It’s Time to Hang It Up

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Over the past decade I have had the pleasure of being a part of a truly special Charlotte Hoops community. Hornets fans may not have title banners or Hall of Fame numbers but we have a knowledgeable, passionate and (mostly) kind base of fans who have ignored the struggles of the franchise and become the positive community that we are. Today I’m officially moving on from this community.

I’ve been a Hornets fan since 1988 – when I was an eleven year old chubby kid who was inspired to become more athletic and outgoing so that I could be like my heroes Muggsy, Dell, LJ, Kendall and Zo.

It’s been nearly 30 years of highs and lows. Thousands of games, tens of thousands of hours in the arena(s) and in front of the TV, volumes of Street & Smith’s NBA previews, Insider posts and Fake Trade Machine dork simulations.

Most recently it has been time spent with you all either here on the blog or on Twitter discussing, sometimes arguing – often agreeing – on the pluses and minuses of our favorite squad.

Even if we virulently disagreed on a point, you encouraged me to better articulate my stance and sometimes change my view entirely. You often made me laugh. You always made me appreciate your company.

As to why I’ve decided to move on from hardcore fandom, all I can say is that it is time.

Big thanks to each and every one of you who have read my posts and followed my tweets over the years. Your time is greatly appreciated.

Best wishes to you all and may there be some truly great highs in the Hornets’ future. The fans absolutely deserve it.

-ASChin aka “BaselineBuzz”, December 6th 2017

 

The Case for Point Guard Malik Monk

The-Case-For-Malik-Monk-Point-Guard
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Real talk: Malik Monk was horrendous through his first seven pro games. Outside of his 17 point effort versus the Nuggets (with former coach John Calipari in the building) there was little to be excited about.

Monk shot 20 for 68 from the field (29%) through this stretch – not good considering that shooting was supposedly his one surefire NBA skill heading into the Draft. His defense was awful (so bad that I caught Jeremy freaking Lamb shaking his head when Malik lost his man for the gazzilionth time). Worst of all, Monk was a turnover machine, averaging nearly 2 TOs per game in just over 20 minutes per.

Not all of this was the rookie’s fault. Injuries to both Hornet backup PGs (Michael Carter-Williams & Julyan Stone) forced Monk into a lead ball handler role he wasn’t ready for in the NCAA much less the pros.

Yet some of these problems are (and will continue to be) endemic to the type player Monk is. His handle at the moment is loose and when a defender locks in, Monk resorts to a nervous head down dribble in the full court. Given his size, strength and ability, Monk is essentially fated to guard ones and micro-twos so playing him next to Kemba for long stretches will be difficult against good teams. If and when Malik goes through his physical “mansformation”, this could change but that won’t be for several seasons.

No one’s been more critical of Rich Cho’s decision to draft Monk over a ready-made defensive beast who can shoot (Donovan Mitchell) than me – and through Malik’s first seven contests I was terrified that Charlotte’s front office had done what they do best again: Nail trades (Dwight Howard) and blow the Draft (Monk).

Malik’s effort Wednesday night against Milwaukee lowered my stress levels by half. Aside from the ridiculous 4th quarter explosion (18 points in a blink of an eye – we knew he was capable of that pre-Draft), what warmed my teal and purple soul was Monk’s carefulness as a ball handler and how he was able to play within his niche.

So much of Malik’s struggles early on were due to his insistence on trying to do everything on offense. Against the Bucks he focused on catch & shoot opportunities and jump shots off screens – which perfectly setup two impressive dribble drives midway thought the 4th. He was beautifully efficient. Much credit to both Malik and the coaching staff for figuring this out so early in the season.

The Off Court Benefits of Monk at Point Guard

Cho and Steve Clifford have more than just on-court reasons for accelerating Monk’s ability to play point. For the reasons stated above, if Malik is going to reach his apex as an NBA player – and for the team to succeed while he does so – Monk is going to have to play a lot of his minutes at the one.

When (if?) this apex is achieved, the trickle-down benefits carry enormous ramifications. For one, Charlotte can finally end its yearly bargain-bin search for a primary backup to Kemba Walker and instead invest those meager funds in a quality third string player should either Monk or Walker miss time.

Malik’s rookie deal keeps him cheap until the 2020-2021 season, timing perfectly with Nic Batum’s near max deal. The only reason to pay a player like Nic that kind of money is to team him with a lead guard who’d rather play like a primary scorer. That’s obviously true now with Kemba in his prime and could continue as Malik approaches his.

Once Batum returns this season, I expect him to play quite a lot with the 2nd unit (as he did last year), especially now that Lamb has proven to be such a great fit with the starters. An early rest for Nic would see him playing most of the 2nd quarter with Monk at nominal point, creating more efficient scoring opportunities for the rook.

Perhaps most importantly, an effective Monk at PG can cut Kemba’s minutes down to the low thirties. Walker has had two knee surgeries in as many summers and the big minutes slowed him down late last season. With unrestricted free agency (and a massive contract) looming just 18 months from now, the less wear and tear on the 27 year old star, the better.

Future Concerns

Speaking of that next contract (and yes, I know it’s nearly two seasons away), it’s important to remember that Walker will be 29 when he signs it and potentially coming off of three straight All-Star appearances.

What happens if the Knicks decide to break the bank in order to bring the Bronx native home at the full max? Do the Hornets really want to be on the hook for that kind of contract? Is a 33 year old Walker at around $30 million per season a wise move?

What if Kemba has yet another knee procedure? How does his game age? No one wants to think about this now that he’s balling out (including me) but rest assured, these questions are being contemplated by the Hornets front office.

And if they look into deep recesses of Rich Cho’s database, they may see a scenario in which Monk is not only Kemba’s short term backup at PG but his longterm replacement should things go awry.

In that case, it’s very important for Monk to not only improve as a pro but to improve at a position few expected him to ever play.

–ASChin
@baselinebuzz

Attitude Era | Thoughts on Malik Monk and the 2017 Draft

Malik Monk | Hornets Attitude Era
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WWE broadcast legend Jim Ross, AKA The Greatest Announcer of All-Time, had a wonderful way of describing former tag team champs The Hardy Boyz.

“Matt is the steak, Jeff is the sizzle.”

In just eight words, Ross was able to articulate the very essence of what makes something both of high quality and desirable.

The “steak” in Ross-speak refers to the fundamentals, the solid foundation on which anything worthwhile is crafted. The steak is consistent, dependable and organized. It is necessary, appreciated and well-regarded by the rational mind.

The “sizzle”, conversely, is the stuff that glimmers, the eye-catching, the holy sh*t I can’t believe what I just saw moments that inspire jaws to drop and motivates butts out of seats. It bypasses all intellect and goes straight to the most basic part of our brains. It is electric.

Time for Excitement

Prior to Thursday night, the Hornets were Matt Hardy. Proudly so, I would add. After nearly a decade of being neither steak nor sizzle, Charlotte had worked hard to finally build a foundation of fundamental competence.

Now, nearly five seasons into the Steve Clifford era, it was finally time to add a little bit of OHMYGAWD.

Expect the Unexpected

The moment Commissioner Silver called his name, Malik Monk instantly became the Hornets’ most explosive athlete. All due respect to Marvin Williams and Dwight Howard – veteran power dunkers who can still surprise with the occasional poster jam – but up until Monk, Charlotte had no one else on the roster who could rise and throw down.

Thirty-six feet from the basket? Two defenders on him? Malik will levitate and shoot over you.

Opposing defense locked in, no good look in sight? Malik will take and make those “no-no-no-YES!buckets that can charge a crowd and demoralize the opponent.

No Risk No Reward

In my Offseason Preview, I highlighted the fact that the Hornets’ current regime has played it safe in the Draft over the past six or seven years – opting for solid singles and doubles over homerun swings.

That all changed Thursday night. With two high-floor, rotation ready guys staring them in the face (Donovan Mitchell, Luke Kennard), Charlotte bucked the trend and went with a small-ish two guard with a streaky shot and major questions on defense.

Monk’s slight frame and below average length demand that he be matched up defensively against opposing point guards exclusively. And given that the team’s best player, (Kemba) can’t guard wings either – expect the duo to play VERY LIMITED minutes together initially.

In fact, Monk’s size limitations at SG will dictate who Charlotte targets as their backup point guard in either free agency or via the trade market. Ideally, Monk’s backcourt partner would have the following qualities:

  • Size and strength to guard SGs
  • Lead Guard Skills
  • Spot Up Shooting Ability

If you’re scratching your head trying to think of players who have all of these qualities (and are available), don’t worry – you’re not alone. There’s simply not many backup point guards who fit that description around.

They Got 0-9 Reasons

Even with the complications Monk adds to the team’s roster configuration – it’s still easy to understand why the team drafted him.

As I mentioned in our Offseason Preview, the Hornets were 0-9 in games decided by three points or less last season and lost all six of their overtime games. How many fourth quarter leads were blown simply due to Kemba resting and/or being gassed? How many winnable games were given away simply because Walker dared to have an off night?

If Monk’s collegiate ability to get buckets translates, he instantly upgrades Charlotte’s ability to stay in and close games that they’d become expert at giving away.
Oh, and he may just add a little excitement while doing it.

Baseline Bites

  • Whoever the Hornets sign as their backup point guard is bound to play big minutes. Clifford LOVES playing Kemba alongside a big lead guard (see Lin, Jeremy) and no doubt the team craves insurance if (when?) Walker misses any time. Once you factor in those minutes at both guard spots, Monk’s 20 or so per night and MKG/Nic’s split time at SF, there’s only around 8-10 minutes per night remaining for another rotation wing. Jeremy Lamb ain’t gonna be too happy about that. Add in the fact that the team’s 2nd Round pick, Dwayne Bacon, plays a style that’s very similar to Lamb and it doesn’t take a hoops Nostradamus to foresee a potential JLamb trade sooner than later.
  • Did Sacramento win the Draft or lose it? I can’t decide. While De’Arron Fox is a fine character prospect with upside, I’m worried about a lead guard who can’t shoot. Justin Jackson is a 22 and a half year old meh wing who weighs less than one of Ike Anigbogu’s legs. Harry Giles may never fully rebound from his dual ACL surgeries. As uncharacteristically responsible as the Kings were on Thursday, they may have been better off just standing pat and taking Monk at 10. Their loss, our gain.
  • Who was a bigger Draft winner than NC State’s Dennis Smith? Smith seemed destined to be a classic big stats/bad team guy. Y’know, the kind of player who goes to Orlando or New York to average 18ppg for the first six or seven years of his career only to disappear from the league by the time he was 30. Not so anymore. With Rick Carlisle at the helm, responsible vets around him and solid ownership in Dallas, Smith will have every chance to max out this talents.
  • Will Charlotte ever just keep a 2nd Round pick instead of either siphoning off cash in a trade down or outright selling? I get that Bob Johnson’s mismanagement (and stupid TV deal) leaked cash for years but good lord – even freaking Memphis moved into the Draft. If one of those guys taken from 31-39 pop (Ojeleye, Rabb, Bell, Bolden, etc), MJ will only have himself to blame.

-ASChin
@baselinebuzz


 

POLL : Best Offseason Addition for Hornets

  • Dwight Howard (25%, 8 Votes)
  • Malik Monk (50%, 16 Votes)
  • Dwayne Bacon (22%, 7 Votes)
  • Michael Carter-Williams (3%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 32

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Tyson in Reverse | The Baseline Breaks Down the Dwight Howard Trade

Dwight Howard Traded to Charlotte
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Back in July of 2010 then Charlotte head coach Larry Brown and GM Rod Higgins made what is widely considered one of the worst trades of the NBA millenium.

The Bobcats were over the cap and in danger of breaching the luxury tax. They needed to dump salary fast. Their solution: trade Tyson Chandler (who had spent his lone year in Charlotte either hurt or in Brown’s doghouse) to the Mavericks for the immediate cap relief of Erik Dampier’s non-guaranteed deal and the bloated multi-year contracts of Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera.

Ten months later Chandler was helping Dirk win a ring while career 9th/10th men Najera and Carroll bloated Charlotte’s payroll and took up precious roster spots for years. It was a salary dump trade in which the dumper ended up taking on more salary in the longterm. This move all but cemented the Bobcats’ reputation as a league-wide joke.

A New Era of Competence

Seven years later Charlotte is no longer the laughingstock. In fact, they’ve completely turned the tables by becoming the fleecer in such a deal rather than the fleeced. And it’s all due to competence.

See what happens when your GM and Coach work together?

COMPETENCE: As a former assistant in Orlando, Steve Clifford has long had a great relationship with Dwight Howard. He understands Howard’s game and personality. Few other NBA staffs are in a position to maximize late career Dwight like Charlotte’s. If Dwight is going to achieve a renaissance anywhere in the league it will be as a Hornet.

MORE COMPETENCE: Rich Cho’s negotiating and cap management skills allowed the Hornets to upgrade their short term talent situation, dump seemingly un-dumpable salary and boost their 2nd Round pick to near 1st Round status all in one trade.

This single transaction encapsulates what can happen when both men – each the best this organization has seen at their respective positions – play to their strengths in unison. Bravo, gentlemen.

Worst Case is Still a Better Case

“Yeah, this is a great trade and all…if it was 2011 LMFAO!!!”
–Basic Twitter Troll

Let’s assume disaster for a moment: That the worst of Dwight’s childish antics distract and disrupt. That his soon to be 32 year old body breaks down before the final two years of his contract expire. That his fit on the court never materializes and that he essentially becomes a $50m version of last season’s Roy Hibbert.

The trade is still a win. Why? Let us count the ways:

I. Miles Plumlee is not only a worse player by any measurement but his 3 year contract ran a year longer than Dwight’s. By making the trade, a currently capped out Charlotte team will be able to play in free agency a year earlier than expected.

II. Which is great because guess who is due for a new contract during that time? Kemba Walker. Also both Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can opt out that summer so more flexibility in July of 2019 = a VERY GOOD THING.

III. Did I mention that they dumped Plumlee? It was widely viewed as one of the league’s least tradeable contracts and they did so without having to include a pick or prospect to sweeten the deal (see the Lakers and D’Angelo Russell as a counterexample of this).

IV. In fact, Cho was able to somehow move up in the Draft – going from pick 41 of a deep class to 31. That’s the first pick of the 2nd Round, a very interesting spot indeed (more on this later).

V. If Dwight becomes a major problem off or on the court, Charlotte can just tell him to stay home or try and trade him as an expiring next summer. His salary is still less damaging timing-wise than Plumlee’s.

Best Case is Insane

Ok. So what if Dwight isn’t Lance Stephenson 2.0? What if he accepts his role, plays (mostly) hard, takes his vitamins and says his prayers (brother)? Well then, things are suddenly bright indeed.

I. Suppose you have a center who is aging, struggles with back problems and can’t quite play 36 minutes a night anymore…wouldn’t you want to pair him with…

II. A younger center whose body type and strength also prevent him from playing big minutes at the five every night for 82 games. A player who is more mobile guarding on the perimeter, a player who is different in style just enough to give you another look but not so different that you have to change the way you play when he’s out there.

III. Yes I am talking about the potentially tremendous center platoon of Dwight and Cody. Should they be able to put their past feuds and egos (well, ego) behind them this combination should finally give Clifford 48 respectable defensive minutes at center for the first time in his 5 season tenure.

IV. Lack of backup center plagued the Hornets last season. When Cody sat, the team dropped from 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency to 24th.

V. Did I mention defensive rebounding? Because Cliff is obsessed with that stuff and the Hornets (aside from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) have lacked a true rebounding beast since Big Al’s All-NBA season a few years back. Say what you will about Dwight’s declining game but the man can still ball-board (8th in DRPG, 8th in Contested DRPG). Oh yeah, Howard also ranked 2nd in offensive rebounds and contested ORBPG – so if Cliff finally allows a player to crash the offensive glass, Dwight can convert ‘em.

VI. Rim protection – while Howard is no longer the shot blocking golem he once was (nearly 3 blocks per 36 minutes during his prime, down to 1.5 last season), his strength and reputation will provide at least as much detterence as Cody when Zeller sits. This is a good thing.

VII. Given Dwight’s seniority and rep, it’s a near lock that he’ll be the starter with Cody coming off the bench. Which incidentally means that the Hornets will go from having one of the worst backup center situations in the league to one of the best.

What Next?

With the Draft a little more than 24 hours away, the Hornets roster makeup and motivation for next season is much clearer:

I. The team still has two primary positional needs: Backup PG and Backup Wing

II. After dealing Marco Belinelli in the Howard trade, Charlotte has exactly one player on the roster who shot greater than 36% from three last season (Kemba)

III. Which leads me to believe that unless a highly rated point guard drops (Dennis Smith), the Hornets will use that pick on Duke’s Luke Kennard – who is widely regarded as the best shooter in this class.

IV. While I still love Donovan Mitchell and his game, his shot is streaky and with the point guard market petering out league-wide (Russell to BRK, Fultz to PHI have started a chain reaction), it will be much easier to find a backup one via trade or free agency than a sharp-shooting wing.

V. Kennard’s play-making from the two would also give Charlotte some minor insurance should Batum miss any extended time (which would be a very, very bad thing).

2nd Round Scenarios

If the Hornets do indeed keep their newly acquired 2nd Rounder (they’ve sold or traded all but one in the Cho era) then they’re in prime position to get a potential rotation player on the cheap which would put Cho’s negotiation skills further to the test:

If Cho can uncover a quality player at 31 and then sign him to something like the famed “Hinkie Special” 2yrs + Non-Guaranteed Year + Team Option Year – or even a standard 2-3 year 2nd Round contractyou’re looking at possibly adding in a rotation guy for around $1m per over the next few seasons. For a team as cap strapped as Charlotte this would be HUGE.

As to who they could target with this pick – I have no idea. They worked out Terrance Fergusan and he may drop there. Harry Giles may scare teams off of longterm guaranteed money so could fall. Guys like Josh Hart and Frank Jackson will be there as well. This is strictly a best player available situation and given the depth of this Draft, Charlotte has a shot at a good one.

Give Rich Cho an Extension Already

Cho is in the last year of his contract and MJ has yet to extend him – this trade alone should get him one.

Even if Howard doesn’t play a game for Charlotte, the team was able to trade an untradeable contract while upgrading their draft position and cleared the books for an incredibly important 2019 Free Agency period.

Karmic payback complete. Tyson Chandler helped Dallas win a title. Cho, Cliff and Dwight helped win Charlotte some respectability.

-ASChin
@baselinebuzz

 

A Commitment to Relevance | Baseline 2017 Hornets Offseason Preview

Rich Cho - Baseline 2017 Offseason Preview
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JUMP TO SECTION: WHAT WENT WRONG | HORNETS DRAFT PHILOSOPHY2017 HORNETS DRAFT | TEAM NEEDS2017 HORNETS FREE AGENCY | 2017 HORNETS TRADE SCENARIOS | POTENTIAL DEPTH CHARTS | WRAP UP | BONUS: GEISINGER ON THE STARTING FIVE

Sometime around mid-afternoon on June 22nd, 2011, Charlotte Bobcats newly crowned general manager Rich Cho made his first significant roster move with the franchise.

Cho managed to contrive a scenario in which Charlotte moved up from the 19th to the 7th pick for the measly price of a disgruntled Stephen Jackson*. That’s twelve spots in a good Draft for essentially nothing.

The trade was a high level front office negotiation Charlotte fans were unfamiliar with since the days of Bob Bass. What Cho ended up doing with the fruits of his victory would exemplify the next half decade of his tenure.

HUGO IN THE MIDDLE

Flash forward six years and the Hornets are stuck in the NBA’s middle. Pundits on either side of Team Tank have seen this coming for years. The franchise is consistently too good to finish in the league’s Lottery basement and not good enough to do significant damage in the postseason. Their Drafting strategy of hitting singles and doubles prevent the strikeouts of the past (Adam Morrison) but also eliminates any chance of unearthing the next Greek Freak mid-round.

Charlotte’s roster is stacked with high character guys on guaranteed contracts that range from veteran bargains (Kemba) to slightly above going rate (Batum). No All-Stars on Rookie scale wages, no albatross 35 year olds on max deals. Again, right down the middle. Vanilla.

In an era of extremes, many fans hate this. If you’re not going to be the best, you need to be the worst and hoard draft picks like a prepper fresh off an Infowars binge.

But as we’ve seen with the Suns, Sixers and Magic – three teams that have committed to “The Process” much longer than Charlotte’s single tank season of 2011-2012 – this path is extremely taxing. Longterm tanking shakes a franchise to its very core and the architects in charge rarely survive to see the payoffs (if there are any).

Charlotte never really had a choice in the matter. The city is on its second NBA marriage. Unlike the first, this one had been bad from the start. There was no love affair. No passion. No “good times” to fall back on. They were single, we were single, it looked good on paper. The Bobcats were a disaster from the jump.

The franchise took a sober look at their situation and picked the only direction that offered any reasonable hope of success. Relevance may not be the storybook ending sports fans dream of but it’s a hell of an upgrade from the embarrassment of an eventual second relocation.

THE PAIN OF UNMET EXPECTATIONS

It’s important to remember that the 2016-2017 season was disappointing precisely because the team had such high expectations going into it. Any longtime fan of the franchise understands that this was a foreign concept to all involved.

For a decade the only thing one could realistically expect from the Bobcats was to be slightly less bad than the year before. Suddenly, the Hornets were a roster full of competent NBA players on the verge of breaking through 50 wins and making it past the first round of the postseason.

None of that happened and we were all let down by a season of nagging injuries, depth disasters and late game giveaways. Now that the pain has had a chance to wear off, it’s important to remember that the reasons many of us were so high on Charlotte last fall remain intact today.

The Hornets starting five were fantastic whenever they were healthy enough to play together (depending on how you sort, the starters had somewhere between a Top 5 and Top 11 net rating in the entire league) and are all locked up to relatively reasonable longterm deals. The team’s coach is well-respected throughout the league and is entering his fifth consecutive season with the team (a feat only one other Charlotte NBA coach has achieved in nearly 30 years).

The Hornets don’t owe any future first round picks and, aside from a very questionable midseason trade for Miles Plumlee, have rather clean-looking books going forward.

Let’s breakdown the primary culprits for Charlotte’s 2016-2017 swoon:

  1. Health
  2. Depth
  3. Inability to Close Games

A roster can overcome nagging injuries with depth and overcome depth limitations with a healthy core. A roster cannot overcome both simultaneously.

Last season’s enormous cap spike combined with Charlotte’s plethora of unrestricted free agents left Cho searching the clearance aisle to find replacements for Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson. He found mostly junk.

Roy Hibbert, either through injury or play style, just couldn’t give Cliff what he needed from a backup five every night. Ramon Sessionsthree-point aberration in Washington proved just that. Marco Belinelli was the best of the bunch but his defensive limitations (combined with the team’s lack of rim protection) overshadowed some truly special offensive performances.

There’s also the fact that each of the departing rotation players (Big Al, Lee and J-Lin) could be counted on to give you late game buckets that Charlotte was desperate for all season.

From CBS Sports – “(the Hornets) were 8-14 in games decided by five points or less, lost all six of their overtime games and went 0-9 in games decided by three or less points, which is the worst record in such games in NBA history.”

And even though Cho faces less unrestricted free agent chaos this summer, the front office is armed with precious few ways to resolve the team’s lingering depth and scoring issues.

DRAFT PHILOSOPHY: SINGLES AND DOUBLES

When the 7th pick was announced back in 2011, it marked the last time Charlotte swung for the fences in the Draft.

The story goes that Cho had scouted Bismack Biyombo extensively for years, well before Biz’s Nike Hoops Summit explosion that put him on the rest of the league’s radar. Having previously worked under Sam Presti in Seattle and OKC, Cho saw his own version of Serge Ibaka right in front of him; a shot-blocking centerpiece to anchor a defense around.

Never mind that Biyombo had few professional basketball skills. Never mind that Biyombo could barely catch a pass much less rain down corner threes like his Congo counterpart in Oklahoma. Cho was dialed in on this 19** year old’s potential.

Had Cho drafted either Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson with that pick (both players were Lottery projected and the ‘Cats needed a wing after trading both Jackson and Gerald Wallace in the previous six months), his legacy would be cemented as Greatest GM in Charlotte NBA history and he’d widely be considered one of the league’s best GMs today.

Instead, Cho’s Bismack Myopia – coupled with a few ping-pong balls the following June – cemented Charlotte’s middle of the pack future and overshadows his otherwise solid reputation amongst fans to this day.

The Biyombo legacy continues to shape the team’s guiding Draft philosophy. Drafting “busts” is simply not an option in the QC; the Hornets have made getting longterm contributions from top picks their utmost priority.

With the exception of Biyombo, every Lottery selection the team has made since 2011 has signed an extension with the team. The player who would’ve been eligible for an early extension this summer, Noah Vonleh, was traded for a key vet (Batum) who signed a new five year deal last July.

In brief, the team has made a commitment to extract longterm value out of their Lottery selections and this longterm value trumps any and everything else – including gambling on high risk/high reward projects.

And really, can you blame Charlotte for implementing this strategy? Between 2004 and 2011, the Bobcats owned seven Lottery picks. Just two of those picks signed extensions with the team after their rookie deals (Emeka Okafor, Gerald Henderson) and the rest either walked or were traded for nothing of longterm value (we can debate the Brandon Wright > J-Rich > Diaw/Bell swap another time).

Additionally, Michael Jordan’s own Draft trauma serves to only further cement the team’s conservative approach. After Kwame and AMMO, it’s doubtful the G.O.A.T. has it in him for another decade of Crying MJ memes mocking his talent evaluation.

HORNETS 2017 Draft Options

All of this points us in a likely direction for the Hornets to take in June. We know that they crave certainty, we know that they prioritize character, big collegiate program experience and are not above drafting for need. We know that Coach Clifford has at least some minor input into the process.

Couple all this with Charlotte’s cap constrictions and it leads me to believe that if they keep the pick, the Hornets will be motivated to land a guy who has a shot at making Cliff’s rotation as soon as possible.

And thus the dilemma. Two of the top players projected to be around when the Hornets pick at 11 are not rotation ready: Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and Strasbourg’s (France) Frank Ntilikina.

Collins flashes truly incredible skill for a seven footer but needs time to develop both physically and mentally on the court. Zach would also be the third 7 foot white guy Drafted by Charlotte in their previous four Lotteries. Does that mean anything on the court? Other than positional redundancy, no. But optics matter and I’m sure the organization has at least considered the negative fan response.

Ntilikina offers his own challenges. Aside from having many of the same developmental requirements as Collins, French Frank is a primary ball handler prone to Cliff’s least favorite hoops sin: unforced turnovers. The safe money is on Frank investing the first half of his rookie campaign in Greensboro.

Still, Ntilikina is in many ways the team’s best shot at nabbing a potential superstar at a position of need. Six-five point guards with 7 foot wingspans are the rarest of talents, especially those who can shoot, defend and are blessed with lead guard court vision.

Given their pasts, will Cho and MJ gamble on a high upside developmental pick? Or will they continue to play it safe? If they are bold, my prediction is that it’ll either be Ntilikina or Collins.

But if the franchise stays true to form and tries to find a rotation ready, “sure-thing”, I’d rank the rest of their Draft board in the following order:

  1. Donovan Mitchell, Combo Guard | Louisville
  2. Luke Kennard, Wing | Duke
  3. Justin Jackson, Wing | UNC
  4. Ike Anigbogu, C | UCLA

Of the four, I like Mitchell most. He’s a combo guard who can shoot and has the physical profile (6’10” wingspan, thick 215lb body) to finish at the rim and fight through screens. Donovan could play spot minutes at the one next to Batum when Kemba sits and alongside Walker when Cliff plays two points in the backcourt. Donovan also comes across as a very smart, grounded kid in interviews.

Shooting is why the team could go with a locally-sourced wing (Jackson/Kennard). I initially had them rated equally but as I watch them more, Kennard seems the better pro prospect. Luke is a year younger with a much faster, more consistent stroke over his career. He has very good court vision for his size and his ability to shoot, create off the dribble and move the ball with purpose make him an intriguing offensive prospect. But he comes with major defensive limitations; similar to Frank Kaminsky, opposing players simply go through him.

Jackson has better length and (theoretic) defensive potential but turned 22 in March – how much upside is left? Justin’s release is much slower, less consistent and his floor game (aside from a deadly, ridiculously beautiful looking floater) is behind Kennard’s.

Neither wing screams star but they’d have a chance to crack the rotation by at least the following season, when Marco Belinelli’s contract expires. The league has a wing deficit overall (see KCP and Otto Porter’s inevitable max contracts this summer) and Drafting even a middling talent could be one of the few ways of getting one on the cheap.

If the team decides to go with Anigbogu, I’d be a little surprised. The kid obviously has the potential to be a defensive beast – think Ian Mahimni or Hassan Whiteside without the baggage – but he’s got more than just a little Biyombo to his game and I can’t imagine Cho and Clifford going back to that well again unless they are certain he can become at least an average offensive player for his position.

HORNETS TEAM NEEDS

Before we get into free agency or potential trade targets, let’s review Charlotte’s depth chart:

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions (TO), Briante Weber (TO)
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli
  • SF: MKG, Jeremy Lamb
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant (TO)
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee
    (TO = Team Option)

The bench has two primary issues to be remedied and one secondary. First, Marco Belinelli and Jeremy Lamb are largely redundant. Both are strictly twos and neither have the physical profile or defensive ability to guard potent, big wings like Paul George or Jimmy Butler should either Nic or MKG miss time or need a rest. Adding a backup wing with decent size is a major priority. Preferably one who can score. More on this later.

The other primary bench issue is at backup point. Hornets fans were spoiled a season ago when the team had a starting caliber lead guard as a backup. Jeremy Lin was more or less the prototypical backup to Kemba: big enough to play alongside Walker, good enough to start when Kemba was hurt and smart enough at both ends of the court that Cliff trusted him to close games. Few of those things could be said about his replacement.

I asked hoops stat savant and friend of the Baseline, Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird – a MUST Twitter follow for Hornets fans) to give me a stat or two that reflects why Ramon Sessions was either under-appreciated or rightfully maligned by fans. Here’s what he sent me:

(if numbers hurt your brain, jump to my summary)

Geisinger on Sessions: The Bad

Ramon’s shooting declined at all levels, including important areas for a guard who made a name for himself as a driver: restricted area (48.9 FG%), inside 10 feet (44.2 FG%), and attempts after 3-6 dribbles (31.3 FG%).

His field goal percentage on drives dropped from 46.6 FG% to 38.3 FG%; his field goal percentage on pull-ups dropped, too, from 39 FG% to 32.9%

FT rate dropped from 47.8% to 44.9%, and so too did his FTA per 100 possessions — from 8.3 to 7.3.

When looking at two-man lineup combinations, Sessions had a positive point differential with only one other player: 13 minutes with Brian Roberts. In those minutes, which occurred in garbage time, Charlotte still scored fewer than 1 point per possession.

They did score well with he and Kemba on the floor, though: 116.7 points per 100 possessions (121 minutes). But they still had a negative point differential.

Sesh was just one of just six guys in the NBA this season with more than 800 minutes, a usage rate above 20%, BPM below -3, and a FG% less than 40% (it’s not good company).

(*All of these season comparisons are from 2015-16 to 2016-17. That doesn’t really do Ramon too many favors, because 15-16 was the best season he had in years. The drops wouldn’t be quite as jarring if looking at 14-15 or 13-14.)

Geisinger on Sessions: The Good

Pick-and-roll shooting dropped from 43 FG% to 36.8 FG%, and he dropped from the 74th percentile in PNR efficiency to the 59th percentile. But he still scored 0.82 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, which is pretty good. He drew a shooting foul on 17.8% of these possessions — good for the fifth best rate in the NBA amongst players with at least 150 PNR possessions.

Now back to the studio. Thanks Brian!

In summary, Sesh regressed beyond even Bobcat Ramon levels and was a slightly below average backup point when he was healthy. The Hornets hold a team option for $6.3m next season and it seems inevitable that they’ll decline it, right?…Right?

2017 FREE AGENCY: DEPTH AND TAXES

As I mentioned before, Cho has done a nice job of locking in a quality starting five. That’s the good news. The bad news is that after the midseason addition of Plumlee, the team is effectively capped out.

Baseline Hornets Salaries May 7 2017

Once Charlotte signs their Lottery pick and exercises team options on Briante Weber and Johnny O’Bryant (both expected), they’ll be around $6 million over the league’s $102 million salary cap.

Add in a full Midlevel offer (which jumps to $8.4 million starting salary this season) and you’re up to $110 million. Pickup Ramon’s team option and you’re at $123 million. The Luxury Tax is $121 million. No, the 36-win Charlotte Hornets are not paying the Luxury Tax.

This would seem to only reinforce Charlotte’s motivation to decline Sesh’s team option, right? RIGHT?!!! (C’MON!!! FOR THE LOVE OF-)

Hey kids! Here’s an exercise you can try at home today: head over to Hoopshype’s free agent page and check out July’s available point guards. Now filter out all the ones who would laugh at the Midlevel Exception. Now sort for fit, experience, cost to value ratio, etc. Here’s what I ended up with:

BASELINE FA PGS: Darren Collison (Full Midlevel), Yogi Ferrell (Restricted, Full Midlevel), Michael Carter-Williams (Restricted, Partial Midlevel or Biannual), Langston Galloway (Partial Midlevel or Biannual), Raymond Felton (Vet Minimum)

BARF. Other than Collison and Ferrell (the Mavs would match that offer in a microsecond), do we know that any of these guys are definitively better options than Ramon? I don’t. Nor would I feel comfortable offering Collison, MCW or Galloway longterm contracts.

If Charlotte is going to upgrade their backup point guard situation it will need to happen via the Draft (Mitchell, Ntilikina or trade up for NC State’s Dennis Smith) or via the trade market. If they can’t find an upgrade via either route, don’t be surprised if Ramon’s option is picked up for next season (No…no…NOOOOO!!!!).

CENTER DEPTH: MILES AHEAD?

The same Hoopshype > Filter/Sort > Vomit experiment can shed some light on the confusing Plumlee trade as well. Have a look at the following MLE or below centers available this summer:

BASELINE FA BIGS: JaMychal Green, Cristiano Felicio, Alex Len.

Some decent intrigue there to be sure. And yeah, maybe one of them would take the midlevel. Here’s the problem, all three are restricted free agents so, aside from maybe Len, the chances of them actually landing on Charlotte’s roster is slim to none. Sure, there’s always a chance the unrestricted big market peters out and someone like Amir Johnson would take $8m a year but sometimes it peters out and you’re left with Roy Hibbert.

Cho*** likely saw the upcoming big crop, looked at the team’s lack of cap flexibility and decided that it was better to give it a go with Miles. I still hate the trade (especially with Plumlee’s subsequent calf strain and knee surgery) but at least this shows that there was some thought process behind it however flawed.

SECOND LOTTERY WINGS

If the Hornets do use their midlevel this July, expect it to be on a wing. Once you calculate year to year raises, the new, full MLE will be around 4yrs, $37m. Hardly the sort of windfall guys like Allen Crabbe saw last year but with the cap plateauing, it’s feasible that a decent young veteran could lock in to this type of deal.

BASELINE FA WINGS: Ben McLemore (Restricted), Ian Clark (Unrestricted), Shabazz Muhammad (Restricted)****

The above list is essentially a “Second Draft” – young vets coming off rookie contracts who may have some untapped potential to mine. Clark has had some big scoring games with the Warriors but did not receive a qualifying offer from Golden State and one wonders whether or not his limited success was due to the organization or the player (AKA The Ezeli Effect).

McLemore has long been rumored as a potential Hornet trade target and it’s doubtful the Kings would be motivated to bring him back now that Buddy Hield has become their single building block of note.

Of the three, I like Muhammad the best. While he’s nothing like a lockdown defender, he’s strong enough to make big wings work and could offer Charlotte a valuable scoring presence off the bench (think Rudy Gay or a wing version of Big Al). Shabazz is still just 24 and the Wolves upcoming salary situation point to them not matching any offer sheet.

If the team decides to go with a more established wing via the MLE, I could see guys like Thabo Sefolosha or CJ Miles getting a call from the 704.

POTENTIAL TRADE SCENARIOS

Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. Longtime readers will know that Bobcats Baseline Fake Trades used to be a near monthly fetish of mine. Lemme shake off the rust and see if I still got any game left…

Miles Plumlee for Brandon Knight

The first of three “Dump Plumlee” scenarios, this one exchanging one crappy contract with another. Charlotte looks at the Draft and decides that they like Collins, Anigbogu or either of the wings more than the PGs.

Knight is still just 26 and could turn it around under Cliff. If Phoenix decides to let Alex Len walk, Plumlee’s second tour in the Valley of the Sun could fill a need behind the aging Tyson Chandler and shed some cash off the Suns’ books in each of the next three seasons.

Miles Plumlee, Jeremy Lamb + Protected 2018 First Rounder for Brook Lopez

Not sure if you’ve heard but the Nets are really bad and don’t have any Draft picks. Getting a Top 10 Protected 1st for Brook (who has just one more year left on his contract) would seem like a decent value at this point for the former All-Star center.

There are risks: Lopez turns 30 next April and foot injuries cost him a couple of seasons earlier in his career. His next contract is certain to be pricey.

But the trade could also work out wonderfully. Charlotte has long needed a second primary scorer to pair with Kemba and Brook has transformed himself into a three zone threat. Lopez connected on 134 three pointers this past season and his stroke passes the eye test.

A Lopez/Zeller platoon would give Clifford a ton of flexibility and variety at the five. If the Hornets are committed to being good now (more on this later), then making this type of splash could be their best bet.

Miles Plumlee + Protected 2018 First Rounder for Jeremy Lin

Don’t like Lopez? Miss J-Lin? Why not?

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for Courtney Lee

Let’s bring the band back together! Hell, if Josh McRoberts declines his player option maybe we can… (OK, I’m just trolling now)

MKG’S TRADE VALUE

Let’s take a break from the fake trades for a moment and focus on The MKG Situation. I’ll say this first, I have no idea what Kidd-Gilchrist’s value is – either to the Hornets or to the rest of the league. A wing who can’t (and won’t) stretch the floor in the modern NBA is offensive kryptonite. That kind of player has to be so special that you’d be willing to shoehorn an entire roster around them and MKG is no superstar.

He’s never lived up to the lockdown defender reputation he had out of Kentucky and the progress he made with his stroke under former assistant coach Mark Price has mostly regressed. Kidd-Gilchrist’s skillset is more suited for power forward in the modern game but his frame doesn’t seem like the kind that could put on the required mass to take a beating every night. Five seasons into his career, MKG is rarely on the floor to close games due to his offensive limitations.

All that said, we’re talking about a guy who doesn’t turn 24 until September (yeah, that freaks me out too). A player who is likely a top three rebounder at his position in the league. A player whose intangibles remain off the charts. And a player who is 1/5th of that very good starting five.

Who knows? Maybe MKG is a late bloomer? Gerald Wallace was well into his mid-twenties before he learned how to shoot threes. That’s the rosy scenario. Or maybe MKG is Jeff Green, a well-liked, talented Lotto pick who is destined to never find his place in the modern pro game.

Ok, one more fake trade and then we’ll wrap.

Frank Kaminsky + Jeremy Lamb for Jahlil Okafor

A 2015 Draft do-over. The Sixers need to surround Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with shooting and the Hornets need volume scoring off the bench.

Having engineered a Top 10 defense around Big Al for three years, Steve Clifford could work his magic and turn Okafor’s career around in the process. Charlotte would also shave off around $4.3 million in salary in this scenario.

ORGANIZING AN ORGANIZATION

Given everything above, let’s outline a few potential depth charts to start next season:

HORNETS POTENTIAL DEPTH CHART A (Draft Point Guard)

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Briante Weber, Frank Ntilikina (or Donovan Mitchell)
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Shabazz Muhammad
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee

HORNETS POTENTIAL DEPTH CHART B (Draft Center)

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Briante Weber
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Shabazz Muhammad
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Zach Collins (or Ike Anigbogu)

HORNETS POTENTIAL DEPTH CHART C (Draft Wing)

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Darren Collison, Briante Weber
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Luke Kennard (or Justin Jackson)
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee

If Charlotte trades for a center (Lopez or Okafor), Depth Charts A and C stay mostly the same with Cody sliding back to the second unit for Brook and starting over Jahlil.

I can see the tweets now: “that roster ain’t gonna win sh$t, Cavs gonna destroy Bobcats HAHA MJ IS TRASH!!!”

Yes. There is little chance that this collection of talent will challenge the Warriors or Cavs – which places them in the exact situation as 27 other teams.

In the meantime, it would be an amazing feat for the organization to win 50 games and win a round in the Playoffs. Keep in mind that the Queen City hasn’t experienced such things in over fifteen years.

Look at the Wizards. They rose, they fell, then they put it back together and nearly made the Conference Finals for the first time since the 1970’s. DC fans were energized. A long dormant fanbase was given reason to care again. Same goes for the Raptors. Just because you don’t have a superteam chocked full of Hall of Famers doesn’t mean there are no rewards for trying.

Seeing it Through, Building a Foundation

The Hornets made a commitment to Relevancy over a half decade ago and they need to see this through. Get to 50 Wins, Win a Playoff Round, try and make a Conference Finals.

These are giant steps for a once dysfunctional organization incapable of even sniffing respectability. Cho, Cliff and MJ haven’t been perfect in their tenures but collectively, they’ve made the best moves this franchise has experienced in ages. See it through, gentlemen.

–ASChin
@baselinebuzz

*and a little used journeyman backup PG named Shaun Livingston
**yeah, right
***I would be surprised if the Miles trade originated as Cho’s idea
****I’m omitting guys like Jonathan Simmons and Tony Snell from this list because they are RFAs whose teams would likely match an MLE offersheet the instant it was signed

BACK TO TOP

Bonus Geisinger: Just How Good Were Charlotte’s Starting Five?

For lineups with 300+ minutes, the Hornets starters were No. 10 in Net Rating according to NBA.com. But if I set the minimum number to 400 minutes, the starters jump to No. 8. It’s top 5 in terms of net rating for lineups with 500+ mins, too.

Of 500+ mins, the only NBA lineups better than Charlotte’s Starting Five are Golden State, the Clippers, Houston and Washington. Which is why it was such a bummer when Cody Zeller was out and the bench dipped. The Starting 5 allowed 100.7 points per 100, which would rate as the No. 1 team defense in the NBA (Spurs were No.1 — 100.9).

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.

stephjersey

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.

stephasgdell-insertnfl-carolina-panthers

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