The Charlotte Hornets have become a team for second chances.
Being known as a place to heal troubled careers may not be the identity the Charlotte Hornets were aiming for, but it’s not a bad place to start.
The NBA, like corporate America, doesn’t always put a premium on talent or skill, per se; once you get past the handful of rare, franchise-defining players, personnel decisions often end up being a question of how an individual fits into the culture.
Hence the post-trade second-wind enjoyed by some players (e.g., James Harden and Josh Smith after landing on the Houston Rockets; Austin Rivers on the Clippers); that unspoken rule works both ways, of course, with players like Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo — who’d made their name as core pieces on contending teams — suddenly found themselves in the wilderness.
The Charlotte Hornets could become one of those teams.
On February 4, 2012, an undrafted, four-year point guard from Harvard University named Jeremy Lin lit up the scoreboard for the New York Knicks, tallying 25 points, five rebounds, and seven assists against the (then) New Jersey Nets. For the next two weeks, Lin tallied 20-and-seven after 20-and-seven, becoming the first NBA player ever to do so in each of his first five starts.
“Linsanity” had officially been born. Sadly, it couldn’t be sustained after Lin was traded from the New York Knicks to the Rockets, where he spent two years before being traded again, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers. After just one year in L.A., Lin signed as a free agent with the Charlotte Hornets this past summer.
Jeremy Lamb was considered a rising star at shooting guard, having been drafted 12th overall by the Rockets out of the University of Connecticut in 2012, after winning the 2011 NCAA championship alongside current teammate Kemba Walker and the Orlando Magic’s Shabazz Napier. He was also an integral part of the still-discussed trade that sent James Harden to the Rockets. Unfortunately, Lamb’s position on the Thunder’s depth chart left him on the margins of playing time (which included long stretches in the D-League, where he was named to the 2013 Futures All-Stars roster), and his game withered on the vine. He was traded to the Hornets over the summer, in exchange for Luke Ridnour and a 2016 second-round draft pick.
Big man Cody Zeller, younger brother of the Boston Celtics’ Tyler Zeller, hadn’t yet lived up to the hype of his Indiana University days — this after being drafted fourth overall by the Team Formerly Known As The Bobcats during the 2013 draft. A marginal rookie season was compounded by an injury-plagued (though slightly improved) sophomore campaign. Given his reduced productivity during the 2014–15 season — owing to a nagging shoulder injury that eventually required surgery — Zeller’s days in the Queen City seemed to be numbered, and he was reportedly on the trade block over the summer.
Aaron Harrison, one half of the (in)famous Harrison twins from the University of Kentucky, went undrafted in 2015, after providing clutch plays during a storybook sophomore season, which ended in the undefeated Wildcats’ loss to current teammate Frank Kaminsky’s Wisconsin Badgers during the 2015 NCAA Final Four Tournament.
Amazingly, all four players have found new life with the Hornets 2.0 (the Larry Johnson/Muggsy Bogues/Alonzo Mourning-era Hornets, prior to becoming the Bobcats, will forever be the first — and possibly the best).
Most fans discount the NBA preseason, and rightly so; the games don’t count against the regular season record. More crucially, teams are almost always in the midst of new makeups, thanks to summer trades, training camp invites, and the NBA draft. While the NBA Summer League can be a fun introduction to the professional level for rookies — and an opportunity those seeking spots on an NBA team — preseason games have much higher stakes. For some, it can make or break the difference between securing or keeping a roster spot, or not. For a many, it’s a chance to assure they’re not washed out of the league entirely.
Early on, Lin seemed a deft compliment to franchise point guard Walker, helping lead the Hornets to an impressive 7–1 preseason record— including two thrashings of the Los Angeles Clippers during the sold-out NBA Global Games in Shenzhen and Shanghai, China. It didn’t hurt marketing matters that Lin’s grandparents hailed from mainland China, while his parents emigrated from Taiwan.
Michael Jordan, majority owner of the Hornets, called Lin his “biggest acquisition” of the summer. With the team finally over the .500 mark, Lin has been a catalyst off the bench and an increasingly significant role player — especially given his clutch overtime performance during the Hornets’ epic comeback win against the Sacramento Kings.
Lamb, meanwhile, has showed the promise first hinted at during his UConn days, but which had all but languished as he rode the pine in OKC. Realizing Lamb’s potential, the Hornets inked him to a somewhat controversial three-year, $21 million contract extension. Unlike some players whose production drops off almost before the ink has dried on a lucrative extension, Lamb, as part of Charlotte’s two-headed bench hydra (along with Lin), has helped fuel the juggernaut that is keeping the Hornets in the early playoffs conversation.
During the road win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Lamb drilled eight of his 10 attempts from the field to finish with 18 points, while Lin added 19. And then there was this dunk over the T-Wolves’ Gorgui Deng, which was nothing short of glorious:
Zeller has also exhibited newfound basketball joy. During the preseason, he made crucial rebounds and routinely got to the free throw line, his surgically repaired shoulder healed enough to let him play the game that got him to the NBA. Once the regular season started, he battled through illness and bloody, physical play, to make key contributions for his playoff-hopeful team. Despite them mixed results, the Hornets still believe in Zeller, as evidenced by their picking up a fourth-year option that could keep him in Buzz City through 2017.
Harrison, meanwhile, parlayed a solid performance at the 2015 Orlando Summer League into a two-year contract, making the training-camp cut for the final spot on the opening-day roster for the 2015–16 season (though he hasn’t seen any significant playing time as of yet).
Production has been, and will always be, the major factor that determines whether a player keeps his roster spot, or is forced to move on. Even if you’re perceived as some sort of problem child, all can be forgiven — or at least overlooked — if you can put up the numbers to get your team the win (*ahem* DeMarcus Cousins). Thus far, this year’s Hornets have gone beyond expectations, from increasing the number of three-pointers attempted and made, to playing better defense and upping the pace.
Chalk it up if you will to the sum being more than its parts — and it can’t be discounted that the individual parts themselves are playing with something to prove. When you have nothing more to lose, it’s easier to leave it all out on the court: the angst, the skill, the uncertainty, the will to finally right what may be perceived as a sinking career.
Numerous players have attributed the team’s distinct style of play as a big reason for their ever-growing camaraderie. Off-court bonding activities aren’t the only glue to hold a team together; sometimes desperation works just as well, particularly when it becomes the crux of a kind of kindred spirit. An unspoken understanding of what it’s like to try and hold on to what little ground you’ve been ceded; to bloom where you’re planted, to find your “forever” team. “Show and prove” becomes more than a battle cry — it’s a way of basketball life, the hardcourt warrior’s version of “Pick me. Choose me. Love me.”
It’s not always about the down-and-about-to-be-out player. It’s also about the underrated players, the ones who’ve lacked relative success elsewhere and, as such, are at risk of being labeled as perpetual also-rans. Both are integral parts of this Hornets team. Just look at Nicolas Batum, the savvy French wing who spent his first eight years in the league with the Portland Trail Blazers, only to see his team never progress past the second round of the playoffs.
Batum’s career, while not in the same dire straits as some of his teammates prior to this season, needed a push to get him to the next level following a disappointing 2014–15 season — Batum’s weakest to date.
Being an incubator of career renaissance is a trait typically attributed to the iconic San Antonio Spurs, who’ve famously revived the life-support careers of players like Boris Diaw (who, ironically, floundered in Charlotte prior to being waived in 2012), and three-and-D specialist Danny Green. The addition of Lin, Lamb, and (perhaps) Harrison, alongside Zeller, heralds a new, secondary identity for His Airness’s team — the Team of Second Chances.
On the surface, these two teams would seem to have little in common. The Spurs’ five championships alone put them head-and-shoulders above the ringless Hornets. And that’s before we even get to questions of culture, history, or salaries. The Spurs value continuity and loyalty from the front office on down, while the Hornets have fostered a seeming revolving door of players and coaches (as well as ownership).
Yet, despite their many outward differences, both have become inadvertent magnets for players who’ve journeyed around the league with diminishing production and esteem, or for those simply seeking a way to stay in the league.
The Hornets, who have struggled with self-identity since the team’s inception in 1988, could certainly use some direction — both in terms of roster, and how they’re perceived within the wider league. The Spurs are the old guys who defy time (and doubters) in an ever-younger league. The Lakers are The House That Jerry Buss Built. The reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors are the youthful, easily offended upstarts. The Clippers are the Almost Team. Who are the Hornets? Outside of the current “Buzz City” slogan, no one really knows — including, perhaps, the Hornets themselves.
The Hornets may never be the Spurs, but at least they’re headed in the right direction. There’s a noticeable lack of ego on the team, and the sensible, steadfastly unselfish style of play has helped to foster a renewed fervor in Buzz City. They may have yet to forge a specific basketball identity, but these Hornets — made up as they are of cast-offs, has-beens, and potential untapped — seem to understand exactly who they are.