The Charlotte Hornets won 48 regular-season games last season, ending in a four-way tie for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. They pushed the Miami Heat a full seven games before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Can they match that performance this time around? Tough to say in an Eastern Conference that looks deeper than in the 2015-16 season.
The Hornets open training camp Tuesday morning at Time Warner Cable Arena. Consider these five burning questions on this reconfigured team:
What does shooting guard Marco Belinelli have left?
Statistically, Marco Belinelli struggled last season with the Sacramento Kings, shooting 38.6 percent from the field and a career-low 30.6 percent from 3-point range. But to place that in context, the Kings were an overall bad team that struggled to adjust to George Karl’s coaching style.
Coach Steve Clifford and his staff have a knack for reviving NBA careers. Remember that Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin were coming off sub-par seasons when they joined the Hornets and both played so well last season that they got lucrative new contracts over the summer (Batum re-signing with the Hornets and Lin going to the Brooklyn Nets). Clifford was a big advocate for the Belinelli trade; he would have been pleased in the summer of 2015 had Belinelli signed with Charlotte as a free agent.
Clifford wants to play as much 1-in/4-out offense as possible, and that requires 3-point shooters to stretch the floor. Over most of a nine-season NBA career, Belinelli has done that (career 37.8 percent from the arc).
Will Michael Kidd-Gilchrist bounce back from his injury-plagued season?
Two shoulder surgeries in the same season is serious stuff. The second injury was worse than the first for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is this team’s best defensive player.
Kidd-Gilchrist is as hard a worker as any Hornet, so you know he put in the effort throughout rehab on these injuries. And he’s incredibly tough, both mentally and physically.
The Hornets so missed what he provides: the ability to guard multiple positions, excellent rebounding for a small forward and ball-handling skills to complement the guards. Unfortunately, the rugged way he plays will always leave him susceptible to injury.
Can Roy Hibbert regain anything close to All-Star form?
It has to help that center Roy Hibbert has a relationship with Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing. If anyone is equipped to help Hibbert regain form, it’s Hall of Fame center Ewing.
Hibbert was a bad fit with the Los Angeles Lakers, who were transitioning last season from the Kobe Bryant era to a rebuilding mode. Hibbert had a career low in points per game (5.9) and his rebounding average (4.9) was his lowest since his rookie season with the Indiana Pacers.
One thing that should help Hibbert: Unlike with the Lakers, he shouldn’t be extraneous as a Hornet. One of the Hornets’ flaws last season was no real rim protection. If Hibbert can deliver anything close to how he impacted games with the Pacers, he’ll play a lot. Also, Clifford considers Hibbert’s offense under-rated.
Is Batum ready to live up to his new mega-contract?
Batum re-signed with the Hornets in July, for five years and $120 million – by far the biggest such deal in franchise history. General manager Rich Cho made no secret that Batum was his top priority, and the team and Batum cut a deal four hours after free agency started.
Batum didn’t have much impact playing for the French national team at the Rio Olympics. He had a different role with that group – he wasn’t a primary ball-handler, for instance – so perhaps how he played in August is immaterial to how he’ll play again in Charlotte.
Batum made things much easier for point guard Kemba Walker last season, as did Lin. With Lin leaving for the Nets, it’s all the more important Batum plays at least as well as he did last season. It should help if Kidd-Gilchrist stays healthy, which would reduce some burden on Batum at the defensive end.
How will the Hornets compensate for free-agent losses?
Lin, center Al Jefferson (Pacers) and Courtney Lee (Knicks) signed elsewhere after the Hornets used up most of their resources to re-sign Batum and Marvin Williams.
Lin will be the hardest to replace, because he was a strong backup at point guard and was also physically strong enough to guard opposing shooting guards. His replacement, Ramon Sessions, has a knack for getting to the foul line, but it will likely be harder for Clifford to play Sessions and Walker together in the fourth quarter, as he frequently did with Walker and Lin.
Kidd-Gilchrist staying healthy will mitigate any loss of Lee, who was solid offensively and defensively after the trade with Memphis. Jefferson’s departure means they no longer have a low-post scorer to draw double-teams. It could be important that the Hornets see improvement from power forward Frank Kaminsky, particularly at the defensive end. He’s a skilled scorer both along the perimeter and in the lane.
Hornets’ training camp roster