The Eastern Conference in the NBA will be an interesting race to the top for the first time in a while.
Over the last four years, the Miami Heat dominated the conference, appearing in four straight NBA Finals and winning two championships in the process. The Indiana Pacers were thought to have a real shot at knocking them off during the last two years, especially during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals when they took the Heat to seven games, but ultimately fell short. The Pacers fell apart after a great start last season, eventually sacrificing home-court advantage to the Heat and bowing out in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stephenson was a gigantic signing for the Hornets. The respect between him and owner Michael Jordan is evident, and he has a real chance to emerge as the leader of this ball club.
Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist round out the rest of the Hornets’ starting backcourt which just screams “potential” given how much sheer athleticism these two and Stephenson possess. The main thing Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist must improve are their jump shots. Walker shot under 40 percent from the field even though he did average 17.7 PPG. Kidd-Gilchrist shot a more than respectable 47 percent clip from the field, but he shot a pathetic 11 percent from three-point range. It is a necessity for any starting small forward in the league to have a dangerous perimeter shot. He can definitely turn it around, especially since John Wall shot only seven percent from three in his sophomore year in the league and is now a 35 percent three-point shooter. Kidd-Gilchrist must get up to around this percentage this year if the Hornets want to be a contender in the East.
Looking at their front court, the Hornets drafted big man Noah Vonleh this year after he somehow slipped to them at No. 9 overall when he was projected to go No. 4 overall by many draft experts. Cody Zeller figures to be the favorite to start at the power forward spot this year with Vonleh supporting him off the bench, where Al Jefferson will be the starting center for the team. Jefferson had a terrific first year with the Hornets last year, averaging 20.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 1.1 BPG on 51 percent shooting from the field. “Big Al” is definitely the top option on offense and has an array of post moves and shots that drive defenses crazy. He must work on his defense and shot-blocking, as the one slant against the 6-foot-10, 289-pounder is that he is not as big a force as he should be on the defensive end. The Hornets also have former lottery pick Bismack Biyombo, a shot blocking and rebounding specialist, coming off the bench for them.
The most important thing the Hornets have right now is stability. They did not fire another coach this offseason like they have done many times recently, instead electing to keep Steve Clifford after he helped lead the team to the No. 7 seed in the East last year. Factor in the addition of Stephenson, Jefferson coming in more comfortable in his second year with the club and the maturity of all their young pieces, and I believe the Hornets are poised to surprise a lot of people this year.
They might not crack the top four in the East, as the Heat, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards all have an advantage on them right now in my opinion. However, could they leapfrog two teams to clinch the No. 5 seed and possibly pull of a first-round upset to get to the second round or farther this year? Absolutely.
Of course, a lot of this comes down to how much their young players improved over the off-season, notably Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist. I expect Walker to be thrown into a couple “Top Point Guards in the League” discussions this season, and do not be surprised if Gary Neal becomes a viable Sixth Man of the Year candidate for them due to his precise shooting from outside.
They are going to surprise many people this year, and this season will be the first of many great ones to come for the organization.