Scott Fowler

Charlotte Hornets will improve, but not enough to make playoffs

The Charlotte Hornets’ Jeremy Lin, left, guards Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich in a recent game at Time Warner Cable Arena. Lin, who signed with the Hornets over the summer, is expected to provide an offensive spark off the bench.
The Charlotte Hornets’ Jeremy Lin, left, guards Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich in a recent game at Time Warner Cable Arena. Lin, who signed with the Hornets over the summer, is expected to provide an offensive spark off the bench. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Hornets are better, for sure.

But how much better?

I’m going to put the number at seven wins. I believe the Hornets will finish 40-42 and just out of the playoffs for the 2015-16 season.

A season like that would be good news in some ways and bad news in others for the Hornets, who open the season Wednesday at Miami. Charlotte at least would show improvement from its most recent season, which was in all ways a disappointment – wins (10 fewer than the year before), on-court regression (Al Jefferson) and personnel decisions (The Player Who Was So Awful He Must Not Be Named ... aka Lance Stephenson).

But not making the playoffs again would be a disappointment for a team that has turned over about half its roster while trying to reboot on the fly.

The Hornets won 43 games a couple of seasons ago then fell to 33 in 2014-15. I mostly like what they have done in the offseason, but the moves were not of the blockbuster variety and will cause incremental improvement instead of a big leap.

The good work done in the offseason was partly undone through no fault of the Hornets. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the team’s three most important players, and he’s likely to miss the entire season with a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason. The Hornets were 5-20 when MKG didn’t play last season – he is the Luke Kuechly of their defense, running around and creating havoc.

With a healthy MKG, I could more readily have seen this Hornets team making the playoffs. Nic Batum is a skinnier, faster Boris Diaw. Jeremy Lin is a bargain and, even though he won’t start, will frequently be on the court during the fourth quarter because of his offensive skills. Both will win some games for a Charlotte team that has more scoring ability and will be more entertaining to watch.

A couple more pluses: Kemba Walker is steady and strong. Jefferson is actually running down the court instead of limping down it and has lost 25 pounds. In one of my favorite quotes of the preseason, mostly because it paints a strange mental picture, Jefferson said: “I feel like somebody took a 25-pound man off my back.”

But even with all of that, MKG’s injury means the Hornets are in desperate search of a defensive stopper. The first chance at that role will unfortunately belong to P.J. Hairston, for Hairston is not ready to start consistently in this league.

Unlike the Panthers – who survived a similar loss when No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down during training camp with a season-ending injury – the Hornets don’t have a whole lot of quality depth and don’t have a Cam Newton, either. The lack of a superstar has been the most consistent problem in the Bobcats/Hornets’ string of 11 years with zero playoff victories, and that problem won’t be solved this season.

Charlotte’s 7-1 preseason record was nice, but ultimately it doesn’t mean much. I see the Hornets sticking around .500 for most of this season, flirting with the playoffs and not quite getting there.

Of course, I’m also the guy who picked the Panthers to go 8-8 in 2015, and now they are 6-0. It’s very possible I am underestimating another Charlotte pro sports team.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford is worth a few extra wins himself. He said at the end of last season: “To me, we’re competitive. We’ve got to get good.”

They are better, for sure.

But truly good? They’ll have to prove that one.

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