’m gonna say that Cho knew exactly what sort of deal Lance would agree to and poison-pilled Hayward’s contract in advance to give them another playmaking wing option should Stephenson bolt in a few seasons. The team made a HUGE impression on Gordon apparently – sending a crack team of investigators to uncover Hayward’s favorite refined sugar product and real-time strategy game. Don’t be shocked if Gordon’s wearing teal next to Steph Cur- *COUGH* Kemba Walker in a few years.

4. MKG will finish the regular season with the following stats:

Bradford: 12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block in 28 minutes per game. I think MKG plays closer to 30 minutes this year and all non-scoring stats increase proportionately. For scoring I used his pre-season usage rate and multiplied that by small increases in shooting and free-throw percentages. These numbers may seem modest considering my previously stated expectations, but the increased usage and efficiency are big deals in my mind despite the raw numbers not being overwhelming.

Dr.E: 11ppg, 7rpg, and a 15.0 PER in 27 minutes/game.

ASChin: Dr.E and I can’t compete with Bradford’s understanding of math. 12.5ppg, 7rpg, 1apg, 1.5spg, 1bpg AKA “The Young Gerald Wallace” line.

5. Most likely Hornet to be traded before the Deadline is…?

Bradford: Henderson is the easy answer. I’m going with Bismack Bye-ombo (see what I did there?). I’ve been really loyal to Biz, all the way up until the preseason where it’s just been the same old things. A good rim protector who struggles with defensive positioning beyond standing at the rim and waiting, with nothing to bring to the table offensively. You can’t even throw lobs or hit him as a roll-man let alone post him up. I could go out on a real limb and say PJ Hairston is going to come on strong and Biz will be packaged with Gary Neal at the deadline to fill out a contender’s roster, or Sacramento’s overly exuberant ownership.

Dr.E: It’s less likely now with Jeff Taylor no longer around, but I’ll still say Gerald Henderson. Dark horse would be Cody Zeller or Noah Vonleh if some big trade became available.

ASChin: Trader Cho has lots to work with heading into the Deadline. IF the team believes that both Cody and Vonleh are and always will be power forwards then one has to go, right? Before Taylor’s meltdown, I swore Hendo was the odd man out. Now the team desperately needs another athletic wing who can defend off the pine. Biz isn’t worth anything close to his upcoming qualifying offer or cap hold but he’s worth more to Charlotte now as a backup big than the 2nd Round pick he’d return. I’m going with Gary Neal.

6. Will Al Jefferson finally make the All-Star team?

Bradford: Sadly, no. I think you’ll see some combination of Bosh/Noah/Horford. If he does it will be due to Noah’s foot or Horford’s pectoral muscle.

Dr.E: As long as he doesn’t have a slow start, yes.

ASChin: If Charlotte is over .500 by the time the coaches vote, they’ll have to send a representative. YES.

7. The biggest dropoff from last season will be…?

Bradford: This one is pretty obvious when you think about it. It’s protecting the ball. Charlotte’s turnover ratio was tops in the league last season by a healthy margin. Lance Stephenson had a higher turnover ratio than anybody on the team last year.

Dr.E: I’m a little worried about regression for Big Al.

ASChin: Behind the back passes. Oh, how I grieve for you McBob…

8. The biggest improvement from last season will be…?

Bradford: Shooting, shooting, shooting. All credit to CDR and Anthony Tolliver for their efforts last year, but a full season of Gary Neal, Brian Roberts, PJ Hairston, Marvin Williams, Lance Stephenson… They shouldn’t be 23rd in 3 point percentage next year.

Dr.E: Hoping it’s MKG, but seeming more likely it’s Gary Neal, with the weight loss in the offseason and a full preseason in Clifford’s system.

ASChin: One more vote for shooting. The Bobcats were a very poor shooting team before the Break last season. Two of that team’s three point weapons, CDR (51) and McRoberts (105), DEMOLISHED their career highs in three pointers made – notching nearly two-thirds more makes than their cumulative previous career totals. Tolliver’s 105 makes will be missed but so many of his threes came in bunches early and he mostly sat once Douglas-Roberts proved a better defending option at SF. Marvin (84 threes in 66 games), Roberts (66), Lance (86), Neal and P.J. Hairston will more than make up for the departed. Each one of those guys has faster strokes and, outside of Lance, rarely hesitate to launch one. The big key to the Hornets becoming a very good shooting team is Kemba – he should get more spot up opportunities this year playing off of Lance.

9. Will Noah Vonleh log any meaningful minutes in his rookie season?

Bradford: Nope.

Dr.E: Clifford has already pretty much said no for the first half of the season, and if the Hornets are in the thick of the playoff race, might not be many minutes in the second half either.

ASChin: Not likely. I’ve been using Portland-era Jermaine O’Neal as a comp. He’ll sit as a youngster on a good team and learn valuable lessons behind vets who are trying to win now.

10. More likely to make an appearance at the TWC the season: Jeff Taylor or Rufus Lynx?

Bradford: My first inclination is to say Rufus. But if Taylor was going to get cut, why wait? He’s nothing more than insurance on the wing with no real future with the franchise (sorry JT fans). The team has to know more about the situation than has been publicly released. I don’t know if we’ll see him get minutes in an actual game, but I think you’ll be able to catch him chilling on the bench at some point.

Dr.E: Neither.

ASChin: Rufus and his friends Primoz Brezec and Melvin Ely will crash the Hornets opener wearing black B.W.O. t-shirts. OHMYGAWD IT’S A BOBCATS WORLD ORDER!!!

11.  Worst move of the offseason: Letting McRoberts walk for the mid-level OR Paying Marvin Williams $7 million per season?

Bradford: I’m going to say Marvin Williams at $7 million fully guaranteed. Some sort of team option or partial guarantee on year 2 would have made sense with such a high number. It’s not a crippling move, but it’s not very flexible either.
As for McRoberts, last year was a career year that I don’t think he’ll match again. It was a right place, right time kind of situation. The 3 point shooting probably won’t hold up. And even though he hit 3’s at a decent clip, teams still didn’t respect it according to SportsVU’s gravity measurements as discussed here  (Insider Only). The more interesting angle on McRoberts is which decision was worse, Cho not re-signing him or McRoberts choosing to leave?

Dr.E: Letting McRoberts walk for sure. If the Hornets don’t get off to a good start, it won’t be the end of the world, but it will be because McBob isn’t on the floor holding things together.

ASChin: McRoberts was set to become this generation’s Gminski, a bearded Dookie who played the game the only way a six-ten Jesus could: with style and grace; turning Lebron’s other cheek into his other elbow. Why Cho? WHY???!!!

12. The Hornets finish the season with a record of…?

Bradford: I’m sticking with my non-stats based 45-37 prediction from the summer.

Dr.E: 47-35.

ASChin: 50-32. The first time a Charlotte NBA team has notched fifty since 1998.

13. True or False: The Hornets will win a Playoff game this season.

Bradford: True. Not only will they win a playoff game this season, they’ll win a playoff series.

Dr.E: True.

ASChin: They’ll get to the Mike Woodson Invitational AKA The Second Round.

14. What does Kemba’s contract extension look like?

Bradford: 4 years, $50 million with a player option on the fourth year.

Dr.E: It’s really hard to say without knowing more details about how and how much the salary cap is going to go up over the next few years right?  I guess in the 10-11 million per range?

ASChin: Cap uncertainty is a major issue but Cho’s greatest strength has been contract negotiation. I’m gonna say it’s 4yrs, $48m with a team option after year three – timing it perfectly with a famous Charlottean’s free agency.

15. Unsung Hero: Which under the radar Hornet makes the biggest contribution this season?

Bradford: As a bit of a fanboy I want to say Brian Roberts, and I love his signing, but I’m going to go with Gerald Henderson. He’s the forgotten man and there are legitimate concerns about his fit with the team going forward. But I think he becomes an essential glue guy. He’s been overextended since he escaped the shackles of Larry Brown. He never should have been a first, second, or even third option on offense. He has an opportunity to redefine his career as a spot-up shooter and cutter who never handles the ball and puts most of his energy into defense. You know who else couldn’t shoot for the life of him until all he had to do was stand there, catch, and shoot? Thabo Sefalosha. Steve Clifford loves defensive versatility and Hendo is strong enough and athletic enough to defend multiple positions. An obvious trade target, and I’m not saying he won’t be, but Hendo is going to play a big role on this team. It’s all up to him to take on this new challenge and I think he’ll have a great year.

Dr.E: Gary Neal.

ASChin: Tyrus Thomas. MJ is gonna cringe every time he sends out a cut of the $9 million amnesty the team still owes T-Time. Every time Dougie McBuckets nails a three (Chicago acquired McDermott by packaging the Bobcats first rounder from the Thomas trade), MJ is going to curse the names of Larry Brown and Rod Higgins. The Tyrus and Tyson Chandler deals cemented Jordan’s status as a poor basketball mind five years ago. He’ll use these memories like he used getting cut from his high school basketball team. As the Waterboy would say, “Tacklin’ Fuel”. The Hornets will win a title in the next decade.

Bonus Predictions from Bradford:

  • Kemba shoots 45% from the field.
  • Cody Zeller averages 3+ assists per game.
  • PJ Hairston scores 30 in a game at some point.
  • Charlotte ranks in the top half of the league in attendance.
  • Lance Stephenson has less than 10 technical fouls all season.

Welcome Back Hornets Fans

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November 1988. I was right there with you. Eleven years old, I had just started getting into hoops a couple of years prior. The speed and the skill fascinated me. The Celtics fascinated me. Kevin McHale’s armpit hair fascinated me. If I had that much pit-hair, I absolutely would not play with my elbows that high. Kareem fascinated me. He fought Bruce Lee in Game of Death and trained with him in the offseason. That’s all a half-Asian/half-redneck kid needed to know. These were some cool dudes.

Then the Hornets showed up. The concept of “expansion” didn’t really hit me back then. I was in the sixth grade – nearly everything is expansion when you’re that age. Did you know that people in France eat snails? Expansion. Did you know there was a state called New Mexico? Expansion. Did you know that girls weren’t in fact “icky”? Expansion.

The Charlotte Hornets were bad that season. Not Michael Jackson BAD. Not Color Me Badd. They were Paula Abdul Straight Up now tell me bad. Still, there was an endearing circus quality about the team. Their best scorers were Kelly Tripucka and Robert Reid; each rocking a non-discriminatory tight curl perm-fro. Rex Chapman, the team’s star draft pick, was a twenty year old kid from Appalachia whose rare mullet/rattail combo never caught on outside of Kentucky. The team’s best known player was a nerd in horn-rimmed glasses named Kurt Rambis who dominated the Bojangles Hustle Stats. Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues was a point guard shorter than a few of the kids in my sixth grade class. Rounding out the roster were a stack of random create-a-player fodder that you would’ve been pissed to find in your pack of Fleer ’88-89’s if you happened to live outside of Mecklenburg County. Whatever. They were our guys.

The entire Charlotte area expanded like crazy back in the 80s and 90s. People arrived from upstate New York, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Looking for a better life with clean, safe streets, cheaper housing and something called sunshine. A symbol of the region’s growth and status, the Hornets united Charlotteans new and old.

Within weeks of the Hornet’s inaugural home opener my brother and I were playing our first organized hoops game for Long Creek Elementary in Huntersville, channeling our inner Curetons, our inner Kemptons and Rowsoms. We eventually took that show to Iredell County and then across the border to Fort Mill, channeling our inner LJ’s, Zo’s and DC’s for three. Our household was unstable growing up. We moved around a lot. Our parents divorced. Our dad moved back to Asia and before long our mother had re-married. There was however one constant: The Charlotte Hornets.

LJ-retro-01Come to think of it, the Hornets might’ve been one of the few things we truly enjoyed together as a family. We didn’t watch the same TV shows or movies. Activities were rare. Between work, school and the summers spent visiting our dad overseas, there just wasn’t much time to bond back in the Carolinas. This probably reads sadder than it actually was – mainly because we loved the Hornets so much. Perhaps the happiest moment in our household, when we all felt unified joy – was the moment Zo hit the shot from the top of the key to put away the Celts. I remember it vividly to this day. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

So when Shinn proved a cheapskate, an incompetent and (finally) a spoiled child who didn’t like sharing his toys, we all played it cool but were internally devastated. My mom and I attended that final, sad Hornets home game at the old Coliseum. Our personal lives were going great at that point – college, new careers – but that game felt like going to the funeral of a very dear friend.

The Hornets had become a massive part of our daily lives. Wake up, eat cereal and tear through the Observer sports page. Read Sorensen’s piece on Dr. K or Dave Cowens. Bonnell’s recap of a Playoff win against Milwaukee or a regular season loss to New Jersey. Talking about the last night’s game with your friends at school. The drive to the Coliseum listening to Matt Pinto and Gerry V’s pre-game show. Martin and McGregor in the booth. The energy at the Hive. Jr. Walker and the All-Stars “Shotgun” booming during timeouts. The Chris Farley looking guy who did backflips. The thrill after a win. The pain after a loss. GONE.

The NBA knew that it screwed up BIG by letting Shinn bolt and, in an unprecedented move, immediately awarded the city yet another expansion franchise just a couple of years later. (Consider that Seattle, a larger market with a championship history and major corporate dollars, is still waiting for another team five years after the Sonics bolted for the Midwest.) Unfortunately, rebound relationships almost never work and the Bobcats were no different. A legion of heartbroken fans stayed away. Shinn had abused your trust, your loyalty and your love for too long. You couldn’t go through this again. And you were right.

Unlike the self-hating masochists who identified themselves as Bobcats fans over the last decade (this writer included), YOU old school Hornets fans who stayed away played it smart. YOU had already been through the expansion nonsense once – the growing pains, the awkwardness. YOU had already made a sizable (and ultimately ill-fated) investment of blood, sweat, tears and benjamins into an NBA franchise. And look how it panned out? And now YOU were being asked to do it all over again? For another twerp? Screw this.

The league replaced Shinn with a dodgy, narcissistic, DC-based owner who will ultimately only be remembered for making a series of terrible business decisions and for naming an actual NBA team after himself – not in 2K but in real life. Aloof and insecure, Bob Johnson had little experience outside of the cushy confines of DC crony capitalism. His ill-fated C-SET regional sports network has hamstrung the franchise to this very day. Ever wonder why the arena has the words ‘Time Warner Cable’ written on it and why fans two counties away can’t watch the games? It’s worth a Google. Johnson’s overwhelmed front office passed on superstar after superstar in the Draft. The franchise quickly gained a reputation for thriftiness and instability both on and off the court. Given the needs and expectations of the QC’s abused fanbase, BJ’s reign was an unmitigated EPIC FAIL. The few fans who jumped back in got a heaping helping of headaches to add to our heartbreak. First time shame on you; second time shame on us. Well played, old school Hornets fans – YOU stayed away and it was the right move.

ammo-illustratedIt was a dark, sad era filled with miscues, short-term fixes to long term problems and lots of losing. LOTS and LOTS of losing. The Bobcats had exactly two winning seasons in a decade’s worth of work and never once won a playoff game or notched fifty wins in a season. They passed up a trade for Chris Paul, drafted every guy they shouldn’t have, whiffed in free agency and player development, alienated much of the region with that imbecilic TV deal and played nearly every hand wrong in between. If the United States had declared a War on Error, there would’ve been more troops stationed at the TWC than in Kabul.

Many of us who jumped back in did so with a kevlar dive suit – and the era was ripe for this new breed of distanced fandom. There was terror, fear, recession and pessimism at home; endless wars abroad. Charlotte’s seemingly infinite economic growth spurt had stalled.

sean-may-illustrationThe internet ushered in an entire wave of snark and cynicism fueled by the painfully self-aware. A new breed of knowledgeable, objective fans who followed “the league” at arm’s length were born. Analytics brought sanity to front offices and fan debates but it also risked transforming what was once (and at its core still is) an entirely emotional endeavor into an emotionless pastime. Hoops fans started to resemble Marvel’s Watcher character – quietly, passively observing in the distance. The raving lunatics who dominated The Hive back in the day were at risk of being turned into an orgy of once-bitten twice shy “smarks” – holding out just enough emotion so that they couldn’t be hurt again by the dispassionate business side of pro sports. Thank God for alcohol.

Professional sports is rarely uglier than when the owners leverage our absurd emotional investment for ever higher profits. It’s an exchange that feels downright gross. You could forgive us the first time because we were so naive and didn’t know what we were getting into. We love the Hornets and the Hornets love us. A child’s understanding of the world.

Here’s the good news. We’re no longer children. We’re no longer naive about how this stuff works. And we have nothing to lose. If the neo-Hornets flee to Seattle or St. Louis one day, then fine. Been there done that, got the closet full of oversized sponsored t-shirts.

Speaking of those neo-Hornets, the NBA ostensibly admitted (yet again) that it had screwed Charlotte hoops fans (yet again) by approving Johnson as owner. The league hastened the team’s sale to Michael Jordan back in 2010 and the rebrand process following shortly after. The league returned the Hornets name, the mascot, the colors and, amazingly enough, the team records. I repeat: these are UNPRECEDENTED MOVES. We’re here to make you whole again, the league said. We’re sorry. Apology accepted.

In the meantime, [and I’m looking at you OLD SCHOOL HORNET NATION] if we are gonna be fans, let’s go ALL IN. It’s really the only way to do it. The NBA has never been more fun. There are fantastic players, story-lines and franchises nearly everywhere you look (except for Philly). And it’s perfect timing for local fans because this Hornets team is potentially VERY good, very fun with a lot of room to get better.

Let’s start with the owner. Unlike George Shinn, Michael Jordan isn’t addicted to embarrassing the City of Charlotte. No, his addiction is to winning. And he’s been separated from the Larry O’Brien trophy for sixteen years now, learning a series of tough lessons along the way. Is he perfect? Of course not. He’s prone to nepotism, poor tipping habits and he likes to wear tattered jeans to meaningful press conferences. But he wants to win; needs to win. Also, he’s Michael freaking Jordan.

MJ’s shown growth as an owner. After surrounding himself with a never-ending stream of “yes-men” a few years ago, MJ essentially fired one of his longtime pals (former GM Rod Higgins – who, by the way, severely sucked at his job) in favor of a braniac Burmese-American dude. That dude’s name is Rich Cho and for all of his Draft drama (I’m looking at you Bismack Biyombo), in just three years he’s transformed a laughingstock franchise into a legitimate pro hoops organization. Shinn lucked into a guy like that back in the day named Bob Bass and Bass kept the franchise relevant for nearly a decade in spite of Georgie’s ineptitude. Imagine what that level of competence can do for an owner who actually wants to be the best?

The team has young players with a lot of upside. Many of whom aren’t even counted on to win today. They’ll develop steadily and become fine NBA veterans. Cody Zeller is seven feet, runs like a gazelle and jumps higher than Grandmama. He’s also incredibly skilled and a nice kid. His fellow Indiana alum, Noah Vonleh, is a 6’9″ power forward who can hit three pointers and handle the ball like a guard. He also has giant hands, just turned 19 and could still be growing. Michael-Kidd Gilchrist was once thought of as a draft bust but after a summer spent working on his jumper with former Cleveland great Mark Price, MKG has a chance to become one of the league’s best small forwards. He’s already thought of as one of the NBA’s top defenders. He just turned 21.

Speaking of Price, the Hornets coaching staff has some familiar faces next to uber-genius headman Steve Clifford. Bob Weiss used to coach the Hawks back in the day and is now in full mentor mode on the pine. Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing stopped sweating long enough to put on some weight and transform into a top big man coach and associate head guy. Clifford himself was groomed from the Van Gundy/Pat Riley school and those guys kind of know what they’re doing in case you’ve forgotten.

Remember how intense Alonzo Mourning used to get? Just like MJ, he wanted to win – BAD. That same fire burns inside of the Hornets’ twenty four year old point guard, Kemba Walker. The odds of Kemba hitting The Next Great Charlotte NBA Shot are huge.

And then there’s Lance Stephenson – you may have heard about him blowing in Lebron’s ear. Yes, he can drive opponents, teammates and fans crazy. He’s also quite good at basketball and tallied more triple doubles last season than the Bobcats had in their entire ten year history. Imagine if Magic Johnson played for the Hornets back in the day. Lance could be a version of that. He’s also just 24.

alFinally, there’s the team’s All-NBA center – Al Jefferson. Imagine if Armon Gilliam (my fave guy back in the day, RIP) was six foot ten, weighed nearly three hundred pounds AND had about a thousand more post-moves. Nobody in the league has Big Al’s back to the basket game. Nobody. There’s never been a more skilled big man in QC hoops history. It’s like watching a ballerina the size of a small tank straightup EMBARRASS the best paint defenders in the world on a nightly basis. He is an absolute treat to watch, O.G. Hornets fans – I’m telling you, YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE WATCHING HIM.

Twenty-six years later my brother and I still have Hornets hysteria. I write and Mike designs the site and creates all of the awesome illustrations. The Bugs are Back and we couldn’t be any more excited. There will be ups and downs of course. Injuries happen. Players get traded. Guys sign elsewhere (I still grieve over you Josh McRoberts). But it’s ok to like the Charlotte NBA team again. Go ahead. Understand what you’re getting into. Then open your hearts and get pumped. We’ve literally had the worst done to us and things can only get better from here. Have fun at the games. Maybe you’ll run into us. We’ll be the guys there with our mom.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz