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2016-2017 Season Preview: Hornets ready to prove they’re not a fluke

AP Photo/Jessica Hill
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Despite the fact that the Charlotte Hornets finished last year two games short of the 50-win mark, there isn’t a sense of expectation attached to the coming season. Instead of assurance, there is an air of skepticism surrounding the team. It would easy to dismiss the apprehension, but still hasty considering the roster changes and special circumstances many of the team’s top players found themselves in last season.

What Happened Last Year?

After being declared DOA by essentially everyone – including yours truly – the Hornets joined the modern NBA and reinvented themselves as a three-point shooting machine. New addition Nicolas Batum opened up the floor for Kemba Walker; allowing him to submit his first efficient shooting season since entering the league. It’s no coincidence that the Hornets entered the top-10 in offensive rating for the first time after being in the bottom 10 since this iteration of the franchise first came into being.

As important as Batum’s presence was, fellow acquisitions Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee gave the Hornets a much-needed dose of shot creation, spacing, and perimeter defense.

Rookie Frank Kaminsky played the role of sideline observer for the most part but showed flashes of being a useful player. His selection will always be a topic of dissension, but there is hope that he’ll at least be a serviceable big man that can stretch the floor.

The new-and-improved Hornets finished the season 48-34 with a first-round exit to the Miami Heat. Although disappointing, the series was competitive and offered glimpses of a team that could force its way into the second tier of the Eastern Conference.

What Happened This Summer?

The Hornets kept their top free agents – Batum and Marvin Williams – but lost some depth with the departures of Lee, Lin, and Al Jefferson. Batum’s combination of outside shooting and playmaking make him the necessary cog to Charlotte while Williams, who stretches the floor as well, provides the team with one its few sources of rim protection.

The front office attempted to fill the void by bringing Roy Hibbert, Ramon Sessions, and Marco Belinelli into the fold. Sessions delivered a less-than-stellar facsimile of Lin while Beli gives the team some more long distance shooting at the expense of individual defense. Hibbert is the most intriguing signing, though.

AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Although Hibbert’s a non-entity on offense, he gives the team a legitimate rim protector. If Coach Clifford can rehabilitate his game and confidence, Hibbert could grant the team a little more support for their perimeter defense. Their wing defenders wouldn’t have to be on an island anymore; help defenders could be sent without fear of comprising Charlotte’s interior defense.

While not exactly an offseason acquisition, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s return to the team could be tantamount to one. His limited time with the team has produced tantalizing results, but the danger of small-sample-size theater is always present. His defense, athleticism, and forays into the lane gives the team another gear, so it’s not an understatement to say he’s critical to the team’s long-term hopes.

Key Question: Can the Hornets Prove They’re Legit?

Putting aside the fact that MKG’s long-term health is a concern, the question of whether or not the team’s troika of Batum, Walker, and Williams can replicate their 2015-2016 successes looms large over the club. Although the myth of the contract-year effort is a little overblown, the fact is, Batum and Williams had career years last season and got paid.

Players have been known to take their foot off the gas in similar situations. If Batum or Williams drop off in any meaningful way, the Hornets will suffer accordingly.

Williams is on the wrong side of 30 and only has one season of this kind of production. Batum, on the other hand, is younger but is guilty of being too passive. As the team’s most important player, he can’t just fade into the background. The team’s offense needs him to be assertive.

Until last season, Walker had the misfortune of being labeled a chucker. Because of Batum, Walker now has room to operate in. His shooting was encouraging, but he has to back it up to prove it’s sustainable.

Best-Case Scenario

Nearly all of Charlotte’s holdovers jump up a notch in terms of production. Along with a seamless assimilation by MKG, internal development will need to happen for the team to make some noise. Walker will need to up his efficiency even more so while Batum will need to bring a scorer’s mentality to his game. He will need to find a better balance between facilitator and scorer to lift up the team’s offense.

If this can happen, and with some luck when it comes to playoff seeding, the Hornets can comfortably make its way into the second round. Anything past that, I can’t say for sure.

Worst-Case Scenario

MKG suffers another season-ending injury, Batum and Williams resemble their former selves, and Walker’s shooting plummets. If any or all these things occur, the Hornets will find themselves out of the playoff picture and lottery-bound yet again.

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