At the start of the 2015/16 season, the aim for the Charlotte Hornets was simple; make the playoffs by any means necessary. With 13 games to go, barring a huge collapse, that objective looks certain to be met. However, with the way the campaign has panned out for Charlotte, expectations have changed slightly and rightly so.
With a 39-30 record in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets have surprised many with their consistency this year and should be aiming higher than their early season hopes. Just making up the numbers in the post-season shouldn't suffice.
This current group of players have the ability to compete and go a long way in the east. Outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors, the teams from three to five in the standings, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, are jostling for positions and are all capable of beating each other.
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Since taking full ownership of the franchise in 2010, Michael Jordan has endured some ups and downs, but he is finally making things work. After ending the shortened 2011/12 NBA season with a 7-59 record and a win percentage of .106, the worst in NBA history, Jordan was fully aware that things needed to change and it's all come to fruition this campaign.
Jordan has taken his fair share of criticism for his poor record bringing in players; drafting Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison will haunt him forever, but he has certainly learnt from those mistakes and made better decisions that have put Charlotte in a great position and made them competitive.
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His best move could well be the hiring of Steve Clifford as head coach in 2013. Clifford has gradually improved the team each year and has been aided by Jordan's decision-making in terms of recruitment and ultimately forming the best roster the team has had for over a decade.
Kemba Walker has matured and developed into a real leader for the team and is averaging a career-best 21.3 points per game. He can certainly now be considered a top-10 NBA point guard and is playing the best basketball of his career. The addition of Nicolas Batum has also been a big positive with his ability to handle the ball and be a scoring playmaker.
Jeremy Lin, Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lamb have all made valuable contributions to the team this season, all despite injuries to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson at different points in the year. Jefferson's willingness to come off the bench as a sixth man has also given the team two scoring line ups on the floor at all times.
When he first arrived, Clifford immediately made Charlotte a defence-first team and quickly turned one of the league's worst defensive teams, into a top five defensive team. This season, Clifford has complemented the team's defensive skills with an impressive offence. The Hornets do a great job of spacing the floor, moving the basketball and knocking down three-point shots at a good percentage.
Clifford is one of the most underrated coaches in the league and deserves huge credit for the way he has turned the Hornets from a mediocre franchise to possible contenders in the east and even he hasn't been afraid to admit the team can achieve something in the playoffs.
“Our goal going into this was to make the playoffs, that remains the primary goal, and to be playing in a manner that can win in the playoffs. It’s not just making it, you’ve got to be playing well. That’s why I think the progress we made is important,” Clifford said after the team’s win over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, via the Gaston Gazzette.
The Charlotte faithful also appear to believe in their team and the opportunity for them to shake things up in the Eastern Conference. In their unexpected loss against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night, the Hornets had a 12th sellout crowd of the season, setting a franchise record for most sellouts since Charlotte's NBA franchise was resurrected in 2004.
For the first time in a number of years, there is a real buzz in Charlotte.