September 25, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Charlotte Hornets' goal this season is to make a deeper run in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

General manager Rich Cho believes the team is capable of doing just that.

''We have a good mix of veterans and young players,'' Cho said Thursday at a press conference, five days before the team opens training camp in Asheville, North Carolina.

Charlotte was 43-39 last season and earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference before being swept but the Miami Heat in the first round. But this offseason the Hornets added free agent guard Lance Stephenson, giving them a potential NBA star with playoff experience.

Cho said this is most excited he's been entering a season in his 19 years in the league. He attributes that to a number of reasons, including the momentum created from last season and the fan excitement over the team's rebranding to the Hornets, which includes new colors, logos, jerseys and a new floor.

He also believes the team has upgraded its roster by signing Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts in free agency and drafting Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston in the first round.

Cho said the team plans to sign 6-foot-7 veteran forward Jason Maxiell to a training camp contract on Friday.

Charlotte's biggest free agent loss was Josh McDaniels, who signed with Miami.

''We feel like we got better as a team,'' Cho said. ''There are a lot of teams that got better in the East, but we weren't that far away from getting a lot higher playoff (seed) last year. So we feel like we are in a good position going forward.''

Stephenson, in particular, brings a player who has been through the grind of the NBA postseason, and should be a nice complement to a core that includes center Al Jefferson, point guard Kemba Walker and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

It's a group that Cho said wants to accomplish more despite doubling their win total from 2012.

''The players were happy about last season, but not satisfied,'' Cho said. ''That mindset showed throughout the offseason.''

Cho said the team's signing of Jefferson last offseason has helped change the franchise's image in a positive way. Jefferson was the first big-name free agent to come to Charlotte since NBA great Michael Jordan took over as the team's primary owner in 2010.

Jefferson was huge in the low post, averaging a double-double and earning third-team All-NBA honors. After going a combined 28-120 over the previous two seasons, Charlotte's newfound success did not go unnoticed by free agents around the league.

''Bringing Al here was a big step in the right direction and a big free agent signing for us - and it carried over for us at the start of this free agency period,'' Cho said.

The Hornets made a bold run at restricted free agent Gordon Hayward this offseason, getting him to sign a four-year, $63 million qualifying offer. However, the Jazz matched the offer, keeping the small forward in Utah.

The Hornets quickly turned their attention to Stephenson, signing him to a three-year, $27 million contract providing a needed upgrade.

''I think it shows a lot about how attractive Charlotte is as a destination, not just from a city standing, but from a coaching standpoint with the mix of players that we have here,'' Cho said.

NOTES: Cho said the Hornets have had preliminary discussions with Walker about a contract extension... Shooting guard Gary Neal has dropped ''23 or 24 pounds'' this offseason.

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