The future of the Charlotte Hornets has not gotten much attention because for the first time in quite a while, this franchise actually has good things to look forward to in the present day.
That, and the fact that they have yet to play a game as the Hornets.
The Hornets' outlook is a stark turnaround from just a few years ago when the team won seven games. Management has now landed two big names in free agency during consecutive offseasons, and this past NBA draft instilled even more confidence in a group of fans that has not seen very much success in past lotteries.
Al Jefferson and now Lance Stephenson have this team's expectations higher than ever. Charlotte will be looking to build off of its second playoff appearance ever and hopefully make that next step of actually winning in the postseason and making noise in the now wide-open Eastern Conference.
In the short term, this team has every right believing it can contend. Charlotte cannot fall victim to complacency and forget that this is all still a work in progress and there is still work to be done. Everything is not solved due to two big signings. The subsequent long-term goals are still of paramount importance to keep going in the right direction.
Groom the Young Guys
Drafting Kemba Walker was a success, but other lottery picks have been far from great in recent history for this franchise.
Charlotte is due for some bright days, but the Hornets cannot become so fixated on the present possibility of success that they forget about the big investments they have made in high draft picks. There is always that possibility that Jefferson and Stephenson jump ship in two or three years if things don't continue to improve, so coaches cannot allow that to happen.
The Hornets have to continue building and cultivating a winning culture, which starts with the great hiring of head coach Steve Clifford. He instituted a legitimate plan and gave this team a much-needed identity that all the players bought into.
The next step is finding ways to develop the young guys to ensure this team doesn't collapse should it lose one or two big-name players.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh are going to be the determining factors of how far this team can go. We all know what Walker, Jefferson and Stephenson can do, but in both the present and future, the continued growth of all these recent first-round picks will elevate the team from being really good to a potential title contender.
MKG obviously is still a huge work in progress on the offensive end, but early in his career is already one of the NBA's most dynamic lockdown defenders. He is far too athletic and talented to be as offensively disinterested as he is.
He still shot over 47 percent from the floor this past season and averaged a solid 5.2 rebounds in 24 minutes a night. It was almost hard to tell what kind of offensive improvement he may have made because MKG rarely steps out of his comfort zone. His repertoire is mostly just getting his points via garbage buckets and the occasional backdoor cuts.
Biyombo has continued to block shots but has not added to his game at all. This year may be his final chance to show some real improvement, as he continues to slide down the depth chart.
The real high-upside guys in Zeller and Vonleh are still too young to judge. Zeller had a horrendous start to his rookie year but did turn things around drastically in the second half. He will have a big opportunity to make a leap now that Josh McRoberts is out of the picture.
The big names will run the show in the near future, but it is up to all the youngsters to elevate this team to new heights. Clifford will have to incorporate them early and often to ensure a brighter present and future.
Stay True to New Identity
Charlotte made a titanic leap last season on the defensive end of the floor thanks to Clifford's arrival and Jefferson's huge improvements as a rim protector.
The Hornets ranked fourth in the league last season, allowing only 97.1 points per game. The interesting thing about that number is that Charlotte was not very disruptive on that end of the floor.
Only the Portland Trail Blazers recorded fewer steals than Charlotte last season. The Hornets were also third in fewest overall turnovers forced, both a testament to just how solidly they played on defense.
Charlotte did its damage on defense thanks to sound fundamentals and good rotations. The players bought into the new schemes and used them to fuel the offense as well. Unselfish defense led to unselfish offense, and the wins began piling up due to the fact that the Hornets were playing as a cohesive unit.
From the moment Clifford arrived on the scene, Charlotte started to develop into a gritty fundamental squad. The addition of Jefferson lifted the play of everyone around him as well.
The Stephenson acquisition was a huge addition to this team not only because it adds a well-needed second ball-handler, but he also embodies everything this team is about.
Stephenson is coming from a very unselfish and defensive-oriented team in Indiana that is sort of becoming a model for this Hornets team. Fundamental defense and unselfish offense will be Charlotte's calling card once again.
Continue to Establish a Winning Culture
This is not something that can be measured by any stat other than the one that matters most: the win-loss column.
Charlotte has the unique distinction of doubling its win total two years in a row, going from seven wins to 21 to 43.
The next step after the franchise's second playoff appearance is going deep into the postseason. In both previous appearances, it felt like Charlotte was playing with house money. The Hornets were just happy to be there, and it truly didn't matter that they got swept both times.
That isn't good enough anymore. The buzz is back, the team just had a fantastic draft, the core is intact and Lance Stephenson was brought on as a huge addition. The East is now up for grabs due to the demise of powerhouses Miami and Indiana. Cleveland and Chicago are going to be much better, but aside from that, the conference is very unsettled.
Charlotte should be setting its sights on at least a top-four seed and an appearance in the second round of the playoffs.
In the future, Charlotte must continue to set higher goals. After this year they will have to up the ante once again and also continue to become more attractive to free agents. Young players also thrive in a winning culture and will now be able to be brought along slowly instead of being asked to carry the franchise right away.
This team has come a long way from the days of Adam Morrison and Sean May. The young guys don't have to carry the whole load anymore because Clifford has established the makings of a winning culture already.