Resetting Expectations: Lessons Learned From The Preseason


With only a couple days left until the beginning of the regular season, it’s time to take stock of what we learned during the preseason, and what we can reasonably expect to see as the season begins.

Let’s start with the harsh reality: the preseason has not great for the Hornets. For as much excitement as the new name, uniforms and roster additions have brought to the Carolinas, the product on the court has not been at the same level as last season. Injuries, inconsistent shooting, poor defense and a general lack of effort have contributed to the 3-5 preseason record. I predicted earlier this summer that the Hornets would easily eclipse their 45.5 Vegas win total. Today, I’m not so sure.

At the end of the day, teams take time to gel and to find their identity. Last year’s Bobcats were by no means a “good” team at the beginning of the season, and were even eight games under .500 at one point in late January. Things can change quickly in the NBA. For the Hornets, some things will remain the same. For example…

Oct 8, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson (25) shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers defeated the Hornets 106-92. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The offense will continue to run through Al Jefferson. Yes, Charlotte added a dynamic new wing this summer in Lance Stephenson, but this remains Big Al’s team, and the offense will continue to only be as effective as Big Al. Last season, Al averaged nearly 19 field goal attempts a game. Jefferson is taking 15 shots a game this preseason in only 28 minutes, down seven minutes from his 2013-14 average. Getting Al touches in the post opens up the rest of the offense.

Expect to see more three pointers (and hopefully more makes). Charlotte was not a good 3-point shooting team last season, shooting 35.1% on 17.9 attempts a game. Charlotte made improving perimeter shooting a priority this offseason by signing Stephenson and Marvin Williams, and drafting P.J. Hairston. Kemba Walker reportedly made improving his 3-point shot a goal this summer, and Gary Neal came into this training camp in excellent shape (Steve Clifford has called Neal the preseason MVP). These additions and improvements have resulted in the Hornets shooting 21.7 threes a game, though the team is making only 32% of them. Hairston is connecting on 45% of his 3-point attempts, but Walker, Neal and Williams have struggled to find their shot. Three-point shooting is about rhythm, so we should expect to see these numbers improve. If they don’t, the Hornets will struggle to keep the pressure off Jefferson in the post.

Fouls have been a problem. The Hornets committed an absurd 35 personal fouls Monday in the 117-114 overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks, and unfortunately this game was not an anomaly. The Hornets are averaging 25 personal fouls a game, up from 18.2 per game last season. Fouls are a function of bad technique, lack of discipline and poor team communication. Cody Zeller has been the most egregious fouler so far, committing nearly 4 fouls per game. The Hornets simply do not have the offense to consistently win while giving away points through fouls.

Oct 13, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard P.J. Hairston (19) shoots the ball while Orlando Magic guard Ben Gordon (7) defends during the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena. Hornets defeated the Magic 99-97. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Hairston will have to earn his playing time. Head Coach Steve Clifford has repeatedly said that he plans to have a four-man wing rotation, meaning that Hairston looks to be the odd man out. Hairston’s tenure as a Hornet has been uneven. His summer began with a physical altercation at a Durham YMCA and the realization his agent wasn’t actually authorized by the NBA. Hairston has looked every bit of a rotation player offensively during the preseason, but his lackadaisical defense effort won’t cut it in Clifford’s system.

It still isn’t clear what Gerald Henderson‘s role will be. I can’t really imagine Henderson starting given how well Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played in the preseason. I’m also skeptical of how Henderson will fit in with the second unit. Henderson should complement Gary Neal offensively, but that duo will not be especially strong on defense. I suspect Clifford will eventually settle on a rotation that integrates Henderson with the starters and lets Stephenson anchor the second unit. If Charlotte starts slowly, and Henderson has trouble with his new role, don’t be surprised to see the Hornets trade their longest-tenured player for help elsewhere (probably a big man if Zeller is slow out of the gate).

Lance Stephenson will….hopefully be a superstar, possibly a major distraction, maybe a disappointment and probably an above-average shooting guard who isn’t quite an All-Star.

I’ve been on the “Born Ready” bandwagon for a long time and was thrilled when the Hornets signed him over the summer. I had dreams of a Kemba-Lance-MKG backcourt terrorizing the East with stellar defense, great ball movement and offensive firepower. More than anything, I knew that the Hornets had to get better to remain a playoff team in the East. By my count, there are at least ten teams competing for a  playoff berth, eleven if you count the Pacers. The Hornets simply had to get better to remain in the conversation.

Oct 8, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Lance Stephenson (1) dribbles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers defeated the Hornets 106-92. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Where do we go from here? As the season is set to begin, I wonder how much better the Hornets are than last season. I have no doubt the Hornets are more talented than the Bobcats. Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts are certainly better than Josh McRoberts, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Luke Ridnour.

But the Bobcats played last season with no expectations, and used an incredible blend of selfless offense, tenacious defense and remarkable team chemistry to defy the odds and make the playoffs.

Now, the Charlotte Hornets have real expectations. You won’t find a predictions column that has the Hornets out of the playoffs. The buzz today is not just about making the playoffs, but about winning a series or two. Do I still think the Hornets make the playoffs and win a series? Yes. Does that mean they will? Absolutely not.

The Bobcats exceeded expectations last season. Now the Hornets will find out how hard it is to simply meet expectations in the NBA.