They are still buried in last place in the Central Division, but the buzzword in the NBA these days is that the Charlotte Hornets are only a big man away from becoming a legitimate contender next season.
Buoyed by the aggressive inside play of rookie forward Larry Johnson and the explosive scoring of second-year guard Kendall Gill, the Hornets, who test the Washington Bullets tonight at the Capital Centre, have been one of the league's most successful teams the past two months, winning 16 of their past 23 games.
They still have an outside chance of making the Eastern Conference playoffs, trailing the Miami Heat by four games for the eighth and final slot. But the way the Hornets have developed under new head coach Allan Bristow has Charlotte feeling optimistic about the expansion team's future.
"Our won-lost record hasn't meant that much to me this season," said Bristow. "I want us to be directed to next year and the years to come."
Bristow, who stepped down from the front office to replace Gene Littles on the sidelines, was not afraid to make dramatic changes.
He traded popular shooting guard Rex Chapman, the franchise's first draft pick (1988), to the Bullets for reserve forward Tom Hammonds. He gave significant playing time to journeyman center Kenny Gattison, now averaging 12.8 points a game, and got a renewed commitment from power forward J.R. Reid.
With Baltimore native Muggsy Bogues as the principal pest, the Hornets have also used a pressing defense to disrupt the opposition's offensive sets.
"We're gambling more, taking more chances on defense," said Gattison. "We weren't doing these things in the first half of the season. Now we press teams, but they can't press us because of Muggsy's ball-handling skills."
But the biggest improvement in the Hornets was the result of getting the first pick in the 1991 draft lottery, which they used to select Johnson, UNLV's all-purpose forward.
After giving an early-season handicap to Denver center Dikembe Mutombo, Johnson -- averaging 19.2 points and 11.3 rebounds -- seems a strong favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors.
"Everybody talks about Rookie of the Year," said Bristow, "but I wonder if Johnson shouldn't also be considered for second-team All-NBA.
"You've got Chris Mullin, Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen at the top, then Charles Barkley, Dennis Rodman and Kevin Willis in the next group. I believe Larry belongs to be up there with them."
If the Hornets acquire a legitimate center in the draft or by a trade, it will allow Johnson, with his quick post-up moves, to become even more effective inside.
Bristow said he still considers Johnson a power forward. "He can defend big forwards and is quicker than they are," he said.