A year ago the then-Charlotte Bobcats were just trying to establish respect. A 28-120 record the previous two seasons made them seem more a punch line than a viable NBA franchise.
Much changed. They got a new coach in Steve Clifford and a new center in Al Jefferson. Clifford put them in a defense that worked and Jefferson gave them a focal point for the offense.
And out of nowhere the Bobcats ended up 43-39 with an unexpected playoff berth. Now they’re rebranded as the Hornets and a word somewhat foreign to this franchise’s identity – expectations – is entering their vocabulary.
Clifford says embrace that.
“We have a better starting lineup, more shooting and potential for more depth,” Clifford said at Monday’s media day in Charlotte.
“I think expectation is what you want in this league. For players and coaches the NBA is about winning in the playoffs. You can’t run from that and you shouldn’t run from that as an organization or as a coach or as a player.”
That, of course, is the rub. For whatever else the Hornets have done to right the course, this franchise is still 0-8 all time in playoff games. But Clifford wouldn’t want just avoiding a sweep next April to sound like a goal.
The Hornets built on the signing of Jefferson in the summer of 2013 by signing free agents Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams in July. Talent-wise there is little doubt they have improved, but assimilating those new pieces will be the trick this exhibition season.
“We’re better, we’re more talented. Whether we play better, that will play out,” Clifford said. “But certainly from a talent standpoint the possibilities are exciting.”
Scheme changes? The Hornets were heavily dependent on power forward Josh McRoberts as a ball-distributor last season. Clifford is hoping Stephenson and Williams together compensate for what the Hornets lost when McRoberts signed with the Miami Heat.
“We’ve changed things in our planning. It will be a noticeable difference offensively,” Clifford said. “We organized things last year where when the first thing didn’t (work out), (McRoberts) was always the guy with the ball. We’ve changed some of that, with the other guys having the ball more.”
Clifford ran a fairly simple defense last season. He didn’t want to get too exotic with what he calls “special-player/late-game” coverages in his first season coaching a new group.
Clifford said he started throwing in some new wrinkles the last 25 games last season and he’ll build more variety and complexity into the defense this season. He said it helps that Stephenson, Williams and backup point guard Brian Roberts – the three newcomers in the rotation – appear to be fast learners.
Don’t forget who you are: With all the attention paid to improving small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot, Clifford doesn’t want MKG forgetting what got him into the NBA.
“He’s got incredible instincts defensively and getting the ball off the glass. He’s an energy/effort guy: That is his exceptional trait,” Clifford said. “I told him, ‘If you make five 18-footers in a row and run down and stop defending, you’ll just be OK.’ He’s not going to be Dell Curry.”
Kemba on contract: Hornets general manager Rich Cho has started preliminary discussions with Jeff Schwartz, the agent for point guard Kemba Walker, on a possible contract extension. It would have to be signed by the end of October or Walker becomes a restricted free agent in July.
Walker would welcome that getting done, but he won’t have a problem if it doesn’t.
“I love this organization. I would love to be around here” long term, Walker said. “I would love to have it out of the way, not have it on my (mind) all the time. But I also know how this business works, so whatever happens happens. I want to just play.”
Jefferson’s conditioning: Clifford said he was impressed with Al Jefferson’s conditioning, which drew a quip from the All-NBA center.
“I fooled him that bad?” Jefferson joked. “Last year around this time I probably would have passed out. Last year I didn’t know what to expect. Me missing preseason (with an ankle sprain) really hurt. I need those eight (exhibition) games to get ready.”
Here and there: Other than rookie Noah Vonleh (sports hernia), the Hornets report no injuries. Center Bismack Biyombo has switched jersey numbers from 0 to 8. The reason? “Turn 8 on its side and you get (the symbol for) infinity,” Biyombo said. Buzz Peterson, Hornets owner Michael Jordan’s longtime friend and North Carolina roommate, has rejoined the franchise as a scout. Among coaches watching Hornets practice Tuesday at UNC Asheville – Clemson’s Brad Brownell.