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Michael Jordan's Vision for Charlotte Hornets Finally Paying Dividends

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 25: Hornets owner Michael Jordan during the game against the Washington Wizards during the game on November 25, 2015 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2016

The Charlotte Hornets are lurking as the NBA's version of a Cinderella team—a small-market squad flying well under the radar.

And now they're slaying Goliaths, as they did during Monday's 91-88 come-from-behind win over the visiting San Antonio Spurs.

But the bigger story is the Hornets' big picture: The shared visions of owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho have finally come to fruition. 

"When I first came to Charlotte and had dinner with [head coach Steve Clifford], I'm like, 'We can surprise the league,'" do-it-all forward Nicolas Batum told Bleacher Report last week. "Nobody thinks we can do anything right now, but you look at the roster...we've got all the ingredients to be a good playoff team."

While few were watching, Charlotte quietly assembled one of the league's better collections of two-way talent. Case in point—the Hornets are one of only five teams with top-10 efficiency rankings on both ends of the floor. The other four are all popular championship picks: the Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers.

How'd we get here?

 

The Blueprint

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14:  NBA hall of famer and Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan walks off the court during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Elsa/Getty Images

There is a common thread tying all of Charlotte's moving parts together, and it's precisely what you'd expect from a Jordan-run team: competitiveness.

"The type of players we've tried to bring in are guys that have a strong work ethic, a really high degree of competitiveness, high-character guys and guys that play both ends of the floor," Cho told Bleacher Report in a recent phone interview. "Guys that come to play every night."

The Hornets have gambled on potential every now and then—drafting freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (second in 2012) and Noah Vonleh (ninth in 2014)—but they've largely favored productive track records.

And collegiate success seems to play heavily in that discussion.

The Hornets are littered with former March Madness winners: Kemba Walker (national champion at UConn), Frank Kaminsky (two-time Final Four participant at Wisconsin), Kidd-Gilchrist (national champ at Kentucky), Marvin Williams (national champ at UNC), Tyler Hansbrough (national champ at UNC), Jeremy Lamb (national champ at UConn) and Aaron Harrison (national finalist at Kentucky).

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Connecticut Huskies cuts down the net after defeating the Butler Bulldogs to win the National Championship Game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament by a score of 53-41 at Reliant Stadium
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"I don't think it's a coincidence," Cho said. "Those guys that have a great deal of competitiveness, those are the type of guys we want to bring in."

The tournament exposure allowed the Hornets to evaluate players in a pressure-packed environment. 

"Anytime you bring guys in with a winning attitude, who don't mind putting the team first and understand what it takes to win, that's always going to help the locker room," Al Jefferson said.

Jordan, a six-time champion and first-ballot Hall of Famer, hasn't had the smoothest ride as owner. After he purchased majority control of the franchise in 2010, the then-Bobcats went just 62-168 over the ensuing three seasons—the league's worst mark during that stretch.

But the executive had the perfect response to that losing, opting for patience instead of panic.

"MJ is really smart," Cho said. "He's got a great awareness of what it takes to win in the NBA, of how you have to build a team from the standpoint of things aren't going to happen overnight and the fact that it's a process."

 

The Building Blocks

Al Jefferson

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 10:  Al Jefferson #25 of the Charlotte Bobcats poses with his uniform alongside General Manager Rich Cho and President of Basketball Operations Rod Higgins during his intro to the media at the Time Warner Cable Arena on July 10, 2013
Kent Smith/Getty Images

"When we looked at our roster at the end of [2012-13], we felt that one thing we were missing was a low-post presence," Cho said. "We felt that Al was one of the best low-post players in the game, and it would help guys like Kemba from the standpoint of opening up the floor for him."

Jefferson dazzled in his 2013-14 debut, garnering All-NBA third-team honors after averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. His numbers have tailed considerably since [12.0 and 6.1, respectively, this season], but his ability to anchor the interior still helps balance the offense.

His biggest contribution may have happened off the floor, though. By signing with this franchise, he sent a message to every other NBA free agent.

"Charlotte is a great city," Cho said. "Charlotte is able to attract free agents."

Adding Jefferson, Cho said, provided immense assistance in signing Lance Stephenson and inking Gordon Hayward to an offer sheet in 2014. Neither panned out as the Hornets hoped, but they took sound shots at the time.

 

Steve Clifford

Nell Redmond/Associated Press

Barring a late collapse, Clifford has the Hornets positioned to make their second playoff appearance of his three-year tenure. Prior to his arrival, Charlotte only had one postseason berth to show for its previous nine seasons.

"I think Coach changed the culture around here," Jefferson said. "He brought a winning attitude to Charlotte."

Perhaps more impressive than the results is the malleability Clifford has displayed. During that first playoff journey, Charlotte played a bruising brand of defense-first basketball, ranking just 24th in offensive efficiency and 21st in pace. This current group has bumped those ranks to 10th and 17th, respectively.

"It's fun to watch," Cho said. "The coaching staff, led by Coach Clifford, has done a terrific job."

 

Kemba Walker

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Walker's four-year, $48 million extension initially seemed to carry more risk than reward.

The scoring guard was entering his fourth big-league campaign and had shot below 40 percent from the field during two of the first three. He struggled both from range and at the rim, leaving some to question his long-term calling.

But Charlotte could see things behind the scenes everyone else couldn't.

"We had confidence that Kemba would improve as a player just because of his competitiveness and his work ethic," Cho said. "Those are the guys that you want to bet on."

The Hornets have been counting up their winnings ever since. Walker has exploded this season, shattering his previous bests in points (21.3), player efficiency rating (21.2) and true shooting percentage (55.6). He has the team's only negative off-court efficiency rating (minus-0.7 points per 100 possessions, down from the plus-3.8 when he plays).

"He's been playing out of this world," Williams said. "He's been, no question, one of the 10 best players in the league since the All-Star break."

 

Marvin Williams

INDIANAPOLIS - FEBRUARY 26: Marvin Williams #2 of the Charlotte Hornets shoots the ball during the game against the Indiana Pacers on February 26, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

The 2014 signing of Williams to a two-year, $14 million deal went largely unnoticed. That's because, since being the No. 2 pick in 2005, his career had essentially gone the same way. But he has quietly done the unthinkable in this, his 11th NBA season.

The 29-year-old has made it a breakout year.

He's already hit more threes than ever (129 and counting) and converted those at a career-best 39.9 percent clip. He's also set new highs in rebounds (6.8 per game) and PER (16.6), while providing versatile, disruptive defense at both forward spots.

"I think he's Coach's favorite player," Batum said of Williams, "because he's always 100 percent. I love playing with him. He wants to compete. He's talking all the time. He's probably one of the most competitive guys I've ever been around."

 

Nicolas Batum

Mar 16, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum (5) goes up for a shot in the second half against the Orlando Magic at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Hornets defeated the Magic 107-99. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Spo
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on the night, Batum might be the Hornets' top scorer, distributor, defender or rebounder. His ability to handle multiple roles is why they parted with Vonleh and veteran Gerald Henderson to land Batum in an offseason swap with the Portland Trail Blazers.

"After the season, we made a concerted effort to improve on the offensive end, in particular try to improve our shooting as well as increase our overall skill level," Cho said. "We also wanted to acquire guys with some versatility that can play multiple positions. If you look at some of the guys we acquired—Batum, [Jeremy] Lamb, Jeremy Lin, Kaminsky—they can all shoot the ball as well as make plays."

It's been a near-seamless transition for Batum, who's having his best season in scoring (15.0 points per game) and assists (5.7). He can support the likes of Walker and Jefferson when they're rolling or take center stage and lead the offense on his own.

"That's my guy, man," Walker said of Batum. "He fits in perfectly with this team, especially things that we need."

 

The Finished Product

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 11:  Kemba Walker #15, Al Jefferson #25 and Steve Clifford, head coach of the Charlotte Hornets during the game against the Detroit Pistons at the Time Warner Cable Arena on March 11, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER:
Kent Smith/Getty Images

The final grade on the Hornets' revival won't be handed out until playoff time, but recent tests have nearly all come up aces. Since Feb. 1, they've compiled the NBA's third-best winning percentage (.762) and fourth-highest net rating (plus-7.5).

It's been almost a charmed existence, though the Hornets haven't been without a few missteps along the way. The Stephenson signing proved disastrous, and Charlotte had to ship him out less than a year after bringing him on board.

"Sometimes transactions don't work out, and sometimes they do," Cho said. "That one didn't work out great for us."

The Hornets also must see a bigger return on their investment in Kaminsky. Not only did they draft him ninth overall, but they also reportedly turned down an offer of four first-round picks from the Boston Celtics to stay in that slot, sources told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe—then writing for Grantland.

Cho admits Charlotte kept its ears open—"It's our job to always listen to offers"—but remained confident that adding Kaminsky was the right move.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

"We were really high on Frank, and we're still really high on Frank," Cho said. "His skill level for a 7-foot player is really high. We think he's going to be a terrific player."

Even with the jury still out—Kaminsky ranks 55th out of 76 centers in ESPN.com's real plus-minusthis front office's recent transaction log includes far more hits than misses. That's a credit to the scouting department, the coaching staff and the players themselves.

But it's also a testament to the work being done at the top. In the past, Jordan has been criticized for not building a strong enough support staff and surrounding himself with those who only echo his opinions.

That's not what Cho has seen.

"I keep him informed on everything, but our decisions are collaborative," Cho said. "He's very supportive and likes healthy debate."

With results like these, it's hard to fault the franchise's approach.

But the Hornets must prove they can maintain this success. The only glass slippers that carry any NBA meaning are the ones worn comfortably in May and June.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played March 20, unless otherwise noted.

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