From seven, to 21, to 43, the Charlotte Bobcats’ win total from year-to-year has effectively doubled or tripled over the past three seasons.In the 82-game season, it’s impossible for that trend to continue, but the number of tallies in the column marked “W” could keep improving next year, assuming the planets align correctly for the Charlotte Hornets.
With Lance Stephenson headlining the team’s successful summer, there’s a good chance that the Hornets’ across-the-board improvements slingshot them up to a top-four seed in the East next season, especially with the former No. 1-seeded Pacers first dropping Stephenson in free agency and then a few weeks later losing franchise wing Paul George to a gruesome leg fracture.
But, as previously said, the Hornets are going to need to play their cards right to string everything together to make a successful run. Obviously, the first step in a team’s perennial success is the establishment of chemistry.
This all starts with trust. Between Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, and the two rookies up in the frontcourt, Charlotte has plenty of fresh faces on their roster, many of who have never played together. So, with that said, it’s essential that the new guys know their role from day one:
Stephenson was brought in as a distributor and an energizer, but despite his sky-high upside and already established on-court benefit, playing in a role as third option behind two premier scorers in Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson should suit him well as his tendency to over-dribble in an already slow and methodical offense could be a hindrance. With that said, Stephenson’s handling abilities make him a very good shot creator, and with the shot-clock winding down, he would likely be the team’s best option to get something on the board in limited time.
Ideally, though, he wouldn’t be a ball-dominator. He may have assumed the point-forward role for Indiana–who features a non-playmaker at point guard in George Hill–last season, but Charlotte’s offense relies on collective ball movement rather than just one player driving and kicking.
Luckily, Stephenson’s advanced metrics from last season suggest that he could still boost the Hornets’ offense without restricting ball movement; he ranked seventh among all qualified shooting guards in assist ratio, and 32nd in usage rate.
Despite all the obstacles–running one of the league’s slowest-paced offenses, very poor floor spacing, and ranking 21st and 25th respectively in field goals attempted and field goal percentage, Charlotte ranked just out of the top 15 in total assists per game last season. Bringing in Stephenson, an excellent transition player, the Hornets’ offense should see a de-facto increase in fast break points per game, a category in which the Bobcats ranked 25th in with just 10.1 per game.
As a playmaker, scorer, floor spacer, crowd-pleaser, and bail-out guy, Stephenson projects to be a great addition. He has the diverse skill set that would allow him to mesh in almost any system, and the Hornets, definitely in need of his services, seem to be a perfect fit.
If an egomaniac like Stephenson can submit and accept his role within Charlotte’s on-court philosophies, there seems to be no reason that a veteran like Marvin Williams can’t as well. After the two spent the 2012-13 season wearing the same uniform, Williams has some experience playing with Hornets’ star big, Al Jefferson.
The former started 51 games alongside Big Al that year, and operated from the perimeter as a stretch-4, allowing Al to do his thing on the left block.
Its unclear if Williams will be brought in as a starter or as a reserve, but he is a typical “three-and-D” player, and a very effective one at that. His 3-point percentage has gone up every year he’s been in the league, and while he never developed into the guy Atlanta expected him to when they picked him second overall, his versatility on both ends of the floor makes him yet another Swiss-army knife kind of player and a solid, albeit expensive, pickup for the Hornets.
If Charlotte can squeeze around 10 points, five boards and a 3-point percentage in the high 30s out of him, whatever lineup Williams plays in will be that much better off.
The third impact free agent the Hornets picked up was Brian Roberts, a hybrid guard entering his third season. He’s been playing in New Orleans for the past two seasons as a backup, first behind Greivis Vasquez, then Jrue Holiday, but he’s another player that can shuffle in and out of the starting lineup as needed.
Of course, ideally, Kemba Walker would be in good health and the Hornets would be able to keep Roberts coming off the pine. The Pelicans weren’t so lucky last year, and with Holiday suffering from a leg fracture last season, Roberts started 42 games, which inflated his season numbers a bit–he averaged 11.9 points and 4.0 assists in 28.9 minutes as a starter and just 5.9 points and 2.2 assists in 15.0 minutes per game as a reserve.
While the Hornets could use Roberts’ creating ability in their second unit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to have him in late in close games. Despite being a second-year player, he only turned the ball over 1.3 times per game in 23.2 minutes, and his free-throw shooting is top-notch.
Last season, he shot an astounding 94 percent from the line. Running with Roberts in the down-the-stretch lineup over 61.4 percent free throw shooter Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be the difference in the tight ones.
Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, two of Charlotte’s prized first rounders, are still finding their footing at the NBA level, but the two rooks are really in a great position. Vonleh is the epitome of a tweener, but that may not be a bad thing.
His 6-foot-9 frame and giant wingspan make him an intriguing frontcourt prospect, especially considering his shooting ability and decent handles. Vonleh is a defensive stud as well, and since it’s unlikely that he gets the nod at the starting power forward slot, the duo of he and Bismack Biyombo manning the paint in the second unit would likely be one of the best shot-blocking tandems in the NBA.
If Vonleh can fine-tune his shaky post game under the guidance of Al Jefferson, the sky is the limit for both the team and Vonleh himself. He’s got the tools to be a really good NBA player, and the sooner the team can figure out exactly what his strengths are and work on polishing his game from the top down, the better.
He’s not someone whose name has been tossed in the Rookie of the Year conversation, likely due to his awful summer league play, but there’s a reason Vonleh was projected as a top-four pick until a few hours before the draft. If the Hornets can bring that out of him in his rookie season, more power to them.
P.J. Hairston is significantly more NBA-ready than his peer, but still presents loads of potential as a scoring wing. The attitude problems are there, and teaming up with Stephenson, another known hothead, could present issues, but both of them are going to have to set the egos aside and grow up so that they can play effectively together.
The Hornets would love to get around 11 or 12 points per game out of Hairston, who can really hit the 3-pointer, but obviously for that to happen he’s going to need to see some floor time. The good news for him is that the team let Anthony Tolliver walk earlier in the summer and it hasn’t yet re-signed Chris Douglas-Roberts or Gary Neal.
Without three of the bench’s key shooters from last year, Hairston should get a chance to prove himself in preseason and carve out a decent rotation spot early on.
For as busy as Charlotte was this offseason, obviously, none of that matters if Steve Clifford’s philosophies aren’t embraced by all. Super-teams have collapsed without good coaching, and perennial lottery teams have far-exceeded expectations with it.
Clifford proved to be a great hire for the Bobcats last year, and his ability to 180 Charlotte’s defense was an invaluable part of their regular-season success. At least five new players will be suiting up next year, and all appear to be good fits for the Hornets.
It’s just a matter of them believing that too.
The Hornets wins won’t double to 86, but their roster-reconstruction this summer puts them in a really comfortable spot. Finishing with a three-seed and 50 wins would be an ideal season for Charlotte, and thanks to good management and a newly-established winning culture, that goal is within reach.