Baseline 2016-2017 Season Preview

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As easy as it is for me to get hyped about the upcoming season – and let me tell you, I’m extremely hyped – there are legit reasons to be skeptical about the 2016-2017 Charlotte Hornets. You may have already heard some of these reasons voiced by league prognosticators and network pundits. And listen, I get their concerns, really I do.

Sure, last year’s team finished the season tied for third in the Conference – propelled by a Top 10 Defense (now a Steve Clifford hallmark) and, surprisingly, a Top 10 offense.
Sure, the team returns the bulk if its core roster and respected coaching staff.
Sure, half of the team’s top eight rotation players are 26 or younger.

But…things can go wrong…right?

Peaks and Plateaus

FACT: Half of last year’s rotation experienced either a career year or a bounceback season. Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker: all but Kemba were in contract years and each received massive raises in the offseason.

In all, Steve Clifford’s career rejunvenation system was responsible for roughly $300m in new contracts (including Al Jefferson’s deal with the Pacers) signed in the month of July. The Hornets have to hope that their two returning free agents (Williams and Batum) were no flukes – that the fires that fueled both players’ exceptional seasons will remain.

Walker’s motivation has never been questioned but last season’s peak was defined by an incredible increase in shooting percentage and overall efficiency – two areas in which Kemba has struggled with since arriving in Charlotte five seasons ago.

So, the question remains: was last year’s Kemba the “new” Kemba? KW annhilated his traditional and advanced shooting numbers (which had settled in at a vomit-inducing 39%/33% FG/3PFG% and 48% TS%) by hitting 42%/37% FG/3PFG% and 55% TS%. These are by no means say, Chris Paul numbers, but at least elevated Kemba’s previously horrific averages into the respectable Mike Conley tier.

Players have hit new sustainable plateus before. Kyle Lowry is another barely six foot lead guard who dabbled in mediocrity until he found a perfect fit in Toronto.

But Lowry is burly with a game that is as much power as speed. Kemba’s slight frame and lightning quickness require that he work at full athletic capacity – making his offseason knee surgery (the second surgery on the same knee) more than a little worrisome.

How long can a player of Kemba’s size and playing style function at a high level? Can Kemba build off of last season and become an All-Star? Or will he regress to the low efficiency, head-down lead guard of Bobcats past?

Replacing Two-Ways with One-Ways

Rich Cho did a tremendous job retaining and restocking talent given his unique free agency challenge back in July. The roster is arguably just as strong overall and potentially stronger if Clifford’s rejuvenation magic can continue. There is however, one potential area of concern.

With Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, the Hornets had perimeter players who could be counted on at both ends of the court. Lin’s ability to defend twos (Dwyane Wade notwithstanding) and Lee’s ability to switch onto threes was a huge reason for the Hornets late season surge. Last season’s Hornets could field “mismatch” proof lineups full of defensively sound, mobile defenders who could switch on to nearly anyone.

FACT: the Hornets replaced Lee and Lin with Ramon Sessions and Marco Belinelli. Ouch. Both players have ranked in the bottom tier of guards in defensive rating at their position over their careers.

Keep in mind that Clifford’s rotation featured just two defensive liabilities last season: Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lamb. Big Al’s role was minimized and he was ultimately allowed to walk in free agency. Lamb has one foot in Clifford’s doghouse and the other on the trading block. Maybe the pundits are right – this could be bad, right?

Now the good news: neither Marco nor Ramon suffer from the same defensive unawareness as Lamb (although Jeremy’s shown signs of improvement during the preseason). And their physical limitations won’t hurt Charlotte quite as much as Jefferson because they’re not in charge of protecting the paint. Also, they’ll likely have that other guy playing next to them…

*IF HE CAN STAY HEALTHY

Only four teams have ranked in the Top 10 in defensive efficiency over the past three seasons: The Spurs, the Warriors, the Pacers and Steve Clifford’s Bobnets. Amazingly enough, Charlotte has achieved this distinction without a single All-NBA defender on the roster.

That could change this year. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can crack 70 games this season (it would be his first since his rookie campaign), expect him to get a first or second team All-D nod.

Anchoring a Top 10 defense while consistently matched up with the opponents’ best perimeter scorer will place MKG in the All-D conversation; averaging double digit rebounds could seal it.

With no Big Al to soak up defensive boards and with rebound-phobes like Roy Hibbert and Frank Kaminsky manning the middle, expect Clifford to give MKG a free pass to crash the glass and push the ball all season – boosting his stats while covering up a potential weakness.

Clifford’s teams have led the league in defensive rebound percentage since he arrived – his first without Jefferson will be a challenge if MKG, now the team’s strongest rebounder, can’t stay on the floor.

In fact, if Kidd-Gilchrist goes down with another major injury, it could be the difference between this particular Hornets roster challenging for homecourt or barely sneaking into the postseason.

Ceiling and Floor

Speaking of which, what exactly is the team’s ceiling this season? Suppose the roster stays relatively healthy and no other Eastern Conference team loses a major superstar. How far can the Hornets rise? Let’s look at the East in Tiers:

TIER ONE | Elite

Cleveland
They’ll win just enough games to nab the one seed and enter the Playoffs rested and healthy.

TIER TWO | Homecourt Teams

Toronto
Great coach, roster continuity, rotation guys mostly in peak prime years. This team has averaged 50 wins over the last three seasons. I’m done doubting them.

Boston
Great coach, tons of flexibility to add talent during the season, deep, somewhat unfinished roster. Would be dumb to bet against them.

TIER TWO POINT FIVE | Potential Homecourt Teams

Atlanta
Great coach, savvy late-career vets (Korver/Millsap), potential Dwight rebound year, could also nosedive thanks to Teague/Schroeder, Horford/Howard downgrade.

Charlotte
Great coach, deep roster, young vets who could break out, free agent losses could weaken bench.

THIRD TIER | Playoff Teams

(6) Washington, (7) Detroit, (8T) Chicago, (8T) Indiana

Again, barring catastrophic injury, the odds of Charlotte (or any other East team) topping Cleveland are nil. It’s safe to assume both Toronto and Boston will be locks for homecourt. Which means one of Charlotte or Atlanta is most likely to nab both the Southeast Division crown and the final homecourt spot.

IMO none of the Third Tier teams listed has the combination of roster or coaching continuity, depth or talent to challenge for homecourt this season. Although I’m sure I’ll receive hate-tweets from deluded Pacers fans questioning my sanity.

So let’s assume Charlotte’s Ceiling is an Eastern Conference Top Four seed and a SE Division banner. 48-52 wins sounds about right.

Alternatively, let’s say Kemba misses 20 games, MKG misses another 20, Hibbert and Belinelli flame out as has beens while Batum and Marvin regress from last year’s highs. What does that season look like?

I’m betting high 30’s, low 40’s as the team’s floor – things would really have to break bad for that to happen but it’s certainly a possibility.

Clifford in 2014-2015: What Went Wrong?

In fact, things have only broken bad once in Cliff’s tenure as coach. The rebrand year or, infamously – and perhaps more accurately, The Lance Year is so far the only stain on Clifford’s resume.

There were injuries: Kemba, MKG and Big Al missed big chunks of time. But those same players missed even more games last season and Charlotte enjoyed their most successful campaign since relocation/expansion.

Ultimately, it was roster construction that sealed the team’s fate. Lance Stephenson was a horrible fit next to Kemba and Big Al. The team needed a “connector” after losing Josh McRoberts. Lance and PJ Hairston brought weird vibes to a previously joyous lockerroom.

Why rehash this now? If this year’s Hornets team underachieves it will not be because of what sabotaged them two seasons ago. The roster pieces, while not perfect, all fit.

TraderCho’s Midseason Bargains

So what could make this season’s roster more “perfect”? At every trade deadline since 2013, Rich Cho has made a low-cost, under the radar move that has turbo-charged the team’s finish:

  • 2013: Sends Hakim Warrick to ORL for Josh McRoberts. McBob plays well, re-signs and starts the next season, propelling team to a Playoff birth.
  • 2014: Sends Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien to MIL for Gary Neal. Neal’s scoring punch pushes CLT to the postseason.
  • 2015: Sends Neal to MIN for Mo Williams (and Troy Daniels). Mo steps in for an injured Kemba Walker, nearly salvages a lost season – winning Eastern Conference player of the week in the process.
  • 2016: Sends PJ Hairston and two 2nd Round picks to MEM for Courtney Lee. Lee’s acquisition propelled Hornets to the league’s third best record after the All-Star break.

So what bargain basement move will Cho make this season to boost the team’s Playoff push? Only Cho Knows!

UNDENIABLE STRENGTHS

The Charlotte Hornets have no superstar. There, I said it. Now we can move on.

What they do have is an All-Star caliber PG (Kemba), an All-Defense caliber forward (MKG), three Top 100 NBA players playing next to them (Marvin/Batum/Cody) and…wait for it…a two time NBA All-Star center anchoring a deep platoon.

Yes! Roy Hibbert is a two time All-Star. And he’s just thirty years old. So what if the game has passed him by. At least the Hornets finally have a guy who can stand a chance at guarding Hassan Whiteside or DeMarcus Cousins.

And really, Hibbert’s availability in special matchups highlights the first of Charlotte’s main strengths:

DEPTH: The team’s 10th and 11th men – Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes – are good enough to be rotation players on an average NBA team. Charlotte can throw four different looks at you at the five – and each of those looks are seven footers.

SHOOTING: Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Kemba Walker and Marco Belinelli can all get hot from behind the arc. MKG is improving from distance. As a team, the Hornets improved their 3P% from worst in the league to 8th last season and I expect that to continue even with the departure of Lee.

DEFENSE: Again, Clifford’s teams have ranked in the Top 10 since his arrival – and that was with Big Al patrolling, er should I say, perusing the paint. Add in Hibbert and MKG and Cliff may be able to push this team into the Top 3.

CONTINUITY: A Charlotte NBA team is entering it’s fourth consecutive season with the same head coach!!! WHAT?! I know, I know. It’s bizarre given the Bobcats coaching merry go round we had grown accustomed to. Cliff installed his base defense in year one and built around it with new and returning personnel since. Last year he revitalized the offense. Compared to Vincent, Dunlap and Kvetchy-B (Larry Brown), Cliff may as well be our Pop.

DIVISIONAL WEAKNESS: The Miami Heat stink now! Atlanta may have downgraded two starting positions. The Wizards backcourt not-so-secretly hate each other. The Magic’s GM is throwing poop at the wall. The Hornets finally have a legit shot at winning their division (remember, they are guaranteed to play each of these teams four times). Three SE Div teams tied with 48 wins last season and CLT is the only team in the Division to return both its Top 3 players and coaching staff.

THINGS I’M EXCITED TO SEE

A random list; compiled in no particular order:

  • Frank at the Five
    Kemba/Nic/MKG/Marvin/Frank lineups have got me extremely intrigued as a late game offense-first unit. As Spencer Percy and Nate Duncan discussed on their Hornets preview pod, the current core’s ceiling is in many ways tied directly to Frank’s development at the center position. If he can become a legit two way stretch five on a rookie deal, the Hornets will be free to invest their resources into finding another All-Star either in free agency or via trade.
  • Center Rotation
    Given Cody’s injury situation, Hibbert will start the opener – what happens after that is anybody’s guess. Cody is a solid B- at basically every facet of the game so can’t kill you when he plays. Frank can work in some matchups. Roy is too slow to guard stretch fives. And what about Hawes? He still has too much value as an NBA player to rot at the end of the bench.
  • Backcourt Rotation
    Speaking of rotation, how will Cliff run his backcourt now that Lin and Lee are gone. Batum will slide over and take Courtney’s spot. Marco will eat up some of Lin’s minutes next to Kemba. Ramon will run the second unit but will he play next to Kemba? Will Lamb get PT? Will Cliff stagger MKG and Batum’s minutes so that they can each play more SF?
  • Jeremy Lamb
    Speaking of which, it’s a make or break year for Jeremy in CLT. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman had less conflict than Cliff and Lamb last season. Given the potential high value nature of his contract, only good things could happen if Jeremy finally figures it out. So far in the preseason he’s shown improvement. The team would love to have another dependable offensive creator off the pine – the key word with Lamb, of course, is “dependable”.
  • MKG
    Is he Andre Iguodala 2.0? What is MKG’s true potential? Is this the season we finally find out?

That’s all I got for now. Enjoy the season, Hornets fans…

-ASChin

The Dell Vinci Code

The Dell Vinci Code
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A few years ago someone forwarded me the now famous picture from the 1992 All-Star Weekend featuring a young Steph Curry with his father Dell, Mitch Richmond, Drazen Petrovic and Don Nelson.

My first reaction was “that’s neat, I remember watching that three point contest”. I right clicked and saved the pic to my Bobcats Baseline Dropbox folder and moved on.

A couple of years go by and I see the pic again in a random tweet. The photo hits me different this time. I linger. I stare. What am I looking at? There’s something about this picture; something deeper, something odd.

UNITED COLORS

Let’s start with the obvious. Take a look at Steph’s jacket. At first glance, it looks as if he’s wearing a junior Hornets warmup of some kind: teal with purple accents just like his dad sitting behind him.

But Steph’s jacket features a third color, a gold-yellow. The original Charlotte Hornets never wore this color and the franchise would only incorporate anything remotely approximating this hue upon their move to New Orleans a decade later.

MEMPHIS - MARCH 26: P.J. Brown #42 of the New Orleans Hornets points arcross the court against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedexForum on March 26, 2005 in Memphis, Tennessee. The Hornets won 96-85. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** P.J. Brown

The New Orleans Hornet gold was more of a mustard-turmeric yellow (see the PJ Brown image above) and not the bright, sunshine gold featured in Steph’s ‘92 jacket. Have a look at the image below and compare the three dots at the left side of Steph’s name and number.

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The first dot is a sampling of the New Orleans Hornets mustard-gold. The second and third dot are samplings of the hue found in Steph’s ‘92 jacket and the hue found in the jersey pictured. Only a highly trained colorists could spot the difference. They’re virtually the same.

In fact, I would argue that they ARE the same color. Steph is wearing Golden State gold at the 1992 All-Star Weekend. Weird.

But he’s also wearing Hornets colors, right? Half right. While Steph’s purple is nearly identical to the Hornets version, take a closer look at his dad’s warmup behind him. It’s a classic Hornets powdery teal and quite a bit different from Steph’s more “electric” blue.

The hue doesn’t match the current Hornets teal either. It does however match Steph’s favorite football team’s blue.

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This makes sense, right? Dell and Sonya decided to drape Steph in a combination of Hornet purple and Panther blue. Except there’s one problem. The NFL wouldn’t award Charlotte an expansion franchise until October of 1993 – a full twenty months after the photo was taken.

Steph + Cam

An odd coincidence, isn’t it? That a not quite four year old Steph Curry is wearing the colors of his future NBA team, his father’s NBA team and his beloved hometown NFL team that had yet to exist.

UNUSUAL SUSPECTS

The strangeness only begins with the colors. Let’s look at the composition and subjects in the frame

First, let’s work our way west to east across the photo. Seated up and to the right of Dell and Steph is longtime NBA head coach (and former player) Don Nelson.

At the time of the photo, Nelson was in the midst of his most successful season as conductor of the three-point happy, fast-paced “Run TMC” Golden State Warriors.

Actually, that last sentence isn’t entirely accurate because the “M” in the “TMC” no longer played for Nelson’s Warriors. The sharp-shooting former Golden State team captain is seated just to the right of Nelson, dressed in his Sacramento Kings warmup.

Richmond had been traded to the Kings just months prior to the photo, breaking up the Dub’s most promising core in decades. The Warriors would have to wait another twenty years to assemble a team of gunners as deadly as Richmond, Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin.

Before we get to Petrovic, let’s take a look at the eye-line dynamics going on in this photo:

The Dell Vinci Code

We can see that Coach Nelson is gazing left, a calm smile resting on his face. He seems both at peace and optimistic at what he sees in the distance.

Richmond is also amused and impressed at what he sees out of frame; in fact, he seems relaxed by it.

Dell’s eyes are wide and giddy; his smile barely hidden by Steph’s left shoulder. He’s the only one in the frame looking right (east). It’s as if there is no need for him to gaze left; he has already seen what the others are now experiencing.

Steph’s eyes are closed; his hand is raised, with five fingers extended. More on this later.

Drazen the Herald

At the far right of the frame we have the late, great Drazen Petrovic. The European Michael Jordan of his time would pass away tragically in a car accident less than two years after the photo was taken.

During the ’92 AS weekend it was Drazen’s mom who was tasked with looking after young Steph while Dell was busy in Orlando. Decades later, Steph would send his game worn Finals jersey to Petrovic’s mother to hang in her son’s museum in Croatia. It’s a great story.

Let’s get back to the photo: notice that Drazen is the only one looking upwards. His hand is cupped near his mouth in a way one would amplify a shout. Or maybe it’s cupped towards his ear in a way to better hear a message?

Is Drazen receiving a message from above? Has he already heard the message and now wants to announce it to the world? What are Nelson and Richmond seeing to their left (other than Steph)? Why is Steph holding up five fingers and why are his eyes closed? Is this all some kind of crazy coincidence? Am I reading too much into this photograph?

It gets weirder. Seventeen and a half years after 1992’s NBA All-Star Weekend, Steph Curry would be drafted by the Golden State Warriors. His first head coach as a pro?

don-steph

Reading the Tea Leaves

This we know for certain: the ’92 All Star image has already correctly predicted Steph’s current NBA team, his ability to impress even the league’s greatest three point shooters, his favorite NFL team and his future head coach.

But what about those five fingers? What do they represent? Steph currently owns two league MVP trophies. Adding three more would tie Curry with Michael Jordan for second most in league history. Steph currently has one championship to his name – four more between now and retirement seems possible given the Warriors’ current super team status.

There is also the question of whether the purple in Steph’s jacket represent his father’s pro lineage or predict a future stop in Charlotte at some point later in his career.

Finally, why are young Steph’s eyes closed? What image is in his mind that could generate such a confident smile? My best guess…

STEPH DA GAWD

Hornets Olympian – Nicolas Batum

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On Sunday morning, Charlotte Hornets wingman Nicolas Batum will hit the court with teammates Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Rudy Gobert, and Florent Pietrus (who might only sound familiar to serious Bobcats fans) to face Team USA in the Rio Olympic Games. This could be one of the most most competitive games to watch in the basketball tournament this summer. While Kevin Durant or Paul George may not be dominated by Batum, it’s worth tuning in to see how the Hornets’ top free agent signing performs against the best-of-the-best.

So far, Batum hasn’t been too impressive in this summer’s games, but the US squad hasn’t looked quite that intimidating in their last two appearances, either.

 

Man on Wire | Charlotte Hornets 2016 Offseason Review

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Hornets general manager Rich Cho entered into the most precarious free agency period of his career last week. Five of the Playoff squad’s top rotation players were unrestricted free agents. Each could leave Charlotte cleanly with no strings attached and the Hornets had no recourse to match any offer they received.

The franchise clearly wants to continue to build upon last season’s 48 win team and with Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist entering their primes on longterm value contracts, tanking made little sense. The team had to stay good.

Cho’s situation would have been challenging in any NBA offseason but this July in particular was a floss-thin tightrope walk thanks to a meager free agent class combined with an unprecedented $24 million spike in the league’s salary cap.

By some estimates, the total amount of cap space available amongst the NBA’s thirty teams was as high as $1 billion. Charlotte’s high character, well-coached free agents were in demand. Rival fanbases were rabid with anticipation over picking the Hornets’ Playoff carcass clean.

Somehow a small market franchise with little history and zero superstars had to lure back or replace their starting shooting guard, small forward, power forward, backup center and backup point guard in one calendar week with only a modest amount of cap space to work with.

Key Free Agents Return: Batum and Williams

Normally when a small market NBA franchise is faced with this sort of dilemma, their only recourse is to either massively downgrade for cheaper players or vastly overpay in order to retain quality talent or lure similar ones.

Rich Cho and his staff did neither. Two starters, Nic Batum (5yrs, $120m) and Marvin Williams (4yrs, $54m), signed long term extensions BELOW market value. Easily the team’s most important and most coveted free agents, both players reportedly had more lucrative offers to go elsewhere but elected to stay with the no superstar, small market team instead.

This is extremely impressive and speaks to the culture, both in the front office and on the coaching staff that Charlotte has been able to build after the burnout Larry Brown/Rod Higgins era just a half decade ago.

The Hornets traded away a Top 10 Lottery pick (Noah Vonleh) last summer for the right to recruit Nic in house for a year. The gamble paid off. Nic could’ve asked for another $30m* (his full max) on top of the 5 year deal Charlotte offered him. Another team could’ve offered him (and likely did) nearly the same amount on a 4 year max offer. Batum resisted either temptation.

(*Keep this tidbit in mind two and three years from now when Charlotte hits the free agent market in 2018 and 2019. That extra $30m could be the difference between signing an All-Star or an average starter.)

Speaking of savings, let me be the first Hornet fan to offically say thank you to Marvin for taking the Early Bird contract. Yes, I know it’s a crazy world when $54m is considered a “discount” – when most of us would be happy with a tiny fraction of that amount in our pockets but relatively speaking, Marvin could’ve easily spurned the Hornets for a shorter contract at nearly the same amount.

By accepting the Early Bird offer, the Hornets were able to lock in Marvin’s cap hold at just north of $9m (~$3.5m less than his actual salary). There were rumors that Williams was being offered $16m as a starting salary and if he forced Charlotte’s hand in matching it, the Hornets would’ve had to go into cap space to bring him back – rendering it impossible to add eventual depth at PG and C.

So if Ramon Sessions or Roy Hibbert swing a close game Charlotte’s way next season, you know who to thank.

GRADE: A+

Replacement Shooting Guard: Lee to Belinelli

Courtney Lee, who arrived in a mid-season trade as a fill-in replacement for an injured MKG, was a coveted “3&D” wing who was looking at a minimum eight figure deal in the current market.

Knowing this, the Hornets made a proactive trade before the Draft, sending out their 22nd overall pick for Lee’s replacement, Marco Belinelli. At a little over $6 million per over the next two seasons, Belinelli will count half as much against the cap as Courtney Lee’s $12 million per season deal with the Knicks.

Marco is a defensive downgrade for certain, but with MKG returning to the lineup, Belinelli won’t be asked to play the same role. MKG and Batum will handle difficult wings, allowing Marco to do the things Lee couldn’t – facilitate, create offense and shots off the dribble – primarily with the second unit.

Ultimately, given the quality of this year’s Draft class, sacrificing a late round pick in order to save $35m in future cap flexibility (Marco is guaranteed a total of $12.9m, Lee $48m) is hardly an unforgivable sin. The aesthetics of this trade will look much better a year from now.

GRADE: B

Replacement Backup Point Guard: Lin to Sessions

First the good news. Jeremy Lin’s ability to get hot and take over the occasional game can be replicated somewhat by Belinelli. If either Frank Kaminsky (likely) or Jeremy Lamb (less likely) take a step forward, Lin’s departure will allow them even more opportunities to become shot creators and makers with the reserve unit.

Now the bad news. As much as I like Ramon Sessions as a gritty, pick and roll point guard who can get to the rim, he is unquestionably a downgrade as an all around fill-in starter.

Lockout season aside, Kemba Walker has managed 80+ games played only twice in his career and just had another meniscus surgery following the season. Given his size and playing style, the chances of Kemba missing fifteen or twenty games are high enough to make you worry and Sessions as a starter is CLEARLY a downgrade from Lin.

But given the market conditions – this was a painfully thin PG class – and the Hornets other free agent priorities, downgrading from Lin was an inevitability. Jeremy was the best backup PG in the NBA last season and is good enough to start. Given the terms of his Brooklyn contract (3yrs, $36m), he obviously prioritized the starting role over potential cash.

Some fans have complained about the team choosing Sessions (2yrs, $12m – second year team option) over Brandon Jennings (1yr, $5m) but Jennings is a major injury risk in his own right and with Ramon having once a been a Bobcat, Cho and Steve Clifford ran with the devil they knew versus the devil they didn’t.

GRADE: C+ (highest possible given circumstances)

Replacement Backup Center: Big Al to Hibbert

The Hornets somehow managed a Top 10 NBA defense during Al Jefferson’s first year in Charlotte. Part of the smoke and mirrors D was slowing the team’s pace down to a crawl and feeding a prime Big Al entry passes. This worked great for a season and then Jefferson started getting hurt and putting on weight (or maybe it was in reverse order?).

At some point two years ago Clifford started watching Warriors games and realized that puttying together a inside-out offense and a paint-paranoid defense was only going to get a team so far. He set out to create the four out, one in system that propelled Charlotte to a Top 10 offense AND defense last season.

Gone was the steady diet of old man “1 in, 4 watch” post feeds (and 4 guard, 1 watches paint defense). Instead we had Cody pushing the limits of SportsVU tracking, setting what seemed like five screens on every possession while his floor stretching teammates moved the ball around to find an open shooter.

Although it seemed unimaginable to think back in Big Al’s dominant 2013 All-NBA season, just two summers later the team (and maybe the entire league) had passed him by.

You could pretty much cut and paste the above paragraph into Roy Hibbert’s recent bio and it would be accurate. At the end of the 2013 season, Hibbert was widely viewed as major NBA asset and a borderline star.

At 7’2”, 270+ pounds, Roy is a giant and one of the few seven foot plus players to have never battled foot injuries. He was the game’s best rim protector just a few short seasons ago and is still only 29 years old.

The Hornets are clearly buying low. Hibbert signed a one year deal at half the price that Jefferson will be paid next season from Roy’s first team ($10m per from the Pacers). It’s a smart move by both sides.

Roy is banking on big man guru (and fellow Georgetown icon) Patrick Ewing doing for him what the staff has done with Jefferson and Dwight Howard over the years: Have a renaissance campaign and cash in next summer for one last pay day.

Hibbert will play serious minutes for Charlotte next season; anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t watched Clifford coach. Cliff loves veterans and he loves size and he loves rim protection. Unless Roy utterly poops the bed with his effort, conditioning or effectiveness, expect him to average 16-20 minutes a night, depending on the matchup.

With Cody entrenched as the team’s starter, Frank bulking up for more minutes at the five and Spencer Hawes still on the books, the Hornets suddenly have a ton of depth at center – but only one of those guys can protect the paint. Given that Roy’s previous team just guaranteed a gimpy Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years, a one year flyer on Hibbert at $5 million is a terrific gamble.

GRADE: A+

Going Forward

FiveThirtyEight’s Carmelo Projections are mostly favorable for Charlotte’s longterm contracts and upcoming restricted free agent candidates (Zeller and Kaminsky).

Given Marvin’s age and career numbers last season, you’d expect his projections to suffer the most and they do – dropping off to just 1.7 Wins Above Replacement in his player option fourth year. Kemba and Nic Batum are projected to play at an All-Star or near All-Star level for at least the next three seasons. MKG, Cody and Frank will enter the season at age 23 or younger.

From a cap perspective, barring a major trade, the Hornets are essentially punting on 2017 Free Agency. The Steph Come Home hopefuls (myself included) likely had our dreams dashed the moment Kevin Durant made his Super Team decision. Realistically, Curry was the only superstar who was ever going to sign with Charlotte as an unrestricted free agent in his prime. With that possibility removed, locking up the roster’s core for the next few seasons was the next logical plan.

Assuming that Cody Zeller signs a reasonable extension in the next 12 months (4yrs, $48m sounds right given 2017’s more robust FA class and smaller cap spike), the Hornets will be capped out next summer but could have as much as $20m in cap space in 2018 to go after an All-Star quality talent. See the attached a projected salary chart below for more details.

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Extend Cho (#ExtendCho)

I’ve been on the Rich Cho bandwagon since he joined the Bobcats in 2011. The one quality decision that Rod Higgins made during his entire stint with the franchise was recommending Cho to ownership. His reputation as a terrible drafter is somewhat unearned – we still have no idea who makes the Draft day calls – but his asset management, trade and free agent work has been exemplary since day one.

If you stop and think about the hand Cho and his team were dealt heading into the offseason**, it’s borderline amazing what they were able to pull off. The quality of the Hornets roster is either on par with last season’s; arguably stronger and certainly deeper.

Here’s hoping the next extension made by the team is for Cho himself.

(**and if you really want to be impressed go back and check out the Bobcats cap sheet, roster and draft pick situation prior to Cho’s hire in 2011)

-ASChin
@baselinebuzz

Marco YOLO | Explaining Hornets Draft Day 2016

Belinelli Trade Salaries Hypothetical
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It’s that time of year again. Time for my annual post aimed to cool reactionary fans angered by Rich Cho’s refusal to do exactly what they want him to do. As in years past, Draft Day 2016 can only be understood if we place the move in context within the roster building to follow. Let’s break it down thus far…

The Mystery Trade

The only details about the trade that we know for certain is that Marco Belinelli will be a Hornet and Charlotte’s 22nd overall pick (Malachi Richardson) will be moving on to Sacramento. The trade hasn’t been officially announced and won’t be until after the free agency moratorium ends on July 7th. Other players and picks could be included on either side but for now, let’s assume it’s the vanilla version and call it Version 1A.

TRADE VERSION 1A: Breakdown

Let’s start with the obvious. On the court, Belinelli makes a ton of sense for Charlotte. He can play on ball and off, can stroke the three, create off the dribble and has proven to be a capable system defender when the system is good. Think of him as a defensively inferior, offensively superior Courtney Lee. Done.

Off the court, things get a little trickier. As a cap enthusiast, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why and how this is supposed to work:

If the deal is strictly Marco for the 22nd pick, you’re looking at $6.3m coming in and around $1.2m going out. Charlotte doesn’t have any trade exceptions of that size to absorb the extra money, so if it’s strictly one to one, they’d have to move Marco into cap space.

This is a problem because the Hornets won’t have any cap space until they renounce some of their unrestricted free agents after the moratorium – which would have to be done immediately before the trade is made official.

According to my numbers, the Hornets are sitting currently at around $112m – factoring in all of their cap holds – which is roughly $17m over next year’s projected $94m cap.

To absorb Marco’s extra $5.1m, Charlotte would have to renounce around $22m worth of salaries. Renouncing Al Jefferson, Troy Daniels, Jorge Gutierrez, Jeremy Lin and Tyler Hansbrough seems like the obvious way to get there.

One downside: You’d lose potential sign & trade scenarios with Big Al (using his Bird’s rights) but it’s doubtful many of those scenarios exist on the market anyways.

Renouncing Lin (more on Jeremy later) and Daniels seems alarming at first but given that both players are non-Bird’s rights free agents, the team will have to go into their cap room (or the MLE in Daniels’ case) to bring them back anyway.

So how do we grade Version 1A of the trade? The Hornets, in a maelstrom of unrestricted free agency decisions, figure out a way to replace Courtney Lee with a similarly-aged, cost-controlled, two year rental. In return, they give up whatever potential a cheap-salaried, late round pick could give them.

A Small Sacrifice

In an alternate reality, Charlotte could’ve kept the pick, taken a project wing and then used their Bird Rights to overpay Lee to make sure he stays (think between $10-14m per year). Instead, they get a similar player who’s the same age at around half the price who’ll most likely be on a shorter deal.

Factor in the salary for the 22nd pick and you’re looking at an immediate savings of around $7-$8m in cap space depending on what Lee ultimately gets on the market. This added flexibility could be just enough for Charlotte to retain Lin via cap room (see salary chart below) while paying him market value.

So, even in Version 1A of the trade, the Hornets could (and likely will) end up ostensibly getting two ready-to-play rotation players for the relatively small price of a late round pick in a weak Draft (and let’s face it, Clifford wouldn’t play that late round pick for two years anyway).

Belinelli Trade Salaries Hypothetical

GRADE: TBD in July

TRADE VERSION 1B: Breakdown

Version 1B of this trade is based on some chatter that the Hornets were able to attach one of Jeremy Lamb or Spencer Hawes to the pick in a salary dump.

I was a lot more excited to write about this version of the deal until I actually got around to thinking about it. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters much if either of those players is involved in the trade because:

  1. Neither players’ contract is an albatross
  2. One of the Hornets’ strengths last season was their depth and both players have proven themselves rotation capable during the regular season
  3. With so much cap room available and so few quality free agents, it won’t be hard for the Hornets to find a taker for either player later in free agency

With either Version of the trade, Draft Day 2016 can’t be properly evaluated until we see what Cho & Co are able to do in July.

Get ready Hornets fans because, to quote the esteemed Jim Ross, “Business is about to pick up.

-ASChin
@baselinebuzz

Up, Down, or Out

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In his pre-draft presser, Hornets GM Rich Cho said they have explored trading up, trading down, and trading out of the draft. This should sound familiar. He said the same thing last year. And it really means nothing. It’s a way of answering a question without giving an answer. But it’s worth exploring the merits of each of these strategies with respect to the 22nd pick, the team’s needs, and the make-up of this year’s draft.

Trading Out

Trading out of the draft could be used as a way of obtaining a piece more prepared to contribute next season or shedding salary to facilitate keeping as much of last year’s team together. It’s impossible to predict which players might be available and what it would take to get them, but trading for an established player would have to offset the value of a team friendly rookie contract. I would be hesitant to move the pick for anyone on an expiring contract. It would also mean less money available for the current free agents so Cho would have to have a pretty good idea who is going and who is staying.

Trading out for the sake of freeing up some money to re-sign free agents could be valuable in the short term. The most likely candidates for a dump would be Spencer Hawes and his $6 million per year over the next 2 seasons or Jeremy Lamb’s 3 year, $21 million contract. Trading Lamb kills an already thin wing rotation.

The problem with using the pick to create cap space is in the long term. Again, you’re sacrificing a tiny rookie contract that would be more valuable financially in the long run than the short term gains of dumping Hawes. At that point, the team would be locked into the roster for the foreseeable future with limited methods for improvement. A rookie contract and the youth that comes with it would be a valuable way of providing future improvement internally rather than having to constantly make trades and sign free agents.

In the end, dumping the pick would be short-sighted. The Hornets are the type of team that can fill the roster out with ring chasing veterans and buy-out candidates the way Miami or OKC does. By using the new D-League team and draft picks with potential, the Hornets can build a talent pipeline to sustain the organization as players needs to be replaced.

Trading Up

Trading up brings its own risks in the form of sacrificing depth and/or future assets. In order to move up in the draft, Cho would have to package something with the pick. Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, and Cody Zeller seem the most likely candidates for such a move. Even if Charlotte retains all of its free agents, the team would still be at a deficit and forced to rely on a rookie to play a prominent role. Depth became a problem in the playoffs us multiple key players suffered injuries. With the free agent situation being what it is, the Hornets are just not equipped to handle sacrificing players.

I’m morally opposed to trading future picks of any kind unless you are a legit title contender. Too many things can happen in the interim, even with protections, to make that kind of gamble. Particularly in a draft as muddled as this one where the difference between the 15th and 40th pick might not be all that big. Cho would have to really love a prospect and have a plan in place to establish depth by other means for this to be an option.

Trading Down

Where the depth of the draft makes trading up a bit pointless (barring a huge jump into the top 8), it lends itself to opportunities to trade back. Cho did this before with the Heat, who coveted Shabazz Napier (that had NOTHING to do with LeBron, right?), while knowing that the guy he wanted, PJ Hairston, would be there 2 picks later. To make the move, Miami included a 2nd round pick.

This is the type of move that would be a golden opportunity to start establishing the talent pipeline previously mentioned. While the Hornets could use some wing depth, there should be plenty available late in the draft. Denzel Valentine, DeAndre Bembry, Malik Beasley, Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Brogdon… All these guys are projected in the back third of the draft and into the 2nd round.

As with all deals, it takes 2 to tango and while the depth of the draft could serve the Hornets well, they’re not the only team in their position. Someone would have to really love a prospect to be willing to help out. But if the deal is there, it would be worth it in the long run.

Stay Put

In the end, the most likely thing is usually the simplest and that is drafting a player with the 22nd pick. It’s what I expect to happen and, while boring, could provide an important bench piece down the line.

Draft Thoughts

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As the NBA season draws to a close, the draft is only 3 weeks away. That means team workouts, mock drafts, and misinformation all over the place. Look no further than Jonathan Givony of Draft Express for how this stuff works:

It can be difficult to know what to trust, what to value, and what to dismiss. In perusing all the draft coverage that has been coming out, a couple things stand out regarding the Hornets in particular. The first is that there is very little information. In Chad Ford’s latest big board, found here.
(more information can be found in his workout confidential here)

The Hornets are linked to a only 3 prospects in this list. For comparison’s sake, the Hawks, picking right before the Hornets, are mentioned 6 times and the Celtics 23rd pick is mentioned 6 times. Cho keeps things in house and I wouldn’t expect much else before the draft.

With that being said, there is some information to be glean from the light coverage. Actual reports, not guesses by mock drafts, have the Hornets showing interest in Malik Beasley, Denzel Valentine, Demetrius Jackson, and Malachi Richardson. Translation: Charlotte is looking at wing players, whether they be in the guard/forward variety or the combo guard. This shouldn’t surprise anyone given the possibility of losing Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee (and Batum, but I believe he’s staying).

All of these players are also shooters (at least allegedly). Again, this jives with what Steve Clifford has been saying for over a year now as well as the style of play implemented this past season. If you’re not protecting the rim on defense, you better be shooting from deep on offense.

Again, the legitimate information out there is limited and will most likely continue to be. But there are enough crumbs that lead me to believe the Hornets are looking for wing depth and shooting in the draft and will attempt to add some rim protection in free agency. So no, I don’t think Charlotte picks Brice Johnson. And if we’re going off bizarre, correlation but not causation trends, wouldn’t you think Cho would desperately be trying to trade up and grab Henry Ellenson? White power forwards from the Big 10 for life!