The Charlotte Hornets surprised many with their seventh-place finish in the East last season, more than doubling their win total from 2012-13. This year, however, they won't be sneaking up on anyone.
And it doesn't matter.
A team already built on defense (they were sixth in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions last season, per NBA.com), the Hornets went out and added one of the most tenacious players in the league in the always-exciting Lance Stephenson.
How many games will Charlotte win in 2014-15?
The Hornets lost two important pieces in Ben Gordon and Josh McRoberts, but the arrow is certainly still pointing up. Steve Clifford has instilled a new culture, and Charlotte is built to make some serious noise in the East.
With the release of the 2014-15 schedule, let's take an early look at the Hornets' prospects.
You can view Charlotte's complete schedule on NBA.com.
According to Odds Shark, the Hornets have 66-1 odds to win the NBA title.
When: Monday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
The Cavs are Vegas' favorite to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy next summer, and it's not exactly difficult to see why.
Kyrie Irving just put up his second season averaging at least 20 points and five assists per game, and he's still just 22. Anderson Varejao is the perfect role player, Tristan Thompson is very solid and Dion Waiters has a lot of talent.
Oh, right, and they went out and added the No. 2 and 3 players in win shares from the past season.
The first is LeBron James. You know the one, the guy with four MVPs. He's the best player in the world and makes everyone around him better. Yeah, that one.
Up next was the best stretch 4 in the entire league, Kevin Love, although that deal isn't official yet:
Sources: Cavs have agreement for Kevin Love, including long-term contract commitment. Wiggins, Bennett, pick to Minn. http://t.co/r2KmO5owwY— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) August 7, 2014
The Cavs were already an intriguing team after hiring David Blatt, an up-and-coming head coaching prospect and star Euroleague export, to a young core. Even if it takes a while for the pieces to jell, the addition of James and Love make Cleveland unbelievably dangerous at its peak.
If the Hornets are planning on taking the next step in the East, this is the team they must beat, making it a must-watch contest.
When: Wednesday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. ET
Of course, if there's a squad that is going to knock Cleveland from its perch, it's the Chicago Bulls.
Much like the San Antonio Spurs in the West, Tom Thibodeau has implemented a system that is capable of transcending personnel. That's why, even with Derrick Rose missing all but 10 mostly-ineffective games, the Bulls still went 48-34 and finished fourth in the East last year.
Sort of a more extreme version of Charlotte, they finished second in the NBA in defensive rating and 28th in offensive rating, per NBA.com. With Rose back to full health, Pau Gasol serving as a major upgrade over Carlos Boozer and the addition of Doug McDermott through the draft, though, their scoring problems should be a thing of the past.
This isn't just a team that will contend for the top spot in the East. It's one that matches up extremely well with the Hornets, making this an important test for Clifford and Co.
Gordon and McRoberts—especially the latter, who finished second on the team in win shares, per Basketball-Reference—were solid pieces, but the addition of Stephenson, Marvin Williams and rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston represent an upgrade.
The latter duo is still a bit raw, but Stephenson immediately becomes the team's best two-way player, while Williams can stretch the floor from the power forward position, a perfect complement to the back-to-the-basket Jefferson.
Grantland's Zach Lowe discussed the benefit of signing the former:
Stephenson is just 23, he plays both ends, and he’s going to get better. He fills a glaring need for another dose of off-the-dribble creation — a guy to ease the pressure on Kemba Walker and to run secondary offense when Professor Al Jefferson, PhD, kicks the ball from the post.
Stephenson is a better long-range shooter than Gerald Henderson, though he needs to shoot more often instead of catching, holding, and planning his next fancy move while the defense resets. He can play alongside either Henderson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and depending on how Steve Clifford staggers the rotation, Stephenson can run second units that fell apart when both Jefferson and Walker rested.
It was a move that fell slightly under the radar with players like James and Carmelo Anthony commanding the headlines this summer, but the addition of Stephenson is massive for the Hornets. His hard-nosed defense fits the system already implemented by Clifford, and his ability to create offense from the perimeter is very much a welcomed addition.
Adam Jun put it simply:
NBA sidebar: Think the East is a four-horse race. Bulls-Wizards-Cavs-Hornets.— Adam Jun (@ajbulls) July 21, 2014
Charlotte has the stars in Walker, Stephenson and Jefferson, with the latter serving as a legitimate MVP candidate. It has the depth, with a solid backup at every position, except maybe center. And it has the coach to put it all together.
This is still a young team with plenty of room to grow—Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Vonleh and Hairston are all under 22—but the Hornets are going to approach 50 wins and contend for home-court advantage in the first round.