Josh McRoberts has agreed to join the Miami Heat and a tear forms in the eye of every Hornets fan. After being misused at Duke (Coach K misusing a big? No way!) and wandering the league in various states of hair growth, Steve Clifford finally unlocked the McBeast that had been lurking all along. By moving him to the perimeter, Clifford allowed McRoberts to take advantage of his play-making skills, facilitating the offense and being just productive enough as a shooter to keep the defense honest. By almost every metric (plus/minus, RPM, WARP, EWA) McRoberts was one of the most productive and important players on the team. Losing him hurts. But there’s no value in dwelling on the past, so it’s worth looking at how this affects the team for the upcoming season. We’ll approach it on a mostly individual basis. It should be noted these are just my opinions and don’t reflect any sort of insider knowledge. For whatever reason Rich Cho and Steve Clifford won’t return my phone calls and I was recently delivered a strange piece of mail that says something about a restraining order and being within 100 yards of either of them. I need to figure that out… (none of that is true, except that these are just the opinions of an uniformed nobody).
Cho is all in on the young players. He easily could have outspent Miami to retain McRoberts. This is pure speculation, but it seems a player option on the 4th year rather than something like a team option or a partial guarantee was the sticking point. Cody Zeller has 3 years left on his rookie contract after which he’ll be getting a raise on his salary. Kemba Walker has one more year and MKG has 2. Cho’s specialty is managing the cap and failing to meet Miami’s offer is, in all likelihood, a matter of doing that aand preparing for extensions to kick in. This is the first real gamble of Cho’s tenure. Betting on Biz, Kemba, MKG, and Zeller in the draft wasn’t making a bad team worse if they didn’t work out. Losing an essential member of a playoff team for the sake of future financial flexibility, just as the team is gaining momentum, is a bold and potentially dangerous move. If the young guys turn out to be what he hopes and the flexibility gives him a chance to make a move down the line he comes out looking great. If the picks are all busts and the team takes a massive step backwards his job might be on the line. Cho will also need to find a 5th big to go with Zeller, Vonleh, Jefferson, and Biyombo. Kris Humphries’s name has popped up and Jeff Adrien is always a welcome addition to the roster.
McRoberts was Coach Clifford’s safety blanket. He facilitated the offense, opened up the floor, and allowed Al Jefferson to operate on the block without clogging the lane. He made hustle plays and was always willing to do the dirty work, as LeBron’s throat can attest to. With him moving on, Clifford is going to have to find a way to craft a post heavy offense that lacks elite shooters. He’ll have to find ways to take the burden of creating off solely Kemba’s shoulders. Most importantly, he’s going to need to bring Cody and Noah Vonleh along and make them productive players on offense and defense sooner rather than later. This is an area where Gregg Popovich excels and is part of what sets him apart from other coaches. If Clifford wants to prove himself as one of the elite coaches, this is a time to do it.
Zeller will be affected more than anyone else on the team. He seemed to be in line for similar playing time to last year. Clifford started experimenting with playing him and McRoberts together towards the end of the season. He averaged 22.2 minutes per game in April and that looked like it would continue. He will now be forced into the starting lineup, most likely absorbing all of McRoberts’s 30 minutes per game. He should look to stretch himself as a shooter and as a playmaker. Clifford has been very deliberate about how he has brought Cody along, but there is no longer time for that. The first thing he will need to do is cut down on the turnovers. McRoberts turned the ball over 8 times for every 100 possessions. Cody turned it over 13 times per 100 possessions. That number needs to go down. A lot of those turnovers were on destination-less drives to the basket. Hopefully a strengthened core and more experience will help him keep his balance on such drives or he will look for an open teammate more often. The other are for improvement is his shooting. This is an area that almost assuredly will be better. In March and April he shot over 50% from the field as he got more comfortable in his role. The key is to add more range to his shot. With his smaller frame, he is going to have to develop a 3 point shot in order to be effective, especially with Al Jefferson on the team. That development may not come this season, but he does need to start shooting them. The only way to get comfortable in game situations is to do it in game situations. The coaching staff will need to be patient as he adapts to the longer shot and he will need to maintain his confidence even if he struggles some. He doesn’t need to go all Channing Frye this season, but he needs to let it fly when he is open to start the process. Zeller will have to take a step forward for this team to be effective again.
The rumors surrounding Vonleh’s drop were centered mostly on the amount of development he required and his work ethic. The Hornets’ players are a hard working group without question, so they will be there to help him stay focused. The lack of NBA preparedness is going to be a much bigger problem, especially now. Steve Clifford is not Larry Brown. He sees the value in young guys and gives them appropriate time while not necessarily hurting the team. Vonleh probably wasn’t going to see a lot of time this year. Somewhere in the 5-10 minute range. That’s now going to be closer to 15-20 as the only legitimate power forward on the bench. Nobody knows what to expect from him. He was billed as a shooter, but his college sample size was tiny. He didn’t dominate at Indiana, but Tom Crean wasn’t doing a lot to help him out there. He can be inattentive and needs to develop a better feel and IQ for the game. For now Clifford will probably expect him to focus on rebounding, defending the basket, and stretching the floor. In all likelihood he won’t be asked to create or facilitate the offense. He probably won’t have any plays run for him outside of the pick and roll where he will be expected to roll hard to the basket. If he can focus on the basics he should be able to be a neutral presence on the floor. That sounds harsh, but for a project big man with limited experience not hurting the team would be a big win.
Biz looked dead in the water going into next season. He played only 14 minutes per game this past season. While he improved significantly overall, his development hasn’t been quite what the team had hoped and management seriously considered not picking up his option. Towards the end of the season Clifford started using Zeller as a center with McRoberts on the floor at the same time rather than going to Biz. Don’t plan on seeing a lot of Zeller and Vonleh on the floor together. Instead, Clifford may choose to do what he was doing with McRoberts, subbing him out relatively early and letting him stabilize the bench unit. Biz’s responsibilities won’t change. He will still expected to rebound and defend and to try to stay out of the way on offense. This may be his last chance. He needs to take advantage of it.
Gerald Henderson & Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
With McRoberts gone, the wings are going to have the ball in their hands more with an opportunity to create for themselves and others. For Henderson, this means a couple things. The first and most obvious is that he needs to unshackle himself and start shooting the 3 ball. No more taking one dribble in for a mid-range shot. There is a banner up in the Hornets’ practice facility that says, “Quick Decisions: Shoot It, Drive It, Move it.” If anyone needs to take this motto to heart, it’s Henderson. He has a tendency to catch, turn, face, and survey. Then look some more. Look a little more. Then drive to the right baseline and shoot a fade-away jumper. The surveying needs to be done before the ball comes. He should know where guys are on the floor and where the defense is and make a decision. This will keep the defense on their heels and all the team to generate offense out of more than just Jefferson post-ups and Kemba Walker dribble drives. Henderson is not a great passer, with an assist ratio lower than JR Smith and Caption Iso-Joe Johnson, and gets tunnel vision when he gets the ball, another reason he needs to be more decisive on the catch. If the jump shot isn’t there and the lane isn’t open, make the simple pass and get the offense going.
MKG’s approach shouldn’t change as much as Henderson’s. He will still be expected to score off cuts and offensive rebounds. His shooting can be addressed elsewhere. The change MKG will experience is tied to Gerald Henderson. Clifford could look to play more small-ball, moving Henderson to the small forward position and MKG to the power forward position with Jefferson or Zeller at center. Assuming Vonleh doesn’t have much to contribute as a rookie and Biz hasn’t magically replaced his hands with something other than stone cut-outs of hands, going small would be a way to get Jefferson and Zeller rest without a massive drop-off offensively. Clifford didn’t throw small-ball lineups out there at all last season according to 82games.com. He might have to out of necessity this year.
Kemba’s adjustment will be simple, but heavy. He will have to accept even more responsibility initiating the offense. Plays often began with Kemba bringing the ball up on the side of the court. McRoberts would cut to the top of the key to receive a pass, Kemba would cut through and get to his spot, and the offense would begin from there. Zeller will do this some, but he’s not nearly the passer McRoberts is yet. Clifford may choose to use more pick and roll to initiate the offense, taking advantage of Zeller’s speed and athleticism and Vonleh’s shooting ability. But it will likely be Kemba’s job to get the offense going more than he did last season. Ideally, Cho would be able to find a backup point guard with the size to play with Kemba to help alleviate some of that pressure but as presently constituted, it’s all Kemba.
Similar to other players, Jefferson will need to be more of a play-maker out of his spots. While his passing has improved over his career and his assist ratio was right in line with other back to the basket centers like Brooke Lopez and Dwight Howard, he still has a tendency to attack double and triple teams on the block. He’s successful far more than one would expect but without McRoberts’s shooting and passing Jefferson will have to assume some of those creator responsibilities by recognizing double teams quicker and moving the ball, even if it doesn’t immediately lead to a basket.
There’s no way around the fact that losing McRoberts is a major blow to the Hornets. He’s a rare player that combines shooting, passing, athleticism, and unselfishness into a productive and essential role player. He can’t be replaced but his responsibilities can be distributed across the remaining pieces. To keep the ball rolling as an organization everyone is going to have to step up and it begins with a clear vision from both Rich Cho and Steve Clifford. Expect a tough start to the season as the players and coach adjust, but with quality leadership from the organization and the players’ ability and willingness to do what is asked of them it should be another successful campaign in Charlotte.