The Charlotte Hornets look to get things back on track in the 2017-18 season after a disappointing 36-46 record last season that saw the franchise miss the postseason for the 10th time since 2005.
Things appeared to be heading in the right direction in Charlotte two years ago. The Hornets went 48-34, their best record since the 1999-2000 season, and they took the Miami Heat to seven games in the first round of the playoffs before being eliminated.
Hornets general manager Rich Cho took steps to try to turn things around. Dwight Howard was acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks, and Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon were added in the NBA draft. They also return their top four scorers—Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams—from last season.
2017-18 Season Details
Season Opener: Wednesday, Oct. 18, at Detroit Pistons
Championship Odds: 300-1 (via OddsShark)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Washington Wizards: First Matchup Home (Wednesday, Nov. 22)
In some ways, the Hornets feel like they are in a similar position as the Washington Wizards were five years ago.
Coming off a 29-53 record in 2012-13, the Wizards put together an exciting core through the draft with John Wall (2010), Bradley Beal (2012) and Otto Porter (2013). It would take a couple of years before Porter really became a focal point of the group, but he had the upside of a star after being drafted No. 3 overall.
Wall had established himself as the team leader by the 2013-14 season and led a turnaround that included a 44-38 record and playoff series win over the Chicago Bulls.
The Hornets have Kemba Walker, who is only four months older than Wall, as their star at point guard. Batum is a reliable scorer who has also averaged at least 5.6 rebounds per game in each of the last five seasons.
Charlotte's keys for success this season will be trying to resurrect Howard's career and the development of Monk.
Monk is certainly the more appealing proposition right now. He's just 19 years old, had an excellent one-season run at Kentucky by being named SEC Player of the Year and offers tremendous potential as an NBA player.
Here's what Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated (h/t Scooby Axson) had to say about the Hornets' selection of Monk with the No. 11 pick:
"Monk is a prolific scorer who haunts opposing defenses with his shooting ability. Launching effectively off the dribble or off the catch, he knocked down 42.5% of his three-point attempts in SEC play last season. With an excellent first-step and the capacity to finish above the rim, often in spectacular fashion, Monk is far more than just a perimeter sniper."
The Hornets finished in 14th in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season, per Basketball Reference. Monk's shooting potential should help them upgrade the offensive portion of that equation.
Howard can be the anchor on defense in Charlotte. Even as he endured a disappointing season with the Hawks last year, the 31-year-old still averaged a double-double with 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds in 74 games. His 4.5 defensive win shares marked his best in a season since 2012-13, per Basketball Reference.
The Wizards are the team everyone in the Southeast Division is measuring themselves against right now. The Hornets can't match their talent yet, but the pieces are in place for them to start closing the gap quickly and make a playoff push in a soft Eastern Conference.
Miami Heat: First Matchup Away (Friday, Dec. 1)
Aside from the Wizards, no one else in the Southeast Division immediately jumps out. The Hawks finished second in the division with a 43-39 record, but they figure to take a step back after dealing Howard, trading Kyle Korver to Cleveland in the middle of last season and largely staying out of free agency.
The Orlando Magic have been stuck in a rebuilding phase for the past six seasons, with a sixth straight sub-.500 season looking likely.
That leaves the Heat and Hornets fighting to determine second place in the division. The Heat were on fire in the second half of last season, posting a 30-11 record over their last 41 games after winning just 11 of their first 41 games.
Monk is the best addition either team made in the offseason. He's a versatile player who the Hornets want to see take on the challenge of playing both guard spots.
"I think they want me to do both," Monk said, via Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "I think I can do it pretty good."
These two teams split four meetings last season, with the Hornets winning the first two at a point when the Heat were in the midst of their dreadful 41-game start.
The Heat will likely start this season as slight favorites over the Hornets in the division, but that can turn quickly if Charlotte's new roster jells in a hurry.
The Hornets have alternated winning records and sub-.500 records each of the past four seasons. They took big swings this offseason to try to get back to the winning side of things.
Howard is no longer the star he was at his peak with the Orlando Magic, but he's far from the worst player in the NBA. He's not being asked to shoulder the load in Charlotte, which should make it easier on him to just play basketball and avoid any outside noise.
"A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it's going to make me work even harder," Howard told reporters in July at his introductory news conference. "I'm just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank."
Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is entering his fifth season with the team. He's already built a rapport with leaders like Walker and Batum, and his ability to get Howard and Monk to buy in during training camp will determine if the Hornets sink or swim.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the Hornets' current direction. They have a good nucleus capable of getting back on the winning track, though they are still one year away from really taking off in the Eastern Conference.