Two years ago, the Charlotte Bobcats – now Hornets – went 7-59 in a lockout-shortened NBA season. They went 4-29 at home, 3-30 on the road and closed the season on a 23-game losing streak.
They were the only team in the NBA to finish with fewer than 20 wins – and again, they won seven.
This past season, however, Charlotte turned the corner, going 43-39 and earning the 7-seed in the Eastern Conference. Thus, in just two seasons, Charlotte went from far and away the worst team in the league to a respectable franchise on the rise.
What’s that been like?
“Well, it’s been fun,” Hornets general manager Rich Cho said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. “It’s hard when you’re trying to rebuild. The hardest part about rebuilding is getting through the early years. You know you’re going to go through a lot of losses and growing pains, but you have to keep the big picture in mind and the long term in mind. We still have a long way to go for sure, but I think we’re headed in the right direction, so we’re looking forward to the upcoming season.”
Drafting Noah Vonleh – a 6-10 power forward out of Indiana – will instill that kind of confidence.
“Noah’s a guy we’ve been tracking all year,” Cho said. “He’s a guy that can play inside, he’s a guy that can play outside, he’s a very good rebounder – we think he’s got a lot of upside. He’s one of the youngest players in the draft. He’s still 18 years old. He doesn’t turn 19 until Aug. 24. We’re happy to have him. We think he’s going to be a tremendous talent down the road.”
Cho felt the same way about Utah forward Gordon Hayward, which is why the Hornets offered him a $63 million max contract this offseason. Hayward averaged a career-high 16.2 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds this past year.
The Jazz, however, matched the offer sheet.
“I didn’t know how it would end up because you just never know what the other team’s thinking,” Cho said. “Our hope was that they would not match, but at the same time, Gordon is only 24 years old and he’s a tremendous talent, (a) versatile player that plays the 2 and the 3, and he’s gotten a lot of exposure paying USA basketball. You got to think there’s a good chance they would match because they don’t want to lose the asset for nothing. But at the same time, the only way you can get some of these guys that are up-and-coming, big-time players is to take a risk. We waited the three days, and Utah matched and we moved on.”
With Hayward out of the picture, the Hornets signed Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal worth roughly $27 million. Between Stephenson and point guard Kemba Walker, Charlotte now has an all-Bronx backcourt. That’s a nice story, but what Charlotte really hopes it has is a winning formula, especially since Stephenson, 23, averaged 13.8 points, 4.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds last season – immature antics notwithstanding.
“With any type of transaction – whether it’s the draft, free agency or a trade – we do tons and tons of background work,” Cho said. “It didn’t just start after Gordon Hayward got matched. We had been doing a ton of background on (Stephenson) during the year because we knew he was going to be a free agent. Talking to ex-teammates (and) ex-coaches of his, a lot of the information we got on Lance was positive. He’s a great teammate. He’s a competitor. So when Gordon got matched, we looked at the rest of the free-agent crop and Lance was definitely the best unrestricted free agent available. Lance came down and met with us in Vegas along with his agent. We had a good conversation and we got it done pretty quickly.”
Will we see Stephenson blowing in any more ears this year?
“Well,” Cho said, chuckling, “I hope he does more than that.”