CHARLOTTE, N.C. — New name. New uniforms. And, most importantly, newfound confidence.
The Charlotte Hornets are looking to build off a successful 2013-14 campaign — and second-year coach Steve Clifford believes the organization has the pieces in place to do just that this season.
Clifford said with the additions of free agents Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams the starting lineup is better than it was a year ago when Charlotte went 43-39 and made the playoffs before getting swept in the first round by the Miami Heat. He also believes the Hornets have more quality depth.
"We're better. We're more talented," Clifford said. "Now whether or not we play better or we get to the point to where we played as consistently as we did at the end of last year will have to play out. But the possibilities are exciting."
Much of that excitement surrounds the addition of Stephenson, who was Charlotte's second choice after missing out on Utah Jazz restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. The Hornets signed Hayward to a four-year, $63 million offer sheet, but the Jazz didn't flinch and matched.
Stephenson does a little bit of everything — scoring, rebounding, passing and defense. He led the league in triple doubles last season. He also brings intensity and playoff experience to a team lacking in both areas.
With Stephenson, Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, the Hornets believe they have their own, albeit lesser-known version of the "big three."
"LeBron (James) and them started that big three thing," Jefferson said. "But (the Stephenson signing) was music to my ears. Lance has been to where we're trying to go. He's been deep into the playoffs the last two or three years."
Clifford sees plenty of untapped potential in Stephenson and views him as a potential NBA star.
"I've been around Kobe (Bryant), (Tracy) McGrady and (Latrell) Sprewell in their primes — and Lance isn't there yet," Clifford said. "But he's talented and young. His efficiency has to get better in shooting the ball and he has to get his turnovers down. In order for us to talk about him as a legitimate All-Star player that you can play through, that's the jump he needs to make."
Walker, who played against Stephenson in high school while growing up in New York City, likes what he's seen so far from his new teammate.
"I think Lance will take this team to another level," Walker said.
Here are some things to watch with the Hornets:
CENTERED ON BIG AL: Charlotte's offense will still run through Jefferson in the low post. The 6-foot-10, 289-pound center with his old school game was the only player in the Eastern Conference to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He earned third-team All-NBA honors and the 10-year NBA veteran is proof some players just keep getting better with age.
3-POINT SHOOTING: The Hornets expect slimmed down shooting guard Gary Neal to have a bigger impact off the bench with a full year under his belt in Clifford's system. Neal has dropped 20 pounds and he and P.J. Hairston could provide some needed pop from 3-point range and take some pressure off Jefferson in the low post.
TAKING THE NEXT STEP: Walker might be one of the most underrated point guards in the league. Clifford said the three-year NBA veteran has worked tirelessly this offseason to improve his 3-point shot and defense. He wants to see Walker raise his 3-point field goal percentage to around 37 percent — up from 33 percent last year.
REPLACING McROBERTS: The Hornets only major defection this offseason was power forward Josh McRoberts, who came into his own the past two seasons in Charlotte as a key "connector" in the offense. The Hornets replaced him with veteran Marvin Williams. They also hope their last two lottery picks, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh, will become long-terms answers at power forward.
POSITION BATTLE: The only starting spot up grabs is between Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson. Clifford said Stephenson will start at one of the wing spots. That means if Kidd-Gilchrist starts, Stephenson will play shooting guard; if Henderson starts, Stephenson will play small forward. Henderson has not played in the preseason due to a hamstring injury. Small forward Jeffery Taylor, who was expected to add some depth on the wing, is suspended from team activities following his arrest on domestic assault charges.