Their biggest off-season moves weren't acquisitions but retentions. Charlotte brought Nicolas Batum back on a five-year, $120 million contract to facilitate the offense. Marvin Williams, who was a revelation last year at power forward, signed a four-year deal worth $54.5 million.
But the price of holding on to the pair was high. The Hornets couldn't afford to retain guards Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, and—in a decision that was as much stylistic as financial—they let low-post scorer Al Jefferson sign with the Pacers. Each of those three key lost rotation players will largely be replaced by budget pickups (point guard Ramon Sessions and center Roy Hibbert) or internal reorganization (shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and center Spencer Hawes).
Charlotte will benefit from the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just seven games last season due to a shoulder injury. But Batum and Kemba Walker are already coming off career years; it's unreasonable to expect them to do more with less talent around them. Following a season in which they improved by 15 wins, a touch of regression is likely. Charlotte simply doesn't have the same resources, no matter how Steve Clifford might try to make ends meet.
PROJECTED LINEUP | 2015--16 stats
COACH STEVE CLIFFORD (4th season with Hornets)
2015--16 RECORD 48--34 (3rd in Southeast)
PG KEMBA WALKER
20.9 PPG; 5.2 APG; 42.7 FG%; 37.1 3FG%
SG NICOLAS BATUM
14.9 PPG; 6.1 RPG; 5.8 APG; 42.6 FG%
SF MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST
12.7 PPG; 6.4 RPG; 1.3 APG; 54.1 FG%
PF MARVIN WILLIAMS
11.7 PPG; 6.4 RPG; 45.2 FG%; 40.2 3FG%
C CODY ZELLER
8.7 PPG; 6.2 RPG; 0.9 BPG; 52.9 FG%
SG JEREMY LAMB
8.8 PPG; 3.8 RPG; 45.1 FG%; 30.9 3FG%
PG RAMON SESSIONS*
9.9 PPG; 2.9 APG; 47.3 FG%; 32.4 3FG%
PF FRANK KAMINSKY
7.5 PPG; 4.1 RPG; 41.0 FG%; 33.7 3FG%
TELLING NUMBER 3
A rival scout sizes up Charlotte
I'm leaning toward the Hornets to win the division, but they actually took a half-step backward. [Departed free-agent guards] Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee had great years, and [departed free-agent center] Al Jefferson was a guy you could rely on to score.... Can Kemba Walker get much better? I don't think he even needs to. If he consistently has the kind of year he had last year, they'll be good.... Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is excellent defensively but really limited offensively. Steve Clifford has always emphasized defense and built his team around it.... A big part of it was that they changed the way they played. When Jefferson was playing with his butt on the post, they were throwing it in and cutting off. That's not Kemba's game. Kemba needs a high pick. Then they installed Cody Zeller. Walker had his best games when Zeller was on the floor and they were running pick-and-roll while spacing the floor.... Marvin Williams did what he was supposed to do: plant himself in the corner and make threes. He earned himself a nice contract. As long as he can find space, he's gonna make shots.... Why are they bringing Marco Belinelli in? They must not be high on Jeremy Lamb. You see flashes with Lamb, then he disappears. It seems like he doesn't have a strong motor, even though he has good skills.... As he gets stronger, Frank Kaminsky's asset will be his shooting—being able to stretch the floor as a four. He's not a center—he has small shoulders, he's thin, he doesn't have the strength. Once he starts making shots, he'll be pretty good for them.
Big losses mean they won't stand out from the crowded pack in the middle of the East.