Early Predictions for Charlotte Hornets' Starting Lineup This Season

Justin Hussong@@HeatChecksHussContributor IIIJuly 22, 2014

Early Predictions for Charlotte Hornets' Starting Lineup This Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The offseason started with a few swings and misses by the Charlotte Hornets on the NBA free-agency front, but owner Michael Jordan, general manager Rich Cho and the rest of the clan saved face by making a few very nice moves after the initial flurry died down.

    All of a sudden, the starting lineup will look quite a bit stronger, which in turn will fortify the bench. The buzz will be back and better than ever behind a starting five that would put any of those in Bobcats history to shame.

    However, the offseason did leave the Hornets with a question or two. Among them will be whether or not they can build on last season's huge improvement and what exactly the starting lineup will look like?

    The Eastern Conference has been shaken up and left wide open. Charlotte now has all the opportunity in the world to ring in the new era behind a contender led by stalwarts Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker.

    The only significant loss from last year's roster will be Josh McRoberts, an absence that could quickly be alleviated depending on how quickly No. 9 overall pick Noah Vonleh can marinate. He and fellow first-rounder P.J. Hairston could make this one of the scariest teams in the East if they buy into the system and show some early poise.

    Assuming that everyone stays healthy and most of the dust has settled in the land of free agency, let's dive into your projected 2014-15 Charlotte Hornets starting lineup.

Point Guard: Kemba Walker

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    Kemba Walker had a good year last season, but he can still do better.

    His improvement could only be found deep on the stat sheet. For example, his defensive rating was at a career-best 105, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He also saw a slight uptick in his rebounding. Both of these things could be attributed to new coach Steve Clifford and the reliability of Al Jefferson as a paint protector.

    While Walker definitely took steps forward on defense and as an overall leader, he still has work to do. His field-goal percentage once again dipped below 40 percent largely due to the fact that he took 25.6 percent of his shots from no-man's land of 16 feet out to the three-point line. He also took considerably less shots at the rim.

    This means that he has not completely figured out how to play with more talent around him, namely Jefferson. The two worked very well together in pick-and-roll situations, but Walker must figure out how to better utilize the big man's presence to create open shots.

    The next step for Walker will be shot selection. With an improved roster, he will continue to grow and become a better student of the game, continuing to make his teammates better in the process.

    Walker is still the engine that drives this ship, and Charlotte needs him to keep growing and developing to get them to that next level.

Shooting Guard: Lance Stephenson

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    The man of ear-blowing, LeBron-trolling, triple-doubling fame is the first newcomer on this list.

    The Hornets made a surprising yet fantastic move by prying Lance Stephenson from the mighty Indiana Pacers recently, delivering a swift blow to the balance of power in the East. The icing on the cake was that he was signed for only three years and $27 million.

    Yes, this means we just went through an offseason that saw Jordan Hill get paid more annually than Stephenson. Gordon Hayward got $63 million for somewhat similar numbers. Madness!

    But seriously, this was more likely just a crafty move by Stephenson's people to set him up for the next labor agreement and also line him up for two huge, long-term contracts instead of one in the future.

    On the court, Charlotte now has another prominent player who can create for his teammates and handle the ball, a role that was surprisingly filled by Josh McRoberts with remarkable efficiency. Stephenson will take a lot of pressure off Walker due to his versatile game on both ends.

    Acquiring Stephenson makes Charlotte for real. This team is no longer that little engine that could but is instead fully embodying the attitude of a nasty, team-oriented defensive club that will make some loud noise in the East.

    The two playground kids from New York City should mesh quickly in the backcourt and further establish this team's identity. We forget that Stephenson is still just 23 because he has already been through so much. He is actually older than Kemba Walker although their games do not resemble it.

    Gerald Henderson now cedes his role as a four-year starter to become a big weapon off the bench. Hendo plateaued production-wise as a one-dimensional offensive talent and solid defender but now bolsters what could be a very strong bench. Having the sharpshooter Hairston at shooting guard, as well as Jeff Taylor returning from injury, makes this a loaded position for Charlotte.

    So get ready, Hornets fans, because who is really more fun than Lance Stephenson?

Small Forward: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is known for two things. He is an in-your-face defender unlike few others in the league, and his jumper is so ugly, you wonder if he intentionally tried to come up with the most outrageous shooting form he could think of.

    Seriously, how does he even bend his arm like this?

    We can only hope that he is continuing to work toward fixing that during the offseason, but let's not be too hard on the guy. He is still just 20 years of age and is already an elite perimeter defender.

    No, that is not an exaggeration.

    He significantly improved on that end of the floor even after a very good rookie season. He did get slaughtered for a couple of 60-point games this past year guarding LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, but his teammates were adamant in stating that was due to lapses in game-planning. Way to stick up for the youngster.

    MKG could be in for a nice little breakout year coming up. When you watch him, it appears as if he just sticks to what he is comfortable with. He knows his role, which is vital when it comes to success in the NBA.

    He needs some of his confidence and assertiveness on defense to carry over to his offensive game. To his credit, he is actually somewhat decent at shooting longer two-point shots and is athletic enough to finish at the rim with decent efficiency. After all, he did shoot over 47 percent from the floor last season, but at times, he just got lost in the offense and was more of an afterthought.

    MKG is a gifted talent, and even without a great jumper, he can still contribute much more by being active around the rim and getting out in transition.

Power Forward: Cody Zeller

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    Power forward is where Charlotte is going to need guys to really step up. This position is going to be the most critical in terms of determining just how successful this team will be.

    By all means, Cody Zeller will be this team's X-factor.

    Early last year, Zeller was quickly labeled as a bust. It was a label that even his second-half resurgence couldn't exactly shake.

    Consider the numbersZeller shot 38 percent from the floor prior to last year's All-Star break but shot just under 51 percent after it, per Basketball-Reference.com. His per-36 numbers were actually staggering for a 21-year-old at 12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, a block and a steal per game.

    There is not a fan of this team on this planet who would not accept numbers like that if Zeller gets over 30 minutes a game this year.

    Given the lack of depth on the roster at power forward, there is no reason to believe Clifford won't take the training wheels off Zeller this year. He was drafted fourth overall for a reason, and he has a diverse athletic game that complements Jefferson as long as the team puts him in a position to succeed.

    He is not McRoberts, and he doesn't have to be. Stephenson's presence gives the team a lot of extra rebounding and passing, so as long as Zeller stays within himself, he can have a truly great season.

    Behind him as the only other true power forward on the roster is the rookie Vonleh. Unless Zeller struggles, this position is all his because Vonleh still looked raw in summer league whereas Zeller flourished and shot 59 percent in his brief stint in Las Vegas.

Center: Al Jefferson

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    CHRIS KEANE/Associated Press

    The only thing that could stop Al Jefferson last year was plantar fasciitis.

    The big man has been a fixture in the paint for years, but the knock on him was that he was a black hole on offense and a liability when it came to protecting the rim. It was questionable whether or not he could be a vital member of a winning team.

    It certainly raised a few eyebrows when Charlotte handed him a massive three-year deal last offseason, but he was worth every penny.

    Jefferson had a career year on the defensive end, and his scoring and rebounding numbers went back up over the 20-10 threshold. He started a bit slow before posting 24.5 points and 11.4 rebounds a night after the All-Star break.

    To get an idea of how important he was to the team's success, look no further than his 25 points and 11.7 board averages in the team's wins.

    Jefferson should post similar numbers this season, as he remains the focal point on offense. The addition of Stephenson and the added depth on the bench should also help him out by drawing more attention away from him. Once again, Zeller is a big lynchpin due to how much McRoberts helped Jefferson out last year with his shooting and passing abilities.

    Overall, not much to report here. Jefferson will be the starter as long as basketballs are still spherical. Another 20-10 season to lead this squad along with some added help and development from the younger guys might result in...dare I say it?

    How about 50 wins?