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Sorensen: Hornets’ promising season instead became a failure

Already chased from the NBA playoffs, the Charlotte Hornets and Brian Roberts were run out of Time Warner Cable Arena by the Houston Rockets on Monday in their home finale.
Already chased from the NBA playoffs, the Charlotte Hornets and Brian Roberts were run out of Time Warner Cable Arena by the Houston Rockets on Monday in their home finale. jkomer@charlotteobserver.com

There’s a Kia in the concourse outside the South Club Lounge at Time Warner Cable Arena. It’s a good-looking car, new and shiny. But when the Charlotte Hornets began the season 51/2 months ago, I swear I saw a Lamborghini there.

I probably didn’t. Yet on Oct. 29 the season had a Lamborghini feel. Not only was the home opener sold out, but almost everybody in Charlotte that you had ever known was in the arena or across the street at the EpiCentre. If they couldn’t get in, they wanted to get close.

What they saw was head-shaking and breathtaking. The Hornets trailed Milwaukee by 24 points. They rallied to win in overtime. No matter where you watched, you felt as if you were part of something. Fans believed in this team.

That’s what makes the season a failure.

True, Charlotte’s three most important players – Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Big Al Jefferson – were at various times injured, and five players missed the last home game of the season Monday with injuries. But even when the Hornets were healthy, they were limited. At their best they did nothing more than contend for seventh or eighth place.

Many blame Charlotte’s 33-48 record on coach Steve Clifford. I don’t. I acknowledge that his rotations are inconsistent. So are his players.

Clifford has to scramble to conjure offense. A player might appear in consecutive games, then sit out consecutive weeks. He could put six players on the court and fail to generate enough points to win.

Most of the Hornets compensate by playing hard. I ask an NBA executive which players work the hardest and he immediately says Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist. He says he admires their effort. He also says he doesn’t consider either a starter.

The man knows basketball, but he doesn’t see the Hornets every night, and he’s wrong. Although the record doesn’t show it, both players know how to win. They come with limitations. Walker will never be a consistent shooter and Kidd-Gilchrist will never be a consistent scorer.

But what do you think happens if they’re joined by a player who attracts defenders the moment he walks into the gym? Synergy happens. Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist get better shots and more opportunities to go to the basket, and their team finally gets a chance to win.

Where do they find this player?

They don’t have the money to buy him. They have enough money for a complementary player, a player such as, say, Josh McRoberts. That’s it.

The Hornets could acknowledge defeat and start over, losing games to win a high draft pick. They tried this as recently as 2010-11, when they won only seven games. If they do it again, 2015-16 won’t be a rebuilding year. It will be year 13 of a rebuilding era.

They appear not to have the player on the roster. Rookie Noah Vonleh has the drive and talent to start. But we have no idea how good he can be.

The Hornets could attempt to acquire the player in a trade for Lance Stephenson. But what can they get for him? Stephenson, whom they signed nine months ago, has the skill to enhance certain teams – teams other than Charlotte. But to contend that he can’t play is foolish. Can Stephenson function without dribbling, dribbling, dribbling the ball? If so, he could be an asset. If not, he should be gone.

The player the Hornets crave will come through the draft. If there’s lottery karma, they should get a great pick. Even if they don’t, they’ll get an opportunity to add a good one. Alas, they get a similar opportunity every June.

Since 2011 the Hornets have had six first-round picks – 2, 4, 7, 9, 9 and 26. The player who most embodies those drafts is Cody Zeller, the 7-footer whom they took fourth out of Indiana in 2013.

Zeller scores a few points and grabs a few rebounds, and it’s tough to envision him doing much more. He’s OK. Except for Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist and maybe Vonleh, Charlotte has a roster full of OK.

Fans want to believe. The crowd Monday was announced at 15,797, which is only 3,742 less than the Hornets attracted for the opener. The business side of the franchise had a very good season.

As the final seconds of Charlotte’s final home game of the season ticked down, many fans stood and cheered. They’re thrilled to have their Hornets back.

But there will come a time when the name change is not enough. That time is next season.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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