2013--14 RECORD: 43--39 (3RD IN SOUTHEAST) COACH: STEVE CLIFFORD (2ND SEASON WITH HORNETS)
Lance Stephenson's three-year, $27.4 million contract represents a staggering increase over his rookie deal, which paid him $1 million last season. With that raise come heightened expectations: The Hornets need the 24-year-old Stephenson—who was criticized for his immaturity and selfishness with the Pacers last season—to assume a leadership role.
On defense, at least, Stephenson's transition won't be too difficult. Charlotte surprisingly made the playoffs by improving from last to sixth in points allowed per possession, and coach Steve Clifford will welcome the 6'5" guard's persistent intensity. Stephenson has the strength and quickness to defend multiple positions, which he showed in starting for the NBA's top D in each of the last two seasons.
On offense Stephenson will face a tougher task: meshing with teammates who look nothing like his old ones. Kemba Walker's score-first mentality is in direct contrast to Pacers point guard George Hill's deference. Center Al Jefferson is a polished low-post option who, unlike Roy Hibbert, demands constant touches. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 21-year-old stopper, does not have Paul George's dynamism.
While Stephenson rebounds and makes plays for himself and others, he often dribbles too much and forces passes. Most important, Stephenson must cease his antics—the ear-blowing, the trash-talking—now that he's in a position of authority. His maturation could decide whether the Hornets reach the second round for the first time in Michael Jordan's nine-year tenure.
17.7 PPG; 6.1 APG; 4.2 RPG; 39.3 FG%
13.8 PPG; 7.2 RPG; 4.6 APG; 49.1 FG%
7.2 PPG; 5.2 RPG; 0.8 APG; 47.3 FG%
9.1 PPG; 5.1 RPG; 43.9 FG%; 35.9 3FG%
21.8 PPG; 10.8 RPG; 2.1 APG; 50.9 FG%
14.0 PPG; 4.0 RPG; 2.6 APG; 43.3 FG%
6.0 PPG; 4.3 RPG; 1.1 APG; 42.6 FG%
Newcomers and a year two jump from Zeller juice the offense, and Charlotte wins its first division title.
Stephenson oversteps, the youngsters stagnate, and the Hornets fail to repeat as postseason participants.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE HORNETS
They played hard last season, especially on defense. That's why Lance Stephenson fits—he goes all out and comes from a defensive background with the Pacers.... You're either on Team Lance or not; there's no in-between. I'm on Team Lance, even though he's a tough guy to assess. He's an aggressive playmaker and a capable passer. The question is whether he can be consistent enough to justify his contract.... One way to look at it is that they don't need Stephenson to be more than a No. 3 guy. Al Jefferson is their go-to scorer, and Kemba Walker can create out of pick-and-rolls.... Jefferson has one of the NBA's best pump fakes. As much as you remind your players, he still gets everybody. You have to push him off the block as much as you can—even a foot or two helps. And you must make him play individual defense.... Walker went from being overrated coming into the league [as the ninth pick in 2011] to underrated now. He loves to split pick-and-rolls. That can lead to turnovers for some guys, but he has a real knack for it. Walker can get into the paint and he has improved at reading the floor.... They have spent a lot of time reworking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's shot. If he doesn't become a bigger threat, you have to ask whether his strong defense is good enough to merit heavy minutes. He's had to get his points in transition and as a cutter.... Losing Josh McRoberts [to the Heat] is significant because his shooting and passing from the high post gave Jefferson room down low. They will try to preserve that space by starting Marvin Williams at the four rather than Cody Zeller, who will have to prove that he can make 15-footers.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Stephenson is the ultimate wild card.