Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part Three


Part III: The Draft

Yes, my friends, it is that time of year again. The time in which desperate Queen City hoops fans project their hopes and dreams upon a young man who is legally unable to purchase a beer. The 2015 Draft marks the tenth Lottery in the past eleven Charlotte NBA seasons. None of which has yet to produce a single All-Star selection for the franchise. Yikes.
Not all is doom and gloom however. For the first time in ages, the Hornets actually have a few decent prospects and quality veterans on the roster to build around. The immediate expectations for this year’s Lottery pick will be measured and in line with the team’s win-now philosophy.

The Rules of the Game:

  1. I’m assuming the Hornets neither trade up nor trade down, so will ignore the Draft’s consensus Top 7 Players (Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Kristaps Porzingis, Emmanuel Mudiay, Justise Winslow and Mario Hezonja) and any of the other late round prospects the team has worked out or have been linked to (Jerian Grant, R.J. Hunter, Sam Dekker)
  2. I’m assuming the Hornets will keep the pick. For the first time in the Rich Cho Era, the team has made it clear that they will entertain trade offers for their draft selection. Al Jefferson is in his prime and Kemba Walker is entering his. Bringing in a young-ish vet to complement those two makes sense.


My favorite trade idea: Sending Lance Stephenson Marvin Williams (later, Lance!) and the 9 Pick to Portland for Nic Batum. After losing Josh McRoberts last summer the team desperately needs another halfcourt connector and Batum fits the bill. Nic’s averaged 4.9 assists per game in his past three seasons and adds another three point threat (36% career 3PT average) to the mix.

Having a connector like a Batum (or a McRoberts, Boris Diaw or Gordon Hayward) takes the playmaking onus off of Walker’s shoulders and allows Kemba to function as a scorer. Batum is both young enough (26) and experienced enough (seven NBA seasons) to contribute now and grow with the team into the future.

Slotting Nic into the SF slot and moving MKG to the other wing slot (ala Tony Allen in Memphis) gives the Hornets a tremendously long and athletic wing combo that could make up for Kemba and Al’s defensive short-comings. Add in the Cody Zeller/Noah Vonleh stretch four platoon at PF and this could be a VERY good team in the East next season.


If the Hornets do indeed stand pat at nine, they’ll have plenty of options to consider.

Willie Cauley-Stein, C | Kentucky

WHAT TO LIKE: NBA-ready defensive anchor armed with the shot-blocking, rebounding and post defense skills to contribute right away. Super mobile big man who runs the court like a wing. Potentially excellent in transition. Unlike some offensively limited centers *COUGH*BIZ*COUGH*, WCS projects as a nice rim diver and scorer off the pick and roll.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE: Outside of dunks and putbacks, there are no real expectations for Stein’s offensive game. To paraphrase the great philosopher John Fox, “he is what he is”.

UPSIDE COMP: Tyson Chandler

DOWNSIDE COMP: Sam Dalembert

HOW HE FITS: Of all of the players profiled in this post, Cauley-Stein is the least likely to be available when Charlotte picks at nine. He’s a can’t-miss defensive anchor who may still have a little offensive upside left. The Hornets can take him, wave goodbye to Biyombo in free-agency and have a rotation-ready backup center on a cheap four year contract who could potentially start if Big Al leaves in free agency next summer.

Stanley Johnson, SF | Arizona

WHAT TO LIKE: At 6’5”, 245 pounds, Stanley Johnson is a bonafide “hoss-cat”(©Jim Ross Productions). Outside of Paul Pierce, Ron Artest and Lebron James, I can’t remember a wing player with a lower body like SJ’s. You can absolutely see Johnson punishing wings with backdowns and drives to the hoop. His jumpshot looks good and is improving. He is tenacious on defense and regularly blows up passing lanes with his quickness.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE: That large base makes Johnson a very gravity-challenged player. You never see him going strong over the top. Despite being 6’5” plus, he relies on floaters and fadeaways down low. He’s going to get his shot blocked a lot. Stanley’s entire career is going to be dependent on his jumper – which, at the moment – is firmly “decent”. If he can be a knockdown shooter, Johnson could be a version of Pierce. If he doesn’t, he may be out of the league in five years.

UPSIDE COMP: Ron Artest, (mini) Paul Pierce

DOWNSIDE COMP: Ryan Gomes, post-back surgery Larry Johnson

HOW HE FITS: SJ, unfortunately, doesn’t project into a such a dominating player that he’s worth ignoring all of the team’s needs over. His defense is good enough to put him in Steve Clifford’s rotation immediately but a lack of distance shooting could shrink the court even more for the league’s worst three point shooting team. The offseason goal for the Hornets should be to create more space, not less. SJ could actually struggle more with the Hornets roster than with others.

Devin Booker, SG | Kentucky

WHAT TO LIKE: Smart and unselfish, Booker is one of, if not THE best shooter in this Draft. At 18 years old, he’s also the youngest player in the 2015 class. Booker shot 41% from three and 52% overall in his single season at Kentucky, which fits an obvious on-court need for Charlotte. The thought of Booker working off screens to bust double teams and zones likely brings tears of joy to Steve Clifford’s eyes and it’s no wonder Clifford took special interest in Booker during Devin’s workout with the team last week.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE: If the Hornets are going to build around Kemba Walker as their point guard, they’ll need a strong defensive SG to pair with him. Booker’s ability to stay in front of collegiate players is already in question. Holding his own versus NBA stars will be Booker’s ultimate test. Unfortunately, it won’t be his only one. Devin’s ability to attack and finish off the dribble are still very much works in progress and his inability as a rebounder already sticks out on the tape like a sore thumb.

UPSIDE COMP: Klay Thompson, JJ Redick

DOWNSIDE COMP: Austin Daye, Reggie Bullock

HOW HE FITS: Booker won’t start right away but within one or two seasons, he could be a key piece in the MKG/Vonleh/Cody/Kemba future Hornets core – IF he can improve enough defensively to stay on the floor.

Kelly Oubre, SF | Kansas

WHAT TO LIKE: Squint and he’s the best wing prospect in the Draft. Oubre is the perfect combination of length (7’2” wingspan), frame, athleticism and upside. His shooting form is unorthodox but still good enough to nail 37% of his collegiate threes. Defensively, Oubre has the physical tools to be nightmare matchup for opposing wings.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE: Every aspect of Oubre’s game screams “potential” for a reason – he’s not even close to being ready and there are no guarantees he will be. Any team drafting Oubre will need to develop him over a couple of seasons – refining his jumpshot and reiterating fundamentals of the game.

UPSIDE COMP: Paul George


HOW HE FITS: If any NBA team has experience developing uber-raw projects, it’s Charlotte. Rich Cho loves guys with Oubre’s upside and, if developed patiently and properly, Kelly could be a star wing. The question is whether the organization is at a point where they want to undertake yet another one of these projects.

Cameron Payne, PG | Murray State

WHAT TO LIKE: Pick and roll maestro and a clutch scorer who really pushes the pace. Gets teammates involved in a big way. Good size (6’2”, 6’7” wingspan) and frame for the position.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE: Projects as a poor defender and an iffy finisher around the rim – a BIG no-no for modern NBA point guards.

UPSIDE COMP: Jamaal Crawford, Jeff Teague(lite)

DOWNSIDE COMP: Darren Collison

HOW HE FITS: I like Payne a lot. The question is really how big of an upgrade is Payne over Kemba Walker? Should the team be figuring out a way to get the most out of their $48m man and current starter OR already be looking to go in another direction?

The Bobcats had this terrible habit of drafting a Lottery point guard just at the moment their current one seemed to figuring things out. Raymond Felton had D.J. Augustin in his rearview mirror. Augustin had Kemba. Since the franchise has struggled with consistency over the past decade, I’m betting (hoping) the Hornets will pass on Payne and instead use the pick as an asset to help Walker succeed.

Myles Turner, C | Texas

WHAT TO LIKE: Turner brings big-time rim protection (2.6 blocks per game as a freshmen), is a solid rebounder with good fundamentals, has NBA 3PT range and is a very good free throw shooter for his position (84%).

WHAT NOT TO LIKE: Myles’s post game is very basic. He does have a nice little Kevin Garnett style flash into the post and turnaround but nothing close to resembling a Big Al-type game. Gets tunnel vision and rarely passes. Has questionable lower body strength that will hamper Turner’s ability to dominate the boards in the pros like he did at Texas. Suffers from something called a “glut deficiency” that is the cause for his unorthodox gait. According to DraftExpress, doctors have said this deficiency can be corrected over time. Overall, Turner is offensively raw outside of a jumper. As we’ve seen with wings like Klay Thompson, a standout jumper – especially at the five position – can buy a player both time and leeway.

UPSIDE COMP: Channing Frye, Pero Antic, Serge Ibaka

DOWNSIDE COMP: any number of failed Euro bigs, skinny bigs and project bigs

HOW HE FITS: This is where it gets fun. Let’s say the Hornets are one hundred percent committed to building around MKG and Kemba Walker longterm. In many ways, Turner posesses the exact skillset you’d want to balance out both of their weaknesses. Myles clears the paint on the offensive end for drives and post-ups and offers the team a much needed spot up shooting presence on the perimeter. On the defensive side, Turner projects as a top tier rim protector who could make bigger point guards think twice once passing Kemba. There are some question marks, sure, but I really like the fit – IF he works out. Myles is a MAJOR gamble but that’s never stopped Rich Cho before.


Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part Two


The Lottery is over and we now know the Hornets will own (or at least temporarily own) the ninth overall selection in a very solid 2015 Draft. But before I jump into what the Hornets should do with that pick, we need to do a little free agent housekeeping.

Part II: The Free Agents – Will They Stay or Will They Go?

The Hornets have just about every type of free agent on the roster and each of these players will influence the team’s strategy heading into June’s Draft and beyond.

Unrestricted Free Agents:

These are the straight-forward, vanilla variety free agents. Guys who played for Charlotte last season and whose contracts runs out in July.

  • Mo Williams
  • Jason Maxiell

The big questions start with Mo Williams – professional NBA journeyman – who joined the Hornets midseason (his seventh team in fourteen eleven seasons) and kept them competitive once Kemba Walker went down with a knee injury. Even after Mo cooled off late in the season, Williams’ shooting and pick and roll/pop abilities were real assets on a team lacking both.

In many ways, Mo’s game represents Kemba Walker’s best case scenario long-term: an above average, volume scoring point with enough distribution skills to run a team alongside a point-forward. It’s no coincidence that Mo’s best season came playing next to Lebron on the ‘09 Cavs.

Williams has close ties to fellow Mississipian Al Jefferson and has gone on record saying that he’d love to be back – but will the Hornets bring him back? Money shouldn’t be an issue – Williams will be 33 next season and is far from a franchise cornerstone. Anything around $3m per is reasonable. There are a couple of issues however:

  1. Charlotte already has $2.8m committed to fellow backup PG Brian Roberts next season and
  2. may decide to move on from yet another head-down iso player.

In fairness to Mo, he’s the least ball “poundy” of the Lance/Gerald/Kemba/Big Al crew – but if the front office decides to go in another direction with their lead guards either in free agency, trades or the draft (Cameron Payne?) – Mo may be the odd man out. That said, my gut tells me Mo wears teal again next season; Roberts’ contract is easily movable and the Hornets will likely end up drafting a wing.

As much as Coach Steve Clifford enjoyed Maxiell’s veteran presence last season as the rotation’s fourth big, there would be a guaranteed fan mutiny if Jason is brought back – simply because his mere presence would tempt Clifford to play him over Noah Vonleh. The front office, who’ve invested heavily in Noah, likely feels the same.

Potential Free Agents:

The Hornets have two veteran starters with player options for next season: opt-in and these guys play out their final contract year as Hornets, opt-out and they either re-sign new deals with the team or move on.

  • Al Jefferson
  • Gerald Henderson

How quickly things change. A year ago, Big Al Jefferson was a third team All-NBA center and a franchise building block who led Charlotte to its first winning season and Playoff birth in ages. But Al never fully recovered from the effects of the plantar fascia injury he suffered in last year’s sweep against the Heat. He arrived at camp out of shape and it all went downhill from there.

It wasn’t exclusively Big Al’s fault. Josh McRoberts’ departure created all kinds of spacing and post entry problems. Jefferson struggled to stay upright and effective all season and you could literally see it on his face. The guy was legitimately scowling and grimacing for 65 games – sometimes out of pain, sometimes at his own teammates. With little shooting or ball movement in the halfcourt, opposing defenses keyed in on Al knowing that he was Charlotte’s only legitimate weapon. It worked.

Jefferson has gone on record saying that he’ll opt-in and play the free agency game again when the cap skyrockets in 2016. That’s good news as it’ll be even more motivation for the 30 year old to drop some weight before November. If he does, we could see the return of the franchise cornerstone. If not, happy trails.

Hendo had the quintessential Gerald Henderson season: he played hard on D, he hit lots of mid-range jumpers, he made great cuts and threw down some ridiculous dunks. He also showcased a much more frequent corner three (the release is slowish and he doesn’t take enough of them but it’s still great to see). He’s always been a professional. The team had him riding the pine behind Lance Stephenson for nearly two months and Hendo said nary a word. He’s a lunch pail two guard who is sorely under-appreciated by the local fanbase – mainly because his weaknesses (distance shooting, ball-handling, head-down iso drives/post-ups) have also been the team’s.

Gerald turns 28 next season and his game is HIGHLY dependent on his athleticism. While other types of players his age could choose to wait for a bigger pay day in 2016, Hendo may survey the scene, see a weak free agent class and say, “screw it.” Wes Matthews’ unfortunate injury literally cost him tens of millions of dollars this summer. Gerald has always been both smart and practical. I could see him opting out and signing a nice sized deal with the Clippers, Knicks or Lakers.

Doing so would free up around $6 million for the Hornets to play with. That by itself won’t buy much – but if the Hornets combine the number with, say, a strategic cut (COUGH*LANCE*COUGH) – they may have just enough cash to offer a proper “3&D” shooting guard real money on the open market.

Restricted Free Agents:

These are guys coming off the last year of their rookie deals. They are free to negotiate with any team and Charlotte has the right to match any offer.

  • Bismack Biyombo
  • Jeff Taylor

Let’s start with Taylor – and oh man, where do we start? JT is like a TV pro hoops character come to life. Meaning, he LOOKS like the prototypical NBA player but he’s not really all that good in real life. There’s lots of drama though. Tragedy in the form of his ill-timed achilles tear in 2014 and scandal in the form of his weird Detroit-based domestic violence incident that (thankfully) turned out to be more stupid than violent.

Aside from being a very solid on-ball defender, there’s really nothing to recommend here. Taylor was billed as a 3&D guy coming out of Vanderbilt but his shooting numbers (32% from 3PT, 41% from 2PT) are Kemba-like. JT turns 26 next month and we still have no idea how his game will transition post-achilles long term. His $1.2m qualifying offer is basically league minimum and I could see Charlotte picking it up to give him one last shot at putting everything together. I could also see the team moving on from a fringe rotation player who made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The real fun starts with Biz. Want to start an internet flame war? Get stat-geeks and casual fans talking about Biyombo’s merits as an NBA player. I understand both sides. The naked eye suggests that Biz should be nowhere near a professional basketball game. Four years into his career and he still has no idea what to do with the ball on offense unless it’s a dive to the rim for a dunk or an uncontested putback.

Biyombo will force moves in the post that will make you laugh/cry/laugh with regularity. These forced moves are universally proceeded by an offensive rebound because there’s no way in hell a teammate is going to feed Biz with a post look; thus beginning a viscious cycle (“this is my only chance to show people my stuff!!! I don’t care if Dwight Howard is standing right over me!!!”).

The real hoops smarties out there like Grantland’s Zach Lowe, At The Hive’s Frank Berndt/Bryan Mears and the Baseline’s own Bradford Coombs can paint Biz’s positives way better than I can. All I’ll say is that defensively, Biz is a legitimate game changer. He’s strong. He goes hard and he covers a ridiculous amount of territory for a center. Most importantly, he makes the paint a less friendly place for opponents. I don’t know if Biz will ever make the rotation of a legitimately good team but it could be possible in the right role.

Speaking of which, unless the Hornets draft another center (Frank Kaminsky, Myles Turner, Willy Trilly Cauliflower Wonka), I’m fairly confident that they aim to bring Biz back on a second deal. That could change if another team jumps in with a real offer. There will be teams with rim protection problems that lose out on DeAndre Jordan in free agency. And if Roy Hibbert stays in Indy, a metrics-savvy, ballsy exec may say “screw it” and hand Biz $25-30 million. To the casual fan, this sounds crazy – I know. But getting a guy who can make up for the Damian Lillards’ and the Monta Ellis’s of the world is a real thing nowadays. Biz may end up getting paid.

State of the Roster

Making the proceeding free agent moves (and unloading Brian Roberts’ contract) would leave the Hornets with 11 filled roster spots minus any draft picks.

  • Point Guards: Kemba Walker, Mo Williams
  • Shooting Guards: Lance Stephenson, P.J. Hairston, Troy Daniels
  • Small Forwards: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams
  • Power Forwards: Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh
  • Centers: Al Jefferson, Bismack Biyombo

There’s an obvious hole at the wings – which is why it’s the position the team is most likely to fill via June’s Draft and/or via run at shooter in free agency. More on those options coming up in Part III…


Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part One


Open browser > Navigate to DraftExpress > Talk myself into prospects. Oh my. Oh dear. How did this happen again? Is it real? How did the Hornets rebrand season – once so full of promise – nosedive into a Bobcats-worthy dumpster of lethargy and chaos?

So many things had to go wrong for Charlotte to miss the 2015 Playoffs. Injuries were a legitimate problem but the roster construction did plenty of damage before the neo-Hornets ever stepped onto their honeycombed court. Seriously, has a prized free agent ever tanked as mightily as Lance Stephenson? It happens in the NFL all the time (Sean Gilbert, Albert Haynesworth) but in the NBA, a dramatic fall like “Born Ready’s” is nearly unheard of. And how could a seemingly minor roster move like replacing Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams prove so tone deaf in retrospect? How did a coaching staff once so promising completely lose the players’ focus when it mattered most?

If we learned anything this season, it’s that successful NBA franchises function as unified organisms. They embody singular visions of HOW WE ARE GOING TO WIN which is ultimately manifested on the court. The coach, the GM, the scouts, ownership and the roster are all on the same page; all focused on the same goal. The Spurs are the obvious example of this kind of vertically integrated masterplan – but so are the Hawks (Spurs wannabes), the Grizzlies (finally rid of the curmudgeon Lionel Hollins), the Warriors (perfect front office/coach/roster combination), the Rockets (superstars, superstars, superstars) and the Clippers (GM/Coach = same dude). The Bucks are on their own unified, distinct path and could very well rule the East over the next half decade.

When I look at the Hornets I see a fractured blueprint from roster to ownership; a team that hasn’t committed to one direction. A team that’s trying to be good now while also trying to develop (very) raw talent. An ownership group that staffs up one of the league’s largest analytics teams and then proceeds to place a few of the chairman’s relatives into key positions. A front office that (rightly) attempts to mine the draft for superstars in the rough and then signs Win-Now veteran free agents to hog all of their precious developmental minutes. A coach who preaches players’ untapped potential and versatility and then stifles any display of it with an ultra-conservative offense from decades past.

To be clear, I still believe that Michael Jordan, Rich Cho and Steve Clifford have the potential to build a perennial winner in Charlotte. These are high-level, smart and experienced people. MJ wants to win and has spent the cash to make it happen. Cho skates to where the puck’s going. Clifford is respected by his players and his peers. And in order to succeed, they’ll need to get on the same page and answer some very tough questions about the franchise’s future.


Starting in July, Kemba Walker goes from being a nice young player on a rookie deal to a guy in his mid-twenties making $12m per season. And yes, I know the cap is rising and that $12m won’t be AS painful two seasons from now. Still, the fact that we’re even talking about it potentially being a problem is a problem.
If you were the most casual of casual Hornets fans you would be forgiven in believing that Kemba is the team’s best player. Google “Hornets highlights” and one of his step-back, crunch-time jumpers will inevitably flash before your eyes. By virtue of UConn’s storied 2011 Final Four run, Walker is perhaps the most recognizable name on the roster outside of Lance and his size and character are ready-made fan favorite qualities. Indeed, there are games when Kemba is the Hornets best player – he’ll single-handily swing games by hitting tough shot after tough shot while his teammates cheer even louder than the fans.
And then there are the other games. The ones the casual fans either don’t see or don’t want to admit to seeing.

Antithetical Prototypes

The QC’s own Steph Curry just won the MVP of the league. He did this by distilling his game into the perfect modern, post-D’Antoni Point Guard. A lead ball handler who can devastate defenses off the pick, Steph dares you to go over OR under. On the ball or off, Curry panics defenses at every turn. He’s an exquisite shooter with fantastic court vision and surprisingly good handles. Like Steve Nash before him, Steph forces you to pick your poison – and they’re all deadly.

Let’s contrast this with Walker. If you’re an opposing defense, does Kemba terrify you at the point of attack? Hardly.
Walker is statistically a very below average shooter (he’s at 39% from the field for his career, 31% from three) and lacks above-average rim-finishing skills or court vision (his per 36 and per 100 possession assists dipped even further last year) to make up for it. Most alarming: despite his shooting limitations Walker is often stricken by what hoops optometrists refer to as “tunnel vision”. Squint and you’ll almost see Allen Iverson out there running a one man show. Squint a little more and you’ll realize that it’s the Detroit version of AI.
And even if Kemba was the second coming of peak-Iverson, would you want that sort of player leading a team in 2015? The modern NBA is all about ball movement and disruption. Never allow a defense to get comfortable; attack them anywhere and everywhere. Give Doc Rivers credit, he’s let Chris Paul and Blake Griffin improvise for much of the Playoffs and it’s worked wonders keeping elite defenses on their heels.
With Kemba, an opponent requires only one strategy: let him shoot it. So what if he gets hot? At sub-40% shooting you’ll live with that choice – and, better yet, a suddenly hot, myopic Walker negates any need to waste intellect or energy defending much easier buckets from open teammates. Yes, Kemba is fast and can penetrate with the best of them. Again, so what? If he’s unable to hit guys with easy looks underneath or finish at a higher than average rate, let him have it. A seven game series is a law of averages and eventually Kemba’s averages will win (or lose) out.

Repair or Replace?

Previous issues aside, if the Hornets are intent on moving forward with Kemba as their starting point guard, there is a way to make it work.
During the season that earned Kemba his $48 million extension (the Bobcats finale) Walker thrived due to the simple fact that he didn’t really have to play point. The team had Josh McRoberts to handle the rock in the half court, to stretch the defense, to shift opponents with crafty dribble post-ups across the paint, to notch hockey assists. Cho attempted to find a younger, similar player to team with Kemba longterm but the Jazz matched the Hornets’ max-contract offer to Gordon Hayward. McRoberts subsequently took his talents to South Beach* after the team de-prioritized him and the Hornets’ offense fell apart. (*credit Pat Riley for completely disrupting an up and coming division rival for the low cost of the mid-level exception. Riles proves once again that he is as ruthless and brilliant as his old pal Gordon Gecko.)

Here’s the issue going forward: Outside of McRoberts, Hayward, Boris Diaw, James Harden and a few others, there simply aren’t many other non-point guards who can run a team. Cody Zeller may eventually develop into a lite-version of that player in time with any luck but the Hornets need more than hope and they need it soon. Finding the perfect roster mate who can compensate for Kemba’s weaknesses will be difficult AND – here’s the big AND – even if Charlotte does find that guy, they have to make certain that peak-Kemba is worth constructing your entire roster around. If the answer to that mega-question is “no” then the team will need to explore other options:

Option 1: Crawford, Jamal Crawford.

When the cap rises to $80 million plus, Kemba’s $12m per deal could be palatable for a sixth man. The team could then limit Walker to a single developmental objective going forward: take better shots and make them, forgoing all other point guard related tasks. Sixth Man Kemba does one thing and one thing only, put the ball in the basket when the rest of the team can’t. The entire second unit is his to dominate (Hey, it’ll be like old times in 2011!) and Walker finishes games next to a bigger point guard in crunch time (#Pray4Mudiay or #Don’tHustle4Russell).

Option 2: Trader Cho.

The team packages Kemba with an asset in order to both A.) clear $48m from the payroll and B.) upgrade the position. Ty Lawson is the obvious candidate du jour. Given Cho’s modus operandi when it comes to asset management, I’d put the chances of this sort of deal at less than 25%. That said, the team should at least consider it because a point guard who can’t get other guys involved risks DEVALUING all of your assets. Bismack Biyombo may be the next Tyson Chandler for all we know. Noah Vonleh could be Kawhi meets Bosh. Doesn’t matter if Starbury 2.0 is playing solo in the halfcourt.

Up Next
Of course, the Kemba Conundrum isn’t the only major issue facing the Hornets this offseason. There’s the matter of Big Al’s waistline, Hendo’s player option, Biyombo’s restricted free agency and Lance – Lance is always a major issue. Those issues and more coming up in Part II.


A Disruptive Force



Big Al Jefferson. He is a plodding, slow-to-react defensive liability. He hesitates to pass out of doubles. His mere presence throws the games’ pace back to the mid–90’s. And he’s by far the Hornets’ most important player.

This is not up for debate. Why? Because the other team actually has to scheme for him. He’s Disruptive with a capital D. There is literally no other player on Charlotte’s roster who inspires this sort of effort from an opponent. As young and promising as some of the Hornets’ prospects are, no player outside of maybe (fingers crossed) Noah Vonleh will ever put this type of pressure on a defense. It’s a simple fact.

Complementary Players Everywhere

We all love Kemba Walker. He’s the definition of gritty & tough but his style of play inspires little fear in the opponent. He can’t consistently kill you in the paint – either on the dish or the drive – and he’s at best a mediocre three point shooter. Walker does most of his damage on iso fall-away two’s and the occasional spotup three. In fact, it’s better for an opponent if he’s hitting those shots because he’ll get tunnel vision. “Please, play the poor man’s Iverson game,” opponents beg. It’s pretty low efficiency stuff and easy to defend. Remember that Gerald Henderson and Kemba ran this type of show together back in 2012–2013 as a “promising young backcourt” that averaged a combined 32.5 points per contest and won 21 games all season.

Opposing teams will live with guys like Kemba, Gerald and Gary Neal going for a team high 28. Keep them outside of the lane and you’re good. None of the Hornets’ complementary scorers are exceptional three point shooters and none of them can force their ways to the bucket. Rudimentary pro defense can stop that. But a healthy, engaged Big Al is dangerous. He will get your bigs in foul trouble with pumps and fakes on the low block. He will command double teams. He will hit sixty percent of his shots from the low block. If he goes for 30, the Hornets have a legitimate shot of beating a good team. Opponents have to stop him.

Disruptors Disrupt

Big Al is a prime example of why this league is all about Disruptors: Guys who do things opposing defenses don’t want or aren’t prepared for them to do. There are many Disruptors out there and most of them are superstars: Lebron, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker. But there’s also guys like Kyle Lowry, Big Al and Kyle Korver. Players who specialize in dominating either of the two zones modern NBA defenses are setup to protect at all costs: the rim and the three point arc. Check out the following shot charts:

BigAlSC14 HardenSC KorverSC LowrySC

Now check out Kemba and Gerald:

GeraldSC KembaSC

Sure, Gerald hits a high percentage once he actually gets inside but because he can’t shoot, the defense sags off and prevents the push into the lane. Same goes for Kemba’s poor numbers. Even with his improved three point percentage in December, teams are hardly running Walker off the line. And once Kemba gets into the paint, a good defensive opponent will live with sub-50% finishing at the rim. The ugly truth is that none of the Hornets secondary “threats” are worth losing sleep over defensively.

Build Around the Disruptor

Both Atlanta and Toronto have played it smart. Even though their Disruptors are minor stars, they’ve built entire systems and rosters around maximizing their Disruptors’ advantages. Atlanta has emphasized crazy offensive rotations and ball movement to free up all of the other shooters around Korver. The Hawks have added size, length and toughness inside, at the wing and at the point of attack to neutralize Korver’s average abilities at the other end. Lowry is a bowling ball that wreaks havoc in the paint and he’s upgraded his ability to find shooters on the dish. The Raps have also surrounded Lowry with long, organized defenders and big, rangy backcourt mates who’ve now been together as a group for nearly three seasons.

If the Hornets are going to build around Big Al’s Disruptive force, they’ll need to go back to the three keys that made his game so effective last season:

  1. Get Al quality looks. Find ball-movers and passers either at the four or on the perimeter who can shift the defense and get Al easy entry looks. Josh McRoberts worked that very role to perfection last season and the Hornets ended up replacing him with a spot-up defensive-liability (Marvin Williams) and a ball-dominant iso player who can’t shoot (Lance Stephenson). With those moves, the Hornets’ front office literally did what few teams could do last season: completely neutralize Big Al.
  2. Give Al space to work. If the entire defense is focused on both stopping Big Al in the paint AND stopping any Charlotte defender from getting into the lane – guess where the entire defense is going to be hanging? You guessed it. McRoberts brought deep shooting that the new starting PF, Cody Zeller, doesn’t have. Lance, Gerald and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scare NO ONE from deep. Gary Neal, Kemba, Brian Roberts and Marvin either take too long to shoot or are so inconsistent that you’ll live with giving them open looks. P.J. Hairston is the team’s only hope as a pure shooter and he’s currently hitting 29% from downtown. The Hornets’ front office has done a tremendously poor job at opening up space for Al to work with. Names like Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow and Evan Fournier were out on the market last summer and Charlotte either passed or didn’t get involved. That can’t happen in today’s modern NBA – Big Al or no. One can only imagine how much wing shooting would improve Kemba’s drive and dish game going forward.
  3. Give Al a frontcourt mate who can defend. Cody gets pushed around regularly. Vonleh isn’t ready. Marvin is a liability. McRoberts played big last season and helped erase some of Jefferson’s defensive shortcomings. The front office needs to find a stout defensive presence at PF who can complement Big Al – at least until Vonleh is ready. They had one and let him walk.

Building Around Big Al is Dumb (Wait, Wha-?!)

This is the point where you say “Al Jefferson is old and is limited, why build around a guy like that?” First of all, he just turned 30. Second, he’s logged under 23,000 career minutes. Keep in mind that Lebron is the same age and just crossed 40,000 (which doesn’t include stints playing for Team USA).

More importantly, if the Hornets don’t build around Jefferson, who will they build around? Kemba? We’ve already covered that topic. He’s at best a complementary semi-star. MKG? Again, a nice glue guy but he’ll never force an oppenent to alter their scheme. Cody? Too passive and is a terrible finisher at the rim. Complementary role player.

Outside of Big Al, the Hornets have exactly three shots at finding another Disruptor over the foreseeable future:

  1. Win this season’s Lottery and select Jahlil Okafor. It may take another three seasons but he projects as a major Disruptive force in the middle.
  2. Vonleh realizes his potential. He’s a 6’9”–6’10” PF with a strong lower body, crazy wingspan and giant hands who handles the ball like a small forward and has a natural three point stroke. He’s also 19 and has at least another season and half to go before he’s ready to impact a meaningful NBA game. And there’s always the chance that both Noah and Okafor could bust out of the league entirely – as longtime Charlotte hoops fans know, there are no guarantees with prospects.
  3. Lure a big-name free agent superstar. I’m not talking Lance or even Gordon Hayward. I mean a real deal, legit, functioning NBA superstar. The only one I can imagine taking the Hornets money in the foreseeable future is Steph Curry – and that won’t happen until July of 2017 (if ever at all).


So this is where we are in 2015 with this Hornets team. Like it or not, Charlotte’s fortunes are tied to Big Al. And if they want to take advantage of his prime, they need to get everyone on the same page (coaching, front office and ownership) and do something about it now.



Five and Fifteen


The Problem with Charlotte’s Roster Explained in Six Easy Steps:

1. The team’s biggest offensive threat – BY A COUNTRY MILE – is Big Al Jefferson. How do I know this? Because every time he gets the ball close to his kill spots (low block) the opposing defense bails on the other four guys to collapse on him. They know he’s a legitimate threat to score the ball on every posession. The message is obvious: stop Jefferson and let one of their other guys beat you.

2. The easiest way to punish a defense for triple teaming your best guy is to punish them with open three point shooters. The problem is, as it was last year, Charlotte doesn’t have those types of shooters. Y’know, quick release, dead-eyed long ballers who don’t need to dribble ten times or execute a couple of head fakes before launching a (by now) contested shot.

3. The few guys the Hornets do have who can shoot deep and quick are turnstiles on defense. A lineup of Big Al, Marvin Williams, P.J. Hairston, Gary Neal and Brian Roberts could cure the spacing issues in an instant but then give up a billion points at the other end.

4. After ascending into the league’s Top 10 defenses last season, Steve Clifford’s squad has slipped back into the Bottom 10 thus far this season. The team’s best defensive center, Bismack Biyombo, is barely functional on offense outside of a new-found dive game. The best wing defenders have either been injured (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) or suspended (Jeff Taylor) and while Taylor has shown promise as a ‘three and D’ guy, neither he nor MKG could be mistaken for an offensive terror.

5. The team has major investments – either financial, thru draft status or both – in three other players (Lance Stephenson, Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller) who are neither great long distance threats nor high-end defenders. Kemba is an (at times) very good off the dribble scoring threat who can hit from deep just enough to force the defense to account for him but he’s small, can’t fight over screens and owns an overall shaky jumper. Cody Zeller’s eighteen-footer has come a long way from last season’s abominable percentages. He’s shooting around 40% from outside the paint and the form looks pure. The problem is that the shot is neither fast enough nor far enough to really stretch a defense. Josh McRoberts’ release had a methodical wind-up but the fact that he was several feet back gave Big Al more time and space to make a move. Zeller’s made progress on defense but is still out-muscled down low and struggles on the perimeter guarding stretch fours. And then there’s Lance…

6. Stephenson has been an all around disaster. As a shooter, he’s 7-42 from beyond the arc (16.7%) and 32.7% from outside the paint. Keep in mind that the guy he was supposed to be an upgrade from (Gerald Henderson – never confused with Kyle Korver) has gone 30% and 46% from those same spots. Also, Lance may put up a beefy stat line but most of his rebounds are of the “gimme” variety – defensive boards grabbed out of the hands of a teammate with nary an opponent in sight. “Born Ready’s” 5.4 assists per game come at the price of 2.6 (often egregious and unnecessary) turnovers per and any on-ball defensive benefits are easily out-weighed by his loss of focus off the ball. In short, Lance is good at things the Hornets don’t need and he’s bad at all the things the Hornets do need.

What to do about it

The obvious conclusion is to either trade Lance – who is still young, talented and on a no-risk value contract – OR trade peripheral pieces plus an asset or two (2015 1st Round pick, Noah Vonleh, Zeller) for a two-way, tough-defending three point threats.

The problem is that shooting is extremely valuable in today’s NBA. And guy’s who can make you pay from deep while hounding their man at the other end don’t grow on trees. Take a look at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings: Orlando, Boston, New York, Indiana, Charlotte, Detroit and Philly. Aside from the Knicks and the surprising Magic, every single one of those squads rank in the bottom third of the league’s top distance shooting teams (Charlotte ranks 29th). The entire league is on the lookout for the same guys which explains why Klay Thompson is a max player and why Danny Green may get eight figures per next summer.

This is where Cho’s magical ability to find Bargain Bin Ballers needs to come into play. Finding the next Chris-Douglas Roberts, Anthony Tolliver, McRoberts, etc – is the best way to shore up the team’s weaknesses without mortgaging any of the future. Obviously, the team made a huge mistake not re-signing McRoberts in the first place and while I’d love to see the team make a move to bring him back from Miami, Heat President Pat Riley has absolutely ZERO incentive to empower a division rival. My guess is that they would only trade McRoberts in a package for either Zeller, Vonleh or a first rounder. That’s a tremendously steep price for a guy you could’ve just re-signed five months ago.

The Knicks are a natural landing spot for Lance but what do they have to trade back? Tim Hardaway has a fantastic stroke but would add yet another one-way player to the Hornets’ roster. Iman Shumpert is likely a downgrade from Gerald Henderson. The Nuggets could be convinced of Lance/Arron Afflalo swap. Something like that is the best case scenario if the organization wants to steer clear of the asset carpet-bombing days of Larry Brown and Rod Higgins.

That previous era’s lack of patience and long-term roster construction lies at the heart of the Charlotte’s current crisis: Ensure competitiveness in the re-brand year or take the PR hit today and keeping adding assets. It’s a huge question that doesn’t have an obvious answer. One good, costly trade could elevate the team today and push them into the thick of the East’s Playoff picture come April. The city would buzz and the Hornets would be relevant. But if that kind of trade were to backfire…well, all I can say is Google the phrase “2011 Bobcats”.


Four and Eleven


It’s November 25th and Charlotte’s NBA team is a disastrous 4-11. The rebranded Hornets were supposed to erase the fanbase’s memories of the Bobcats yet the slow, sloppy start has only brought back memories of that franchise’s blunders.

Steve Clifford’s squad has played unfocused, disjointed and undisciplined basketball; last season’s chemistry a distant memory. Can this ship be turned around before it’s too late? Bradford Coombs and I answers some tough questions:

1. The Hornets’ struggles are mostly a result of A.) roster makeup, B.) coaching philosophy, C.) injuries.

Bradford (@bradford_NBA): A fair amount of A and a little bit of B. For a team whose identity is supposed to be defense, the pieces aren’t a perfect fit. A single rim protector can cover up a lot of mistakes. MKG is the best defender on the team and missing him hurts. He can cover up some mistakes, but a wing defender’s impact isn’t nearly on the level an individual rim protector. McRoberts was a solid team defender that was willing to mix it up. The Hornets are 7 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Williams on the court. By comparison, McBobs was a -3. That’s a pretty big difference. The real problem is that Williams also has a negative impact on the offense while McRoberts had a decidedly positive impact. Clifford is being patient with moving Cody into the starting lineup, but the numbers and the tape speak for themselves. It shouldn’t be too much longer.

ASChin (@BaselineBuzz): I’ll cut Clifford some slack and say it’s 70% A and 30% B. MKG’s the team’s best defender by a mile and his absence has turned a once proud Charlotte defense into one of the league’s bottom third. Opponents are shooting nearly 47% against the Hornets and the team’s 18th overall ranking in points against belies Charlotte’s slow pace. Yet MKG’s absence wouldn’t hurt nearly as much on another team. Big Al and Marvin might be the worst defending 4/5 combination in the league which is why we’ve seen so much Cody over the past week and a half. If you’re going to build a team around Big Al – who, make no mistake, is excellent at what he does – you need to surround him with rim protectors and shooters. Period. The Hornets haven’t done that.

2. If the struggles continue, who is most likely to be shipped out of town during the season: A.) Steve Clifford, B.) Lance Stephenson?

Bradford: I would bet my life savings on neither. But I’m a good sport. You don’t need to look any further than his contract to see that the organization is being cautious about Lance as a Hornet. They were willing to break the bank for Gordon Hayward in the offseason, and really for Al Jefferson the year before. Lance got much less than many expected with a team option to boot. The facts speak for themselves I think.

ASChin: The organization can’t afford another coaching carousel. If one of them gets shipped out of town, it’ll be Lance – who is a much easier scapegoat. Kemba and Lance are a terrible backcourt pairing due to their overlapping strengths and weaknesses. Either their minutes need to be staggered or one will have to go. Walker’s cap number isn’t getting any smaller so I’m betting it would be Lance.

3. Has the rest of the league figured out Clifford’s defensive scheme OR is MKG’s absence to blame?

Bradford: Clifford’s defensive scheme isn’t unique in the NBA. To say the league has figured it out would be to condemn everyone else running the Van Gundy/Thibbadeau principles. I spent some time looking at opponent scoring numbers after the Miami game. The biggest discrepencies from last season to this season are in opponent FT% and opponent 2 point %. It will be interesting to see how the defense performs when MKG and Cody are in the lineup. MKG’s defensive numbers aren’t great this season, but he’s only played 6 games. If Lance can clean up some mental errors, the MKG/Cody/Lance trio should be able to do some really nice work on that side of the ball.

ASChin: I’m with Bradford on this one. Clifford’s system is fine – injuries have forced him to play some hyper-flammable lineups. We’ve seen way too much of Marvin/Al, Neal/Kemba or Roberts/Kemba. Very much looking forward to the following lineups once everyone’s healthy: Al/Cody/MKG/PJ/Kemba and Biz/Marvin/JT/Lance/Neal (or Roberts) – those groups have balance at both ends, especially on D.

4. Is MKG the next Gerald Wallace in a bad way? (i.e. misses 15-20 games a year due to reckless playing style)

Bradford: I’m not going to pretend to know anything about an individual’s health, but it’s certainly a concern. I’m not sure MKG is capable of dialing it back. It’s really disappointing as he has looked like a most improved player candidate early.

ASChin: He missed 4 games his rookie season, 20 games as a soph and 9 thus far this season. The guy plays full-on and refuses to turn it down a notch – which is admirable. He dives into the paint like it was a mid-90’s mosh pit and takes risks in transition. We watched Crash do similar things for nearly a decade. Let’s hope the sequel has a better ending.

5. Are Kemba’s struggles a result of plateaued development or is Lance just a poor backcourt mate with his overlapping strengths/weaknesses?

Bradford: Save the 2012-2013 season, Kemba’s shooting has been consistently below average. That has nothing to do with Lance and everything to do with Kemba. If he can’t be a consistent 3 point shooter and can’t finish in the paint….

ASChin: Then he’s a lesser version of Isaiah Thomas and significantly overpaid. I’m holding out hope but he turns 25 in May and is on the books for $12 million per for the next four seasons. All those step-back, fade-away J’s look great when they go in but I’ve yet to see Kemba develop a reliable spot up shot ala Tony Parker. Walker’s leadership qualities are solid and he’s become a better distributor in some ways but his inability to consistently finish in close or knock down shots should keep Rich Cho up at night.

6. Do the Hornets build around Big Al by finding or developing a high post PF who can protect the rim or do they let him walk and build around Cody and Vonleh?

Bradford: This is the million dollar question. Al is such a unique player in the league and really has to have an entire roster designed to maximize his skills. And even if you were to do that, would it be the type of team that could compete at the highest level? I honestly don’t know. I was pretty vocally against his signing for this very reason. I feel comfortable saying I was wrong in the short term, but that decision will have to be made again when he opts out after this season. If I’m being honest, Cho has to hope the answer is a Zeller/Vonleh front court, but it’s impossible to know if that’s realistic.

ASChin: In an ideal world, Cody develops into a borderline All-Star big this season with Vonleh turning into an everyday contributor next season. Big Al plays out his option and Charlotte either re-signs him at a similar number until Noah is ready to start or let’s Jefferson walk for bigger money. I LOVE Big Al and everything he’s done for the team in his short time here but if the organization can’t find the perfect pieces to surround him with, their ceiling will remain low. Either way, the team needs to keep their long-term strategy the same: build around the Cody/Vonleh/MKG core.

7. What’s a realistic trade scenario the Hornets could make between now and the Deadline?

Bradford: It’s way too soon for me to have an answer to that. It will be at the deadline if at all.

ASChin: They need three and D guys on the perimeter and an upgrade over Marvin at the four. I could see McRoberts coming back for the right price (Riley will ransom him). If the poop really hits the fan, I could see Big Al being traded to a contending team out West. Can you imagine a Davis/Big Al/Asik/Anderson rotation in New Orleans? Too bad the Pellies don’t have any picks to send back.

8. Will the Hornets make the Playoffs?

Bradford: Look, this has sucked. But it’s the east. The schedule will let up at some point, the 76ers and Pistons will come to town, and Charlotte is as viable a candidate as there is to do what Brooklyn did last year. The track record is there. And I’m an optimist. There’s a good team in those jerseys. We’ve seen it for stretches. Go home, eat some turkey, and things will get better. Right?

ASChin: Given the pressures of the rebrand, the assets available for trade and the veteran leadership within the lockerroom…I’m going to say yes. Barely.

Baseline Observations: Three Games In


A few quick notes on what we’ve liked and what we haven’t EARLY in the Hornets’ rebrand season:

    • THEY COULD BE 3-0. Change just a handful of late game possessions and Charlotte could be undefeated. The Memphis loss came down to some atrocious 36% shooting and a few key 4th quarter defensive lapses. The loss in New York could’ve been avoided with an impartial ref and a healthy MKG. Encouraging stuff for a team that hasn’t really figured each other out quite yet.
    • LANCE + KEMBA. Two guards who love dribbling. Lance is a good one-on-one player who is under the impression he is great; turnovers ensue (3TOPG – YIKES!). Kemba started the season 10-37 from the field. If Coach Clifford is going to play these guys together in crunch time, Kemba will need to become a better catch and shoot player while Lance refines his drive and dish game. It’s either that or one sits in favor of Brian Roberts or Gary Neal.
    • FREE BIZ! I get Clifford’s reasoning for going Maxiell over Biyombo at the backup center. Maxiell is (theoretically) a better all-around player. He knows where to be on both ends. He (theoretically) has better hands and is more of a threat to actually hit a mid-range jumper as a safety valve. He’s a banger and a veteran. The problem is that A.) Jason hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire with his shooting (3-7) or rebounding (1.7 per) and has already logged a 3 turnover game AND B.) the Hornets are giving up a way too much stuff at the rim (see Bradford’s tweet below). So if you’re going to play an offensive liability as Big Al’s backup, why not give Biz one more shot to prove himself? $100 says Charlotte trades for a two way backup center before the deadline.

    • WING ISSUES. Jeff Taylor really screwed the pooch. The team desperately needs another big wing who can guard oversized SFs and Taylor had the gig lined up until his Michigan Mishap. DV is no laughing matter so I’ll stick to discussing the incident’s impact on the court. Once MKG went down at the Garden, the Hornets had to rely on Lance as a Melo cover and it just didn’t work. Stephenson has the strength to guard big threes but lacks the length and has to save too much energy for the other end. Hendo gives up even more size. I’m not as high on Taylor’s upside as some but I’d love to have him for 10-15 minute spot duty against certain matchups.
    • THEY’LL GET BETTER. Let’s face it, these Hornets have no idea how to play together yet. But last year’s Bobcats started slow too. Once Clifford sorts out the Lance/Kemba dynamic and the team re-learns the defensive harmony that worked so well last season, the Hornets should take off. There is just too much talent for them not too.