[Images Courtesy of NBA]
Teal & Purple Revival: The Return of the Charlotte Hornets
by Chad Jewett
By all indications, this year’s NBA season promises to be an all-timer. Unlike last year, where the inevitability of a Heat-Spurs final more or less dictated that the 2013-2014 season was spent hoping your favorite team’s quest for Draft Lottery-qualifying badness (Sixers, Jazz, Celtics, Bucks) wasn’t depressing enough to make you swear off the sport forever, or consisted of a year-long training camp for actual championship possibilities this year (Bulls, Wizards, Clippers, Thunder, Warriors), 2014-2015 seems to guarantee historic opportunity. LeBron James is still the best player on earth, but now we get to root for him as he tries to build a contender around two compelling but incomplete All Stars (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) and likable role players (Matthew Dellavedova, Anderson Varejão, Shawn Marion). We find ourselves hoping James and his squad do well, instead of casually assuming it. The Spurs have figured out their recipe and are simply continuing to perfect it, but each new successful season becomes more and more of an underdog story as several of their best players push 40. Bulls fans cringe every time Derrick Rose runs, jumps, or makes any sudden lateral movement, but it’s safe to say all real NBA fans hope he stays healthy and that the Eastern Conference playoffs can yield something better than last year’s offering of the Miami Heat jogging through an obstacle course.
Essentially, the NBA is as popular as it’s ever been, reaching – and perhaps exceeding – a plateau formerly set in the 1990s in the era of Jordan. And unlike the majority of that decade (at least the years when Jordan wasn’t swinging a bat), it’s a lot less clear who the championship favorite really is. In that sense, the contemporary league might promise even better basketball than that previous highpoint. Which is one of the reasons why it feels so good to have an essential piece of that era back: the Charlotte Hornets.
Odds are, if you care about basketball and were born any time between 1975 and 1990, you have warm memories of the Hornets — of their perfect teal, purple, black, and white color scheme, of the cartoonish logo that seemed custom-designed to take up ninety percent of a Reebok t-shirt. When the short-but-sweet reign of the puffy, plastic-feeling Starter jacket was at its apex, those ultra-bright colors competed only with the aqua-and-orange Miami Dolphins and the silver, purple, and red Toronto Raptors for sheer dominance (or autumn-leaf orange and Pacific green of the Seattle Supersonics … sigh). The generation that got NickToons for kickball halftime entertainment was lucky enough to see the Charlotte grade-school duo of My Brother & Me get really, really excited that Kendall Gill would be signing autographs at the comic book store. Kendall Gill! Exactly the kind of player that hoops blogs would celebrate as underappreciated and quietly brilliant (just like how I will regarding Kemba Walker in about three minutes). Those kids had taste! And the Charlotte Hornets made that possible. Heck, we might have teams like the Hornets to thank for the nerdy joy that is modern NBA. While aware that snapback ball caps had existed for decades previous, it still feels like they existed mainly to have an outsized, ball-dribbling, honey-comb-sneakered bug on the front, preferably with some sort of lightning font spelling out CHARLOTTE. Michael Jordan may have been the star of Space Jam, but when the Monstars stole the talent from four NBA greats and Shawn Bradley, only the Charlotte Hornets took up two roster spots. And note that His Airness ended up buying the Hornets. Food for thought, no?
[Image Courtesy of Lids]
And while the Hornets are the ideal nostalgia team (along with the Sonics … sigh) even now with the new, less interesting logo, it’s useful to keep in mind that they were good. Charlotte made it to the playoffs five times in that 1990s era, losing in the semi-finals in ’93 and ’98 to Ewing’s Knicks and Jordan’s Bulls – no shame there. The team had Alonzo Mourning, Larry “Grandmama” Johnson (who once appeared on Family Matters, further cementing the Hornets as the People’s Choice for 90s kid basketball/pop culture greatness), Muggsy Bogues (who gave hope to every kid under 5’9”), Glen Rice, Anthony Mason, and Kendall Gill (who I hear is signing autographs, down at the comic book store).
So the best part of this modern iteration of the Hornets is that they too are good. Very good even. Coached by Steve Clifford who was a darkhorse candidate for Coach of the Year last season after reworking the historically awful 2012-2013 Hornets into a playoff team with defense-first toughness, and led by flexible combo guard and professional winner Kemba Walker, the team is not only a joy to have around because it’s easy to be stoked that Charlotte is back in all its purple-and-teal, anthropomorphic bug glory, but because they also have a shot at being as good as they were back then. Here, without any further ado, are the players to get to know in the Charlotte basketball renaissance. Feel free to slip on a Starter Jacket.
As a New England-based outlet, we at Half Cloth have a hard time being objective about fourth year point guard Kemba Walker. As the leader of the 2011 UConn Huskies, Walker spearheaded one of the most unlikely runs in NCAA history, capped by eleven straight victories in the Big East and national tournaments and victories over Arizona, Kentucky, and Butler to win the championship. Walker’s game-winning buzzer-beater (that jump-stop step back jumper remains a huge move for him) against Pittsburgh in the Big East quarterfinals is in the unofficial YouTube hall-of-fame. You can tell why Jordan drafted him, since Jordan cares about winning and literally nothing else. And while Walker is still working his way up the middle of a very stacked NBA point guard pack (I’d place him just below the Rondos and Lillards of the league, tied with great lead guards like Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague) and still figuring out his place as a leader of a once-awful team, his stats have steadily climbed since his rookie season (especially his points-per-game, assists, and three-point percentages, key numbers for modern point guards expected to score and distribute). You can also feel pretty secure with the leadership of a kid who managed to graduate early the same year he led an all-time underdog squad to a championship that necessitated five wins in five days. And indeed, the very day that Charlotte gave Walker a 4 year/$48 Million contract to begin the season, the 24-year-old Bronx native got his team to overtime on a buzz-beating three and then won the game on another last-second jumper – compelling reminders of why the Hornets were smart to keep their captain confident that he was their guy right from the word “go” of the 2014-2015 season.
The Big Man
A lot of very good NBA minds shrugged last year when Charlotte (then the Bobcats … thank god that’s over) signed center/forward Al Jefferson, an excellent offensive big man with a limited defensive game and a history of injury. Signing frontcourt players on the tail end of their careers is always risky, and Jefferson’s offense-oriented skills could prove dissonant with Steve Clifford’s prizing of defense. Yet, by all appearances, the signing has worked out well, and Jefferson’s sturdy leadership, along with one of his finer statistical seasons (second best in averaged points, third best in averaged rebounds, third best in field goal percentage), yielding All-NBA Third Team placement, was one of the major reasons the Hornets made the playoffs, and remains a key piece going forward. It’s also a good sign for the Hornets faithful that players as talented and productive as Al Jefferson are choosing Charlotte in free agency. While Big Al’s injury streak resurfaced in the form of plantar fasciitis that kept him sidelined during the team’s ultimately unsuccessful first round bout with Miami, he has looked pretty good so far this year (though his rebounds are down, possibly due to a promising uptick in boards for small forward and potential up-and-comer Michael-Kidd Gilchrist). Finally, Big Al might also prove hugely valuable as a role model, teacher, and leader for two of Charlotte’s best young assets, rookie center/forward Noah Vonleh and second-year center Cody Zeller. Speaking of which…
This years Hornets squad is amongst one of several NBA teams featuring young talents worth keeping an eye on. But unlike many of those teams – the Timberwolves, Jazz, Magic, and Celtics – Charlotte actually has a chance at winning. And while hopes for a playoff berth often mean limited minutes for developing players, there will still likely be minutes for the teams two best youngsters, both alumni of the Indiana Hoosiers.
The first is rookie Noah Vonleh, selected ninth in this year’s draft. Vonleh averaged a very solid 11 points, 9 rebounds and half an assist per game in his one-and-done rookie season for the Hoosiers. Having just turned nineteen this past August, there is also plenty of potential for growth for the forward/center, even if he is set pretty far back in the Hornet’s rotation. Though Vonleh is apparently well enough to be marked “available” on the DL after recovering from hernia surgery, Steve Clifford has also floated out the possibility of Vonleh spending much of the season in the D League (per ESPN), likely a result of fairly crowded center and power forward spots which include Jefferson, Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, and Marvin Williams (who put together a 19-and-4 game against Milwaukee during the Hornets’ home opener). While Vonleh might miss the guidance of Big Al that we’re hoping Zeller will receive, and while we all might miss out on the potential greatness of Vonleh teaming up with fellow rookie P.J. Hairston (who could prove a steal as a late first-rounder), there’s nevertheless a win-win here: Vonleh will either get meaningful minutes in the D League to prepare for either the playoffs/next season, or he figures as a very good trade chip if the Hornets realize their potential and look to further armor themselves for a real run this spring, especially as young, gifted rookies like Vonleh have only grown more desirable for building franchises. That said, because young guys like Vonleh are so valuable to teams, one would hope that the Hornets think long and hard about trading him, especially with the spotty health history of Big Al.
Cody Zeller, who averaged 6 points, 4 rebounds, and half a block and half a steal per game last year as a back up power forward/center swingman, will also stand to learn under the tutelage of Jefferson, one of the best big men in the game right now. So far this season his point average is up to 8 and an increased role in the Hornets lineup will give Zeller the chance to show if he’s capable of more. Like Vonleh he might not get a lot of playing time behind a very solid, veteran front-court lineup, but hopefully the Hornets find spare minutes for him whenever they can, especially if Zeller can find a way to form a defensive game to offer a facet that Jefferson doesn’t.
The Wild Card
If Al Jefferson’s choice of Charlotte as a free agency destination gave Hornets fans hope, then combo guard Lance Stephenson’s similar decision presents an additional, and perhaps even greater, boon. A breakout player with the Indiana Pacers last year for both his creative, kinetic play and his surrealist approach to mental basketball warfare (casual fans might remember Stephenson as the guy who blew in LeBron James’ ear in an attempt to get into his head in the Eastern Conference Finals), Stephenson proved athletic, creative, and gifted enough for any team willing to take a risk on a young, promising prospect who, again, tried to shake LeBron James by blowing in his ear. Charlotte made the offer, the Pacers balked, and Lance is now a Hornet. Given the seemingly great atmosphere that coach Steve Clifford was able to foster last year, and the preternatural leadership of Kemba Walker and veteran stature of Al Jefferson, there’s hope that Stephenson will gel with the team (the only big concern might be the presence of the similarly mercurial Gary Neal) and offer a more positively unpredictable energy to a defense-first team. So far Lance’s scoring has been down, but his rebounding has been great, and, if last year’s season with the Pacers was any indication, Stephenson will find his shot sooner than later.