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Are the Hornets a Playoff Team?

Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Bobcats (switched to Hornets in 2014) were absolutely abysmal during 2011-12 and 2012-13. They went 7-59 during 2011-12 and followed that up with a 21-61 mark in 2012-13. They rightfully became known as the Bobkitties.

Then coach Steve Clifford took over and sparked a significant turnaround during the 2013-14 season. They went from the laughingstock of the league to a 43-win playoff team. The central factor in this was Clifford’s influence on the defensive end. They went from from second-to-last in opponents points per game (102.7) during 2012-13 to fourth in the league (97.1) during 2013-14. Clifford had a Tom Thibodeau-like transformation on Charlotte’s defensive identity.

Unfortunately, while they maintained quality defense during 2014-15 (opponents PPG: 97.3), they regressed in wins to 33.

So what do we make of the Hornets going forward? Can they become a playoff team again? Can they muster up enough offense to go along with their stingy defense? The offensive concerns are especially relevant considering they only averaged 94.2 PPG last year (28th overall).

Let’s start by examining the uniqueness of their 2014-15 season. This begins by noting the acquisition of Lance Stephenson, who was supposed to bolster their playmaking on the wing. This addition ended up turning into a nightmare. Stephenson underperformed and disrupted chemistry, which becomes decidedly apparent when seeing his minus-217 tally in plus/minus. This ranked worst on the roster.

Injuries also played a role, as Charlotte had to play without Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, their two best offensive players, for a combined 37 games.

But there are reasons for optimism as Charlotte’s 2015-16 roster has a much different feel. Stephenson has been shipped to the Los Angeles Clippers, and Jefferson and Walker appear healthy as the season nears. Jefferson has even been on a month-to-month plan to lose weight, and he could exhibit a mini-revival after a dip in production last year.

Most importantly, the Hornets have reeled in a handful of newcomers who should bolster their offensive attack. Nicolas Batum is the most noteworthy addition. He struggled during 2014-15, largely due to a wrist injury that hindered his offensive output. In previous seasons, Batum has displayed effectiveness as a scorer, distributor and defender. He should play a major role in providing versatility on the wing, in a much more efficient and well-rounded manner than Stephenson.

Clifford has already highlighted how Batum could play multiple positions and how he’ll assume heavy responsibility on both ends of the floor. He’s also playing in a contract year, giving the 26-year-old every reason to showcase his all-around skill set.

There are also some other notable new faces in Charlotte, including Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Frank Kaminsky. Lin and Lamb (sounds like a yummy Asian dish) should provide depth in the backcourt, and Lin could even share floor time with Walker. Hawes, Hansbrough and Kaminsky will battle for minutes in the frontcourt with Jefferson and Cody Zeller.

Kaminsky, in particular, has a great deal of upside and is a “ready-now” rookie. He was likely the most skilled offensive player in the draft, addressing a clear need for the Hornets. The 7-footer can serve as a stretch 4 with the ability to shoot the deep ball. Frank the Tank even has a sneaky ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He’s a mismatch nightmare and could function uniquely in Charlotte’s lineup.

It’s also worth considering the development of 21-year-old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who enters his fourth season with the Hornets. He averaged 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds after the All-Star break last season. Furthermore, MKG ranked first on the club in defensive rating (0.99) and plus/minus (plus-73). Good things happen when he’s on the floor, and he has breakout potential.

Their newcomers along with a blossoming Kidd-Gilchrist highlight how Charlotte is trending upward. This is a roster with growing intrigue and a huge sense of lineup flexibility. Consider how they could play big with a lineup of Walker, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller and Jefferson, or determine that a small lineup is more favorable and roll out Walker, Lin, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist and Kaminsky. They have numerous players who can play multiple positions, and Clifford has the opportunity to gauge which lineups strike gold.

The distinct positive in their 2015-16 outlook is that their offensive rating should undoubtedly increase. Batum and Kaminsky, specifically, should generate needed offense that’s been glaringly absent the past few seasons. It’s reasonable to forecast Charlotte’s PPG rising to the 98-100 range.

If this happens, and they’re able to maintain their elite-level defense, then we’re talking about a team that could really make some noise in the Eastern Conference. No matter what, it seems that a win total comparable to last year is unlikely and would be extremely disappointing. It appears much more likely that this squad could notch around 45 wins and earn a playoff berth. This will all depend on how quickly they can develop chemistry and if Clifford is able to find effective offensive niches for their newcomers. While this remains to be seen, I’m optimistic about this.

The one area of concern still is their limited threats from long range. They ranked 26th last year in three-pointers made per game, and while Batum, Kaminsky and even Hawes should help this, this likely won’t ascend in dramatic fashion. This is especially evident when considering that Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist aren’t reliable long-range shooters (MKG doesn’t even attempt threes).

A midseason trade (think someone like Kevin Martin) to address this void could be extremely impactful, but even without this, they should still be better offensively, to the point where the playoffs are definitely realistic. The question is, whose spot are they taking in the playoffs? It seems that four teams in the East are basically playoff guarantees (Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta), and another three are near guarantees (Toronto, Miami, Milwaukee). Despite the East’s inadequacy in recent years, it’s finally building some depth, making it more of a challenge for a team like Charlotte.

Boston and Brooklyn both made the playoffs last year, but Brooklyn is declining and Boston is still laden with youth. The Indiana Pacers could be an even greater challenger with Paul George returning. However, they have some looming concerns in their frontcourt.

As of now, I’m predicting Charlotte to snag one of the last three spots for the playoffs, sliding in somewhere amidst Toronto, Miami and Milwaukee. It’s doubtful they could make a run in the playoffs if they’re pitted against Cleveland or Chicago in the first round, but you never know, especially if they do add a veteran shooter like Martin.

Buzz City should be buzzing heading into 2015-16, as this team is unquestionably making strides. Perhaps they’ll even become the league’s biggest surprise, and it’s highly possible if the following things happen: 1) The obvious: health, namely from Walker and Jefferson; 2) Batum performs at an All-Star level; 3) MKG continues to develop and showcases his unique defensive worth; and 4) Kaminsky becomes a Rookie of the Year candidate.

These are all very plausible, and if things come together like this, the Hornets could become more than a playoff team. They could be a dark horse in the East who teams like Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta should genuinely fear.

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