Do it again. That’s the charge Steve Clifford and his Charlotte Hornets are facing this season after capping a 48-win season by pushing the Miami Heat to seven games in their first-round playoff series. Do it again, and then some. That’s inevitably what is on the minds of Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and the rest of the core group returning for the Hornets this season. The pieces are in place. The continuity at the top, from ownership all the way down to the locker room, is there. But consistency has been an issue for the Hornets in the past. This is the year they have to exorcise that demon and prove that they are a playoff factor now and for the foreseeable future.
Jeremy Lin is back in the Big Apple (Brooklyn) after rediscovering his love for the game with the Hornets last season. Playing behind and sometimes with Walker in what turned out to be a redemptive season, Lin showed that he’s still a viable option as a lead guard. … Veteran point guard Ramon sessions takes over the role Lin played for the Hornets last season. … For all of the money the Hornets invested in their own free agents ($175 million on Nic Batum and Marvin Williams), they did see big man Al Jefferson leave for Indiana and swingman Courtney Lee depart for New York. … The Hornets have a track record of facilitating the revival of careers (Batum, Lin) and hope to work similar magic on shooting guard Marco Belinelli, acquired via trade after a rough season in Sacramento. … Speaking of rehab projects, veteran center Roy Hibbert is Clifford’s latest challenge. … The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should offset the loss of Lee. Kidd-Gilchrist is coming off two shoulder surgeries in the same year but should have no problem resuming his role as the team’s defensive stopper.
- Clifford’s biggest challenge will be integrating the news faces into his system and finding ways to make them effective, the same way he’s done in the past two seasons with the new faces added.
- Cody Zeller is battling Roy Hibbert for the starting job at center, a battle that could last well into the regular season. That’s a good thing. Because the Hornets need more from Zeller at this stage of his career.
- Clifford has made no secret of his desire for Jeremy Lamb to perform at a consistently high level. The Hornets need scoring punch off the bench and Lamb needs to deliver.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Nic Batum. He can talk all he wants about there being no added pressure with that new contract he signed. But there are $120 million reasons to the contrary. Batum is being paid like a superstar and the Hornets, and Walker in particular, need him to play like one if they are going to stay among the elite playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. Showing flashes of that sort of potential is no longer sufficient, not with this new deal in hand. The same Batum who shines on the international stage with the French national team is the same relentless and fearless Batum the Hornets need healthy and in uniform this season.
Kemba Walker | 20.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.2 apg
One of the league’s most underrated players, an elite scorer and playmaker.
Nic Batum | 14.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.8 apg
Durability concerns aside, one of the league’s better two-way players at the position.
Roy Hibbert | 5.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg
A shell of the player he was in at his best in Indiana, he needs to revive his career under Clifford.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | 12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.3 apg
Injuries have limited him to just 62 games the past two seasons.
Marvin Williams | 11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.0 apg
Solid veteran is the perfect fit (on both ends) as a stretch four in this system.
Frank Kaminsky | 7.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.2 apg
Floor spacer who has to learn to use his 7-foot size to his advantage.
Ramon Sessions | 9.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.9 apg
Veteran journeyman has mastered the art of maximizing limited minutes.
Marco Belinelli | 10.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.9 apg
Sharpshooter hunting a bounce back season after struggling in Sacramento last season.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With a solid core in place and a wide open Eastern Conference (behind Cleveland), the time is now for the Hornets. They gained a huge measure of confidence in the playoffs last season and should be poised to continue their rise up the ranks. Seeing is believing, though. And they have to perform to expectations, internal and external, this season.
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