New name, new colors, new uniforms, new players. Does all this add up to new results for the new/old Charlotte Hornets?
Plenty has changed at Time Warner Cable Arena since the then-Bobcats, Charlotte’s NBA team, hired coach Steve Clifford in June of 2013. Clifford would be the third coach in as many seasons, so there weren’t great odds he would succeed. He’d inherited a roster that went 21-120 the previous two seasons, including a league-record-worst 7-59 in 2011-12.
So … surprise! In Clifford’s first season, the Bobcats went 43-39, qualifying for the playoffs. They were swept in the first round 4-0 by the Miami Heat, but plenty of good things have happened since: rebranding, the drafting of two first-round picks and a high-profile free-agent signing in shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
There’s a buzz (no pun intended) about the Hornets that hasn’t really existed since the Bobcats’ inception in 2004. There are lots of reasons why.
It started in a sense when the franchise that was Charlotte’s first NBA entry – the original Hornets (here 1988 through 2002) – chose to rename itself. Years after the move to New Orleans, the Hornets were purchased by Tom Benson, who also owned the NFL’s Saints. He wanted a name more connected to Louisiana and, with league permission, they became the Pelicans.
This was serendipity in Charlotte, where fans had never taken to the name “Bobcats.” It came across as a vanity play by the Bobcats’ first owner, Bob Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television.
Johnson sold the franchise to basketball icon Michael Jordan, who craved the atmosphere when he was playing against the Hornets at the long-gone Charlotte Coliseum. That was a college-like fervor, at a building that seated more than 23,000 and sold out every home game for years.
(So why’d the team move? Because George Shinn, the original Hornets’ original owner, said the Coliseum was economically antiquated and wanted a replacement arena. The city balked at making a deal with Shinn, hence the move to the Bayou. The NBA quickly replaced the Hornets with a Charlotte expansion franchise.)
The Bobcats requested a rebranding to the Hornets, and the NBA happily approved. So starting next fall, old is new again in Charlotte. It won’t be the pinstripe uniforms circa 1988, but the Hornets will again be teal-and-purple. The mascot changes from Rufus to Hugo. The dance team switches from the Ladycats to the Honeybees.
And it won’t just be the wrappings and labels that change. The on-court recovery started in July of 2013, when free-agent center Al Jefferson agreed to leave the Utah Jazz for Charlotte. He immediately became the best offensive weapon in franchise history (averaging 21.5 points per game). But the Bobcats were still a team that struggled to score.
The team had tools to improve – two first-round picks and an abundance of flexibility under the NBA’s salary cap to sign up help. Emboldened by the previous summer’s signing of Jefferson, Jordan talked of recruiting another “superstar” to pair with Jefferson.
Stephenson, who played his first four NBA seasons with the Indiana Pacers, might not yet be a “superstar,” but he should complement Jefferson on the court. He shoots 49 percent from the field, quite well for his position, and averaged 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists last season.
Stephenson was available because he has a personality that can be high-maintenance. He was charged last season with 14 technical fouls, fourth-most in the NBA. He blew in the ear of Heat superstar LeBron James during the playoffs, apparently looking to throw him off his game. Instead, Heat guard Ray Allen accused him of “buffoonery.”
The Hornets got two interesting rookies in the draft in Indiana power forward Noah Vonleh and former North Carolina shooting guard P.J. Hairston. Clifford says both have “starter’s talent” but need experience. Clifford does not see a significant role for either one as a rookie.
That’s to be expected, because the Hornets are no longer a developmental team. They’re built around a 10-year veteran in Jefferson, so the window to start winning in the postseason is now, not five years from now. Jefferson, Stephenson and point guard Kemba Walker should form this team’s “Big Three.”
If nothing else, the Hornets have created enough excitement to sell plenty of new ball caps, T-shirts and replica jerseys. And perhaps even to have more Hornets jerseys than Heat jerseys in the stands when Miami comes to town.