Hornets relish talk of underdog role after free agent losses

Kemba Walker keeps hearing from his friends around the league that the Charlotte Hornets won’t be as good after losing Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson to free agency in the offseason.

Walker doesn’t mind hearing that.

“I kind of like it that way,” the Hornets’ 6-foot point guard said with a big grin. “The year we did have high expectations (in 2014-15), it didn’t work out so well. So I’d rather be the underdog. It works out better for us.”

Last year the Hornets were viewed as an underdog and won 48 games during the regular season — tied for third-most in the Eastern Conference — but were ousted in the first round by the Miami Heat. The Hornets led that series 3-2 and had a chance to close out the Heat and home, but Miami got a huge Game 6 from Dwayne Wade and advanced.

For several players, that defeat still stings.

The Hornets have made the playoffs in two of three seasons under coach Steve Clifford, but have not been able to make it out of the first round.

After giving Nicolas Batum a five-year, $120 million contract, the Hornets couldn’t afford to keep Lin, Lee and Jefferson. They replaced them with Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert.

“I honestly wish we could’ve brought back the rest of the guys,” Walker said. “But it’s business and that’s the way this league works. They had great years and they deserved to make a lot of money in this league and they did.”

Added Clifford: “I would say forecasts of our season is kind of mixed. Some people feel that we can be a good team. Others aren’t as optimistic. I think we can have a very good team.”

REPLACING OFFENSE: Clifford’s main concern this preseason has been finding ways replace the offense the team lost in free agency, especially with Lin and Jefferson.

“We may not have as much offense in our roster as we did a year ago,” Clifford said. “Defensively, we were ninth last year. And I believe we can take another step in that direction, which will allow us to play with the balance that we need to be a consistent regular season team and a good playoff team, too.”

KIDD-GILCHRIST’S RETURN: The Hornets only had forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for seven games last season due to a shoulder injury, so Clifford is excited to have his top defensive player back in the lineup.

“He’s an elite defender,” Clifford said. “… He makes our team different. The numbers prove it. The first few years he was here, when he played, we played well. When he didn’t play, we didn’t (play well). He impacts winning in so many ways.”

BELINELLI’s IMPACT: Clifford is extremely high on Belinelli, a player he has admired for years. He loves the way Belinelli plays in big games and said the veteran seems motivated to improve after a down season.

“For me, I take it as more motivation right now,” Belinelli said. “The year I spent in Sacramento was tough for me and tough for the Kings. That kind of thing happens. The most important thing is to be more motivated.”

Added Clifford: “He can do a lot of the things we lost offensively with Jeremy (Lin) and Courtney (Lee).”

HIBBERT’S RESURGENCE: Another player the Hornets are hoping can rise to the occasion is the 7-foot-2 Hibbert, an All-Start just three years ago.

“He hasn’t played at the same level the last two years,” Clifford said. “And yet, when you watch him on film, I don’t see that he’s lost anything physically. I think he’s hungry to play well again. And I think the way we play will benefit him.”

BATUM’S CONSISTENCY: Batum is the Hornets best player but Clifford doesn’t want him trying to do more because he’s the team’s highest-paid player.

“This guy’s been 14-15-12-13 points for his whole career,” Clifford said. “You don’t give him an extension and say he’s got to improve to, like, 19 points. He plays how he plays. I’ll say this: If he can stay healthy and play at the same level or, hopefully, a little bit better, then we’ll have a great year.

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