ZILLER: The Charlotte Hornets had a breakout season a year ago. Steve Clifford has almost universal respect around the league, and Nicolas Batum and Kemba Walker really elevated the club's reliability in putting up 48 wins.
I wonder, though, if there's more upside to find for this team or if 48 wins is a best-case scenario. I'm wondering whether Batum has peaked, how much better Walker can become, if the frontcourt has one young stud ready to break out, whether there's enough talent on the bench, and how Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fits into all of this.
FLANNERY: I don't know what to do with the Hornets. They didn't really get worse, but they really didn't get better, either. They'll miss Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin, but if they were the key to your 48-win team, then that's not much of a foundation.
I'm genuinely curious to see how MKG fits back into the equation. My guess is this will be a slightly different team from last season, with an even greater emphasis on defense. Adding MKG and Roy Hibbert and subtracting Lin and Jefferson should make a huge difference.
Batum is a good player who may have had a career year. That's OK, he can still be productive for the next few seasons.
I am, however, a big Kemba Walker guy. Huge. I don't know if he can get much better, but he should be able to sustain this level of production for the next four or five seasons. If he can, I see an All-Star berth or two in his future.
So yeah, I don't know. They are among eight teams fighting for five playoff spots. I suppose they can make it, but it wouldn't shock me if they didn't.
ZILLER: The issue with MKG is that Charlotte just seems to functionally work better without him, despite his obvious defensive chops. This is perhaps because of the impact on where you play Batum and Marvin Williams (another player who had a career year), but it sure looks real. If that's the case, I trust Clifford to figure something out, even if that means setting the team up for a trade.
Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky are lottery picks that Charlotte feels great about. Are you expecting much more this year from either or both, or will small lineups and the necessity of competitiveness make them sidebars again? Both played rotation minutes last season, and Jefferson's gone. But you'd think the Hornets would expect more than 25 minutes per game from these guys.
FLANNERY: Zeller's made nice progress in his three years and I expect that he's got a little bit more room to grow. Kaminsky is what he is and what we all thought he would be coming into the league. Sure, he'll get better with more experience. But hanging your hopes on either of those two big men isn't going to take you far.
That's been one of the issues with Charlotte's rebuild over the years: the drafts have been OK, but there's no home run selection. I suppose you can count Walker as a quality choice given where he was drafted in the second half of the lottery. Of course, he was taken two spots ahead of Bismack Biyombo so ...
Clifford is the real deal. To get a top-10 offense and defense out of that roster? Come on. I don't like ranking coaches, but I consider him one of the best working the sideline. That's where I pin most of my hopes for this Hornets team.
ZILLER: I think that's a reasonable outlook. But it calls into question where we slot this team looking toward playoff seeds. I have them behind the Celtics and Pistons (plus the Raptors and Cavaliers). I'm not sure that's totally fair given their relative youth and the fact they won 48 a year ago. But it's where I am. You?
FLANNERY: I'm in the same place. I don't know how the rest of the East is going to shake out, but I'm propping the Pistons on top of that mythical third tier behind Cleveland and then Boston and Toronto. That's an awfully crowded group and a few decent teams are going to miss the playoffs.
I'll put the Hornets in the postseason based on my faith in Kemba and Clifford, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.