At the end of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Charlotte Bobcats ended a tumultuous season. They scrapped their way into the playoffs, but were swept by the future Eastern Conference finalist Miami Heat and looked to be losing some key pieces in Josh McRoberts and Chris Douglas-Roberts. On a positive note, they were returning to the team name that the Queen City had initially been given, the Hornets.
In the ensuing offseason, they acquired a few minor pieces and nabbed the mercurial Lance Stephenson on a team-friendly contract. Stephenson was tagged, for good reason, a high-risk, high-reward player. He had spent the last part of the season in Indiana being a headcase, causing more trouble for blowing into LeBron James ear than performing on the court. Rich Cho brought him in and it was a risky move, but if Lance got his head straight, he would look like a genius.
Instead, Stephenson had the worst three point shooting season ever. Born Ready was bumped from the rotation, point guard Kemba Walker had a regressive season and the spotlight was shown on Charlotte’s issues of shooting and floor spacing. Buzz City limped to a 33-49 record. But they didn’t sit idle, and were one of the earliest aggressors in free agency this offseason. Cho managed to ship Lance to the Los Angeles Clippers, a team suffering from depth in every position, for the non-guaranteed contract of Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. Barnes was traded for Luke Ridnour, who was in turn traded for Jeremy Lamb. While in a separate deal, Cho sent Hornets fan-favorite Gerald Henderson and one-year Indiana prospect Noah Vonleh to the rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers for Nicholas Batum. The Hornets were a terrible shooting team last year, unable to draw defenders away from the paint and defenses were allowed to stuff the few shooting options and keep the Hornets in the cellar with the 28th-ranked offense in the league. The job description of an NBA General Manager is to address personnel needs of your team, and Cho stopped the bleeding of his team, took advantage of the salary confines of other teams and struck deals that instantly brought some shooting to his starting lineup and his bench. All the while dumping Lance Stephenson who didn’t work out.
Cho’s next two moves signaled the true change in what the years of the preceding Bobcats and now Hornets were unable to transgress. The Hornets had the 9th pick in a very deep 2015 draft. Filled mostly with blue chip prospects out of the universities of Kentucky and Duke, the Hornets selected four-year senior out of the University of Wisconsin, Frank Kaminsky. In his senior season at Wisconsin, Kaminsky set the Badgers record for points scored in a game, won the Big Ten regular season and the Big Ten tournament. He was also named a first team All American, the National Association of Basketball Coaches Player of the Year, Naismith College Player of the Year, John R Wooden Award and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year award. With the Hornets lottery pick there were a number of options available and although fans were initially upset the team didn’t go for a more athletic scoring wing, the Hornets chose the best shooter at that spot and the player with the highest expectation to start on opening night. Not to mention a center in a league that is re-appreciating its love for the big man in the 2015 offseason.
Shortly after the draft, the Hornets also declined an option on fabled prospect Bismack Biyombo, making him an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. The Biz was supposed to be a phenom, standing at 6-foot-9, just under 250 pounds, Biyombo never even played basketball until he was 16 and spent a couple of years playing in Spain before being snatched up by the Hornets in a draft night trade from the Sacramento Kings. The Biz became highly likable by the fans, but also endemic of why the franchise was so bad: poor scouting decisions landing a player with lots of “up-side” failing to grab a starting role on a perennially bad squad.
When they were still the Bobcats, and mired under the shadow first of absconded initial Hornets owner George Shinn and then again under Bobcats founding owner Bob Johnson, the team was treated more as a project than a functional basketball squad. Charlotte also had the indignity of being an expansion team twice, suffering the lumps and learning curves first with the Hornets in 1985 and then with the Bobcats in 2004. An entire generation of Charlotte NBA fans has witnessed them struggle to get further in the league, watching the former laughing stocks of franchises like Milwaukee, Golden State, Washington and Cleveland build successful squads and become destinations for free agents.
With letting one prospect go in Biyombo and taking on a player more NBA ready in Kaminsky, the Hornets are trying to shed the label of “a project.” The Expansion Team blues is no longer on the jukebox, owner Michael Jordan had the record removed and assistant coach Patrick Ewing is still out back trying to stomp it into pieces. The experiment with Lance Stephenson went sideways, but the contract was team friendly enough that Rich Cho was able to find a buyer; maybe Doc Rivers ain’t that great at Cho’s job either.
It’s not to say that Charlotte is completely over the hump, they’ve still got the wonky shot mechanics of Kemba Walker to overcome. They still have young shooter PJ Hairston, who apparently can’t shoot or stay out of trouble, they’ve got Cody Zeller, who they don’t know what to do with besides offer him as trade fodder every couple of months. But after the initial poor reaction to acquiring Kaminsky, Hornets fans are starting to see the silver lining.
While all the moving may prove to be a drop in the bucket—with the rest of the Eastern Conference reloading, to say nothing of the already dominate West—Hornets fans should be encouraged that Rich Cho, Michael Jordan and the Hornets organization is willing to do more than preach patience. When you’ve been down the bumpy road as long as those fans have, a dip into a smoothly paved carpool lane makes all the difference.
At least they’re not just blowing smoke in fan’s ears.