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Everything You Need to Know About the Charlotte Hornets' 2015-16 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 13, 2015

Charlotte Hornets' Al Jefferson poses for a photo during the NBA basketball team's media day in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Sept. 25, 2015 . (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

The Charlotte Hornets are attempting to simultaneously gain relevance and make up for lost time, all while dealing with the loss of their most important player for the future (and quite possibly the present).

A surprise playoff participant in 2014, the Hornets watched helplessly as their 2014-15 campaign became a series of unfortunate events. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and the end result was a 49-loss mess, marred by bad investments (Lance Stephenson), injuries (Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker) and inconsistency (pretty much everyone else).

Charlotte looked to leave those blunders in the past with an active offseason that delivered both intriguing prospects and proven NBA commodities. But any progress made from this point will come without the assistance of former No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who's expected to be sidelined until April after undergoing shoulder surgery. 

The Hornets have a number of new faces to help steer this club back to the postseason, but they have just as many holes to fill.

Key Additions/Subtractions

SHANGHAI, CN - OCTOBER 13: Nicolas Batum of the Charlotte Hornets poses for a photo as part of the 2015 NBA Global Games China at the Ritz-Carlton on October 13, 2015 in Shanghai, China. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Additions: Nicolas Batum (trade), Frank Kaminsky (draft), Jeremy Lamb (trade), Spencer Hawes (trade), Jeremy Lin (free agent), Tyler Hansbrough (free agent)

Subtractions: Lance Stephenson (trade), Noah Vonleh (trade), Gerald Henderson (trade), Bismack Biyombo (free agent), Mo Williams (free agent), Jeffery Taylor (overseas), Jason Maxiell (overseas)

The Hornets spent the summer trying to spark their 28th-ranked offense, paying particularly close attention to their anemic three-point attack (31.8 percent, 30th). They focused more on quantity than quality, shedding non-shooters such as Gerald Henderson and Lance Stephenson, while spreading serviceable gunners all over the floor.

Nicolas Batum, acquired in a June trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, could make or break this offseason.

He is basketball's version of a five-tool player, someone who can shoot, distribute, slash, rebound and defend multiple positions. But he's coming off the worst season of his seven-year career, where a nagging wrist problem sent his conversion rates plummeting (40.0 percent from the field, 32.4 from deep). And he arrived at the steep price of upside-rich prospect Noah Vonleh and steady vet Gerald Henderson.

Both Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes have the perimeter touch to free up Al Jefferson underneath, but there will be defensive question marks with any lineup featuring two of the three. Jeremy Lamb should get the opportunity he never received during three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Jeremy Lin should benefit from moving well outside the spotlight.

Storylines to Watch

Mar 25, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) in a time out during the second half of the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Time Warner Cable Arena. Nets win 91-88. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Even with an entire season to play out, it's hard not to wonder whether Kidd-Gilchrist's injury has derailed the Hornets' playoff train before it's even left the station. The 22-year-old is their best defensive weapon, a constant source of unrelenting hustle and, according to the stat sheet, their biggest key to playoff contention.

"The Hornets have gone 62-55 (.530) with Kidd-Gilchrist in the lineup the past two seasons and 14-33 (.298) when he has been unavailable to play," ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton noted. "Their defensive rating has ranked in the top 10 when Kidd-Gilchrist is healthy and worse than average without him."

If there is a way to survive Kidd-Gilchrist's absence, it starts with pulling this offense out of the cellar.

That means getting Jefferson back to his 2013-14 All-NBA level (21.8 points, 10.8 boards) and finding a role for Walker that pushes his field-goal percentage north of 40. Either Kaminsky or Cody Zeller has to look like a top-10 pick (preferably both), Lamb and P.J. Hairston must rain down shots from distance, and Lin must provide support both behind and alongside Walker.

But more than anything, Charlotte's success will be tied to Batum's play. Head coach Steve Clifford sees Batum as a "second or first option," via Bonnell, and the Hornets will ask him to provide scoring, spacing, distributing, rebounding and lockdown defense. If Batum can be the rare All-Star glue guy, he could help save the Hornets' season—and skyrocket his stock before hitting the open market as an unrestricted free agent next summer.

X-Factor: Jeremy Lamb

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Three forgettable seasons in OKC have all but silenced the hype surrounding lamb. But in 2012, he had a big enough buzz to play a pivotal role in the trade that delivered James Harden to the Houston Rockets. And people may be surprised to hear Lamb is still just 23 years old.

His physical gifts haven't gone anywhere; he still sports a monstrous 6'11" wingspan and flashes effortless athleticism. His shooting form suggests there's upward mobility in his career 34.8 three-point percentage, and he could be extra comfortable alongside Walker, his teammate at UConn.

Lamb has a lot of potential left, but it's time for him to convert that into production. The Hornets need all the offense he can give, and he has his own motivation with restricted free agency likely awaiting him at season's end. If opportunity was his biggest issue in OKC, he won't have the same problems in Charlotte.

"They love Lamb," a league source told CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "He's really the only long, athletic shooting guard they have now that Batum will be back at the 3. He has a chance to be really good."

Making the Leap: Cody Zeller

SHENZHEN, CN - OCTOBER 11: Cody Zeller #40 of the Charlotte Hornets dunks during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the 2015 NBA Global Games China at the Shenzhen Universiade Center on October 11, 2015 in Shenzhen, China. NOTE TO USER: Us
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Zeller has underwhelmed since the Hornets snagged him fourth overall in the 2013 draft. His career player efficiency rating sits a shade below average (13.6), and he's failed to move the needle with his scoring (6.7 points), rebounding (5.0) or shooting (44.3 percent from the field).

But his breakout could be coming soon.

He has new frontcourt challengers in Kaminsky, Hawes and Hansbrough pushing him for minutes, but the Hornets would be smart to continue developing their athletic 7-footer. Zeller's ability to play above the rim should separate him from the pack, and a newly formed three-point stroke could send his ceiling soaring.

"It would change everything," Clifford said, via Bonnell. "Then they would have to close to him [defensively]. He has a quick first step and obviously he'd create space for everybody else."

Best-Case Scenario

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 3:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets shoots the ball against the Orlando Magic during a preseason game on October 3, 2015 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

Both Jefferson and Batum secure their first All-Star trips. Walker nearly joins them, as a reduction in playmaking duties yields an increase in efficiency. Lamb enters the Most Improved Player award race, proving to be a reliable scorer and pesky defender. Zeller, Kaminsky and Hawes all stretch opposing defenses with their shooting, and Lin slices through the vacant lanes off the dribble.

Charlotte stumbles a bit defensively, but the offensive strides more than compensate for the loss. The Hornets make their second playoff appearance in three years, then get Kidd-Gilchrist back just in time to scare their higher-seeded first-round opponent.

Worst-Case Scenario

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Jefferson takes a second consecutive step back, and the Hornets once again find themselves without a primary scorer. Batum looks overexposed as a key contributor, and Walker can't abandon his volume-scoring ways. The frontcourt doesn't shoot well enough to overshadow its defensive deficiencies, and Lamb shows why OKC kept him tethered to the bench.

The defense leaks uncontrollably without Kidd-Gilchrist, and the offense struggles to flash competence with any regularity. The Hornets slide further down the standings but not far enough to land great odds for the 2016 lottery. Making matters worse, Vonleh wins the Most Improved Player award in Portland, by a landslide.

Predictions

Jan 31, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Hornets had a razor-thin margin for error before losing Kidd-Gilchrist. Even at full strength, this looked like an erratic offense and good-not-great defense.

Without Kidd-Gilchrist, the offense still seems spotty, and the defense is now more vulnerable. That's not a good mix.

Maybe Jefferson rediscovers his rhythm. Or Batum breaks out of his shell. Or Walker adds quality to his quantity. Or Lamb emerges as a hidden gem. Or Zeller, Kaminsky and/or Hawes elevate their supporting cast by providing some needed breathing room.

Any of those things could happen, but what are the odds that several of them do? Because unless multiple key contributors make significant leaps this season, the Hornets aren't getting back to the postseason. Charlotte's playoff window likely closed when Kidd-Gilchrist took that fateful fall.

Final Record: 32-50

Division Standing: Fourth in Southeast

Playoff Berth: No

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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