Scott Fowler

Hornets expected to continue improvement

It is back to the future for the Charlotte Hornets in a lot of ways this season – from the team’s nickname to their uniform to their teal and purple colors.

But most importantly, the retro vibe will extend onto the court. Like the Hornets of the 1990s, who were consistently a playoff contender, the 2014-15 version will be a force in the Eastern Conference as well.

Where do I see the Hornets ending up?

I am predicting that Charlotte will go 46-36 and earn the No. 5 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

That’s a three-game improvement over last season, when Charlotte went 43-39, made the playoffs as a No. 7 seed and then got swept 4-0 in its first-round playoff series against Miami.

“We have a better team,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “A more talented team.”

Generally, I would agree with that. Offensively, there is no doubt that the Hornets have more weapons.

There was a concentrated offseason effort to bring in better shooters in the offseason, and having new players like Marvin Williams, P.J. Hairston and Brian Roberts taking and making some three-point shots will allow more room for Al Jefferson to operate underneath on his favored left block.

And then there’s Lance Stephenson, the team’s marquee offseason signing and a versatile player who will start right away. Stephenson has to be very good for this team to be considerably better. His preseason has been a little uneven, much like the Hornets themselves. We have not seen the dazzling “Born Ready” side of Stephenson for a long stretch yet, but the Hornets trust it is coming.

The team’s best two players will remain Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker. Equally indispensable, that duo is capable of leading the Hornets to great heights when they are both on. When they are both off – or when either is injured, which is always a concern with as many miles as 10-year NBA vet Jefferson has on his body – it’s hard for this team to win.

Given the additions – and especially the coup of luring Stephenson away from Indiana – why do I not think there is going to be more than a three-game improvement?

For one, Josh McRoberts is gone (to Miami).

Clifford loved McRoberts, and so did his teammates. The then-Bobcats tried to run offensive possessions through him all the time because his basketball IQ is so high.

Williams was signed more or less to replace McRoberts, but while he can shoot as well or better than McRoberts from beyond the arc, he isn’t nearly as good of a passer and doesn’t defend as well. Stephenson is going to have to take over some of the playmaking – it can’t all be on Walker – and while he is willing to do that he will need some time to understand when and how to do it.

Also, I wonder about the Hornets’ defense and their chemistry. Drafting Hairston was an undeniable risk. He can shoot like crazy, but his well-documented off-the-court problems better not rear their heads again. (First-round draft pick Noah Vonleh sounds like he will be a non-factor, at least early).

And for whatever reason, the Hornets seemed suspect defensively in the exhibition preseason – a place they were generally so good last year when their margin for error was so thin.

As Clifford said shortly before the season began: “We haven’t committed defensively the way we need to. ... We don’t run back on D right now and we foul needlessly.”

For the Hornets to truly contend for the Eastern Conference title this season, somebody would need to take a big step. Like Cody Zeller. Or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and his reformed jump shot. Or Gary Neal, who will provide instant offense off the bench. Or maybe all three of them.

Right now, I see the Hornets scoring a few more points per game, but also allowing a few more.

They will be worth watching. They are going to be good.

They have only an outside chance of greatness. But yes, there is a chance.