Managing the Draft

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With Lance Stephenson gone and Spencer Hawes in the fold and Al Jefferson exercising his player option, the picture for the Hornets is beginning to take shape. The next major piece comes a week from Thursday at the NBA Draft. Sitting at the 9th pick, Charlotte is in an interesting position. Based on the majority of mock drafts and the information floating around, they seem to be on the outside looking in when considering the team’s needs. However, there are plenty of options available. Operating under the assumption that the top 8 go chalk (in some order: Towns, Okafor, Porzingis, Russell, Mudiay, Cauley-Stein, Winslow, Hezonja) and a trade up is unavailable, there are 2 ways to go in my mind.

1. Stay Put
Missing out on the top 8 hurts, but that doesn’t mean the Hornets can’t get a good player. There’s a glut in the front court, but if Cho genuinely believes someone like Myles Turner will be the best player in 5 years then he should do it. That being said, if you’re following the tier system and there’s a wing on the board in the same tier as a player like Turner, need comes into play. And Charlotte needs shooting. Desperately. Given that need, the field generally narrows to 3 players: Stanley Johnson, Devin Booker, and Kelly Oubre.
Booker is the chic pick at 9. It’s generally accepted to be a bit of a reach but not so much that it’s not worth considering. Johnson is a defensive wrecking ball who might be a decent shooter. The consensus on him seems to be that he has the highest floor of these 3 players, but the lowest ceiling. And then there’s Oubre.

Oubre has a bit of an unorthodox shot, turning his body to the side and letting his outside shoulder dip while taking a pretty significant jump forward. He hit 36% of his 3’s in college and shot a mediocre 72% from the free throw line. Shooting is considered one of his strengths but I’m not so sure. It’s far from a disaster, but he’s not elite. But he’s quick, he’s athletic, and he’s long. The draft history is full of guys whose resumes were long on physical attributes and short on actual skills. That being said, barring a major reach for a guy I’ll get to in a minute, I’d make Oubre the selection.

Oubre is my guy at 9 because of his potential and defensive versatility. Thibodeau style defense has run the league since the Celtics won the championship in 2009. Steve Clifford has turned Charlotte into an elite defensive team with limited pieces by abiding by those same principles. But the next evolution in NBA defense can be witnessed in Golden State and Milwaukee. Long, quick, interchangeable parts that can mix, match, switch, and chase all around the court. Oubre has the quicks and length that Johnson and Booker are missing. He’ll be able to stay in front of guys, force turnovers, and get the team out in transition. A team desperate for buckets could use some fast break points. He may become a solid outside shooter. He might just be the next Gerald Green. But if I’m stuck at 9, wishing Mario Hezonja had somehow fallen to me, I’m swinging for the fences. I’m not necessarily feeling good about it. It may be the move that ends my tenure as GM. But I’m going to try anyway.

2. Trade Back
I love trading back in this draft. I love the middle of the first round. Charlotte has a clear need with the poor shooting on the wings. They’re also nowhere near being “a piece away.” And when you’re in the position Charlotte is in, neither tanking nor being a championship contender, you concentrate on gathering assets one way or another. And if you can get the guy you like while picking up something else, you do it. And I love RJ Hunter. The first time I saw Hunter play reminded me of the first time I saw Gordon Hayward play in college. Not that they have the same game or anything, but both of them just had that “it” factor. I’m a stats guy. I don’t really get wrapped up in ethereal analysis that can’t be quantified. But the draft is a crapshoot in general. And I know Hunter is going to be an elite shooter. He’s got good length. He’s a solid playmaker out of the pick and roll. He’s not going to isolate and get a bucket but he can help make the offense hum.

I would honestly be tempted to go ahead and take Hunter at 9. But most would consider it a reach, so I’m looking to take advantage of that fact and try to get my guy along with something else. The easiest move is to send the 9th pick to Boston in exchange for 16 and 28. Adding 2 rookies is getting to the point of being too young when you’re trying to make the playoffs, so unless there’s an international player worth stashing Cho would probably look at packaging pick 28 with Barnes or Marvin Williams to get a bit piece or just clear some cap space and, more importantly, roster space to get more minutes for Vonleh. Sam Hinkie might pay $7 million to get a late first rounder. Throw in the 39th pick if need be.
Boston isn’t the only option. In particular, if Willey Cauley-Stein drops to 9, Indiana could be interested in moving up. Maybe OKC wants to make sure they get Cameron Payne. Being just outside a tier of talent is disappointing. Mario Hezonja would be perfect. But trading down while staying in your talent tier can maximize the value of that position. And it doesn’t have to be RJ Hunter. If he’s not your guy, Booker could easily still be there a little later. Or Oubre. Or Stanley Johnson.

A GM’s responsibility is to manage assets, whether that be players, cap space, or draft picks. My contention is that, barring a better player dropping, the most value to be gained from the pick is getting the talent you want plus something else by trading back. Perhaps it’s getting too cute. Often times the best thing to do if you like a player is to take that player. But I’ll take that gamble in this draft. And I’m grabbing RJ Hunter, who is destined to fail due to my borderline obsession with his game.

POLL : What Should Hornets Do on Draft Day?

  • Pick Devin Booker (21%, 18 Votes)
  • Pick Willie Cauley-Stein (29%, 25 Votes)
  • Pick Myles Turner (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Trade Up (19%, 16 Votes)
  • Trade Down (17%, 15 Votes)
  • Trade for a Veteran (13%, 11 Votes)

Total Voters: 86

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Draft Scenarios

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NBADraft

The draft is upon us and, once again, the Hornets are in the lottery. In all likelihood, barring some unlikely luck, they will be drafting in the 9th position. There is a clear first tier with the top 4. Sadly, it feels like the next tier cuts off around 7-8 with the Hornets on the outside looking in. But the draft is fun. Harboring an irrational love for it, I figured I would take a look at what might happen. In true A Tribe Called Quest fashion, I’ve broken it down into scenarios.

Lucky 14
It would appear MJ is seeking some karmic justice by sending Not Anthony Davis* to represent the team at the lottery. The top 3 of this draft is perfectly suited to fill the Hornets’ needs. A long term, 2 way center to replace Al Jefferson? Karl-Anthony Towns is sitting there as the top pick. A sweet shooting, foul drawing play-maker who can play the 1 and the 2? D’Angelo Russell is your guy. A big, athletic PG who can get into the lane at will and pressure the defense in ways Kemba Walker will never be able to? Emmanuel Mudiay is just dripping with potential. The odds are not in Charlotte’s favor, but this is the perfect draft for some luck from the basketball Gods. For what it’s worth, I’ve got Towns at the top and a pick ‘em between Russell and Mudiay. I’m not sure you can go wrong with either.

*I love MKG. But Charlotte bottomed out for Anthony Davis and came up 1 pick short. As great as #14 is, he’s not Anthony Davis.

The Pipe Dream
The top 4 goes chalk. Justise Winslow and Kristaps Porzingis go in the top 8 as expected. Some team (Orlando? Denver?) loves or desperately needs some defensive versatility in their front court and nabs Willie Cauley-Stein. Stan Van Gundy loves Terrence Ross, lets Greg Monroe walk, and wants to completely recreate his Orlando team and grabs Myles Turner as the Ryan Anderson to Andre Drummond’s Dwight Howard. Miraculously, Mario Hezonja is just sitting there at 9, ready to jump-start the Hornets’ offense with shooting and athleticism. We can all dream, right?

The Hinkie
With Hezonja gone Rich Cho decides to swing for the fences despite some roster redundancy and snags Myles Turner. Turner is listed as a center, making him the rare stretch 5. Unable to find shooting in the back court, Charlotte decides it might as well pair Vonleh with Turner creating a potentially elite shooting front-court to create space for Kemba and the other wing players. It could be incredible, or Turner’s knees could be a disaster but the potential may be irresistible.

The Zeller


Remember when this happened? Nevermind the fact that statistically Zeller favored pretty well, showing up 4th on Kevin Pelton’s Prospect WARP rankings his final year in college. Turns out Cho was right (at least for now). This past season, Zeller had the highest RPM and WARP of all 2013 draftees and it’s not especially close. Nerlens Noel and Antetokounmpo might end up being better, but for now everything looks good. So who could be this draft’s Zeller, a player who rates better statistically than in fans’ minds? Probably Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker. Complexion aside, they might not be exciting but they could end up being solid pro players.

The Reach
If need outweighs the old BPA adage, look for someone like RJ Hunter, Jerian Grant, or Devon Booker. The team needs shooting and playmaking in the backcourt and all 3 of these should bring some of that despite not being in the lottery of many mock drafts. Stay tuned for more RJ Hunter…

The Godfather Offer
Let’s see… a miserable superstar who just signed a contract extension… How about the 9th pick, a 2016 first rounder, Noah Vonleh, Kemba Walker, and whatever else they want to make it happen for DeMarcus Cousins? Yeah… not happening. But Charlotte has a lottery pick this year, all their future picks, a PF with serious potential, and some tradable contracts. Phone lines are open.

The Belichick
Say you love RJ Hunter (like me) but don’t like him at 9. You’re not so sure about Stanley Johnson or Kelly Oubre and could use an extra asset down the line. Portland is in danger of losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. Myles Turner is just sitting there at 9. Send them this year’s lottery pick for the 23rd pick in this draft and next year’s first round pick. Similar deals could be made with Chicago and Cleveland, though I wouldn’t want to strengthen the eastern conference. Boston has 16 and 28 in this draft too after a surprise all-star appearance. In classic Belichick fashion, if there’s nobody you’re in love with, try to add more assets to the treasure chest.

The Washington Professional Football Team
The 3 of the top 4 picks are really perfect for the Hornets. Throw assets at the wall until one of those teams bite. I don’t see it happening, but Flip Saunders is involved…

The Gettleman
You know what you do when you have a strength on your team? You get even more of it! MKG is a pit bull defender on the wing. In an effort to prevent any team from ever scoring from the perimeter again, Charlotte grabs Stanley Johnson and they make life a living hell for other wing players. Cauley-Stein has a similar effect.

The Logical Pick
After all that fun, Kelly Oubre probably makes the most sense with the 9th pick. He’s long and athletic and has a reputation as a shooter. He has high defensive upside and, if he can clean up his shooting mechanics and improve his ball-handling, he could be really good down the line.

So there you have it. The Hornets can go in a lot of different directions. If I had to guess, I think it will come down to Kelly Oubre, Stanley Johnson, Myles Turner, Sam Dekker, and Frank Kaminsky in that order. Not necessarily my order, or the order of Cho’s board. Just the way I would place odds.

Film Room: Anatomy of an Almost Collapse

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The Hornets have quickly established a reputation for building up big leads, then letting teams come back in the fourth quarter. Until this past Friday, all of those comebacks had resulted in Hornets losses. Finally, thanks to Kemba Walker’s layup, Charlotte was able to pull one such game out, giving me the perfect opportunity to go back and try to figure out what actually happened (I just couldn’t stomach watching the losses again). And so I present a punch-by-punch recounting of the fourth quarter of the New York Knicks at the Charlotte Hornets on December 5, 2014.

I went with the picture below description setup for this. I don’t know why, I might end up hating it. But for now, that’s what we’re working with. Some of the image sizes don’t quite work. Might have to go back and fix that later, but I wanted to get this out sooner rather than later. Just bear with me. I’m hoping to make this a consistent part of the site if people are interested.

Things did not start well. Pablo Prigioni brings the ball up, Melo uses a screen to get to the elbow and receives the pass from Prigioni who gives a slight jab left, then cuts towards Melo to take the hand-off. Pretty basic action, nothing special. Except Brian Roberts bites on the jab step and is left in the dust, completely unable to disrupt the hand-off in any way.

BrianRobertsUhOh

Because Melo is Melo (and probably a little of Marvin being Marvin), Marvin Williams has to stick, leaving Biz to rotate over and stop the Prigioni drive. Standard stuff. Except the rotations stop there. Quincy Acy casually walks to the rim, takes the dump off, and stuffs it home while Gary Neal and Lance Stephenson occupy the same space on the weak side.

AcyTooEasy

One of those guys has to help down to prevent that pass. It doesn’t happen. And here we go….

New York tries to run the same play with JR Smith and Melo this time. This time the hand-off gets disrupted. Biz helps on JR Smith cut then recovers to block Acy after Melo fires it down low. Beautifully done.

BizDoinWork

Next, Melo looks to exploit his strength advantage over Marvin Williams in the post. He backs him down, waiting for Lance to commit to the double team or to get deep enough to score. In the end, Lance doesn’t commit completely. He brings the double, but not hard enough to disrupt the kick-out, leaving an easy pass out to Tim Hardaway Jr for an open 3.

LanceCantCommit

In classic Lance fashion, you get a little bad then you get a little good. After a couple pick and rolls, Amar’e and JR Smith try to ice one on the baseline. Biz reads the defense, drops off the pick, heads to the rim, and goes up high to throw down a great Lance read and pass. These guys are developing some really interesting chemistry worht watching.

BizUpUpAndAway

Really interesting stuff from the Knicks here. Try figuring this one out in an image.
KnicksScrum
This is how it goes down. Prigioni kicks it to JR Smith on the wing. Amar’e comes and sets an off-ball screen for Prigioni right in front of JR Smith, drawing Biz with him just enough to stop him from getting back in time to contest Smith’s pull-up jumper after dribbling around Amar’e’s flipped screen. Gary Neal and Marvin Williams are stuck to Tim Hardaway on the perimeter and Melo just outside the paint. Nobody really did anything wrong schematically. Biz might have over-helped a little. Lance could have fought a little harder to get through the screen, but he recovered decently and crowded the shot without fouling. But keep in mind the goal of Clifford’s defense to prevent lay-ups and force the opponent into long 2’s. In that regard, mission accomplished. JR Smith just hit the shot. Can’t win them all.

JRPullUp

Here Lance runs a pick-and-roll with Kemba. With a head of steam and only Amar’e Stoudemire between him and the basket he decides to pull up for a crowded long 2. It’s a decent look with much better options available.

LancePullUpWhy

This set starts with a Prigioni-Melo pick and roll. The defense rotates properly, leaving Neal responsible for JR Smith and Tim Hardaway on the perimeter. He over-helps in the paint and ends up stuck in no-man’s-land guarding nobody. Hardaway for 3, buckets.

NealNoMansLand

The next defensive possession was a bit of a disaster. It starts with a Prigioni-Stoudemire pick and roll. Jefferson has to lay back to compensate for his lack of foot speed, but he’s practically on the right block putting no pressure on the driver to make a decision while also forcing someone else to step up and bump Stoudemire. Williams does his job by stepping in front of the cut while Lance wanders up to the elbow, just watching the play develop. There’s really not that much space between Melo and Hardaway on the kick-out. Properly positioned, Lance could have at least contested a shot. Instead it’s another wide open 3 pointer for Hardaway and a single digit lead for the Hornets. This one really bothered me.

defensiveBreakdown

On this one, Kemba enters the ball Jefferson in the post, where he then holds the ball 4 seconds. He kicks it back out to Kemba, re-posts, gets the second entry pass, feels the double team coming, and kicks it out to Kemba again. Good so far. Wide open, Kemba hesitates, allowing the defense to recover, and throws up a contested 3. Short. Either shoot it our kick it, don’t hesitate and let the defense recover. This is one of the more frustrating possessions for me. Holding the ball, hesitating, stuck on one side of the floor…

DoSomethingKemba

After some pretty basic action, Lance gets the baseline and goes up with nothing but a lazy contest from Stoudemire in the way. Instead of going up strong, he wraps a pass around to Al, who probably gets fouled on his attempt, but ends up missing. Coach Clifford has talked about how Lance is a creator at heart, not an alpha scorer. It shows here. Yes, he should have just dunked the ball. But it’s just not his approach to the game so it’s hard to begrudge him too much. What I will criticize is what happens next. Frustrated with someone (Himself? Al? The ref? No clue…) he proceeds to foul Melo in the backcourt for no reason. What makes this so egregious is it put New York in the penalty. Melo gets 2 free throws, a reward for doing nothing but dribbling the ball up the court. These are the things that lose you games in the fourth quarter. You just can’t be giving points away.

DontPassItLance

I would argue this is where the team started to tighten up. Kemba dribbles up the court, turns down a Jefferson pick, and takes an extremely difficult floater with 4 defenders around him and 13 seconds on the shot clock. You have to find a good shot here. This one was little more than a prayer. The spacing isn’t great, but Kemba’s not really helping things by short circuiting the play so quickly. Up until this play and the foul right before it that cut the lead from 10 to 8, Charlotte was withstanding a run of 3’s and tough shots and keeping the Knicks at arm’s distance. With 2 free throws and a really difficult, contested mid-range jumper from Melo, it’s a 6 point game with 2:49 left and the Hornets have put themselves in a position they didn’t need to be.

The next section of the game goes as follows: Henderson hits a tough elbow jumper after the ball moves around the perimeter a couple times; With the Knicks extra small and Jefferson as the back line defender, the Hornets get spread out, Kemba gets enveloped by a Stoudemire screen, Henderson has to take an extra step in to stall the drive (perhaps unnecessarily, considering the ball-handler), and JR Smith is wide open in the corner (see pictures below); Following some non-threatening movement on the perimeter, Jefferson gets his look on the block against Stoudemire, fails to feel the defense collapse on him, and turns the ball over; Melo isolates at the top against Williams and hits a pull-up 3 that everyone, including Dell Curry, knew he was taking.

SpreadTooThin

On the Hornets next to last possession, holding a 2 point lead, Clifford designed a play to get Jefferson a look on the block. It starts with some decoy action including a cross screen for Henderson and a pick and roll with Kemba (1). This is just a ruse to get Jefferson down on the block by swinging the ball to Henderson while Al sets up (2). It’s pretty basic, but you can see in the second picture that Stoudemire failed to recognize Al’s cut in time. He was getting to that block either open or with Melo switching down onto him. But that’s not what happened. Prigioni sniffed it out and got a finger on Kemba’s pass to Henderson. This sent the Hornets into scramble mode, somewhere a team like this doesn’t excel. It all adds up to a horrible runner from Kemba that never had a chance. A solid play by Clifford, but credit to the Knicks for making things difficult.

KembaForce

We all know how it goes from there. Kemba tries to draw a charge on Prigioni but doesn’t get the call. Marvin jumps at the Prigioni pump fake, inexplicably leaving Melo wide open for 3. Buckets. The Hornets got some really nice movement coming out of the timeout leading to a wide open baseline jumper for Jefferson that he just misses. The beauty of the design was that it left time for one more possession if needed. 2 chances is always better than 1, especially when you can get such a solid look on the first possession. This was followed by a beautiful defensive possession that led to a difficult shot from Melo that clanged off the rim.

After all that, the Knicks gave the game away. 4 seconds left and a foul to give, Derek Fisher throws in Pablo Prigioni, JR Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr, Melo, and Stoudemire. No Iman Shumpert, no Sam Dalembert. Maybe he thought they were still on offense? They don’t take the foul, Kemba gets a clean line to the basket, and he hits a difficult shot around Stoudemire. Ball game.

Re-watching this game gave me a different perspective on what happened. The way I remembered it, with no ball movement and awful defense, is an oversimplification. There were definitely defensive breakdowns and some poor offensive plays, but nobody runs things perfectly all the time, not even the Spurs. Guys missed some wide open shots that they normally make. The Knicks caught absolute fire from 3. Melo hit some tough shots. That’s not to say there aren’t things within their control the Hornets could have done. They gave the Knicks the avenue to come back. But with no MKG, there’s nobody strong enough and quick enough to check Melo. Al just isn’t a rim protector, so when a team goes small with shooters you have to pick your poison. Charlotte’s margin for error is so slim, mostly because of roster construction. Cho is trying to fix that, but it’s often easier said than done.

Step Away From the Panic Button

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I honestly wish I didn’t have to write this, but it feels necessary. Yes, the Hornets just lost to a winless Lakers team. Yes, they should have won. And yes, I was upset about the game myself. But there is a bigger picture. I’m not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of the loss, but one thing of note is the Hornets’ schedule thus far. They’ve now played 7 games. An overtime game to start the season, 4 games in 5 nights that included an overly physical contest with the Grizzlies and 2 road games (New York and New Orleans). That was followed up by a double-OT game, then a trip across the country to play the Lakers who couldn’t have been more rested. There is a lot to be learned about NBA scheduling and its effect on performance, but that’s the type of game Popovich would have rested his entire team. Does this qualify as an excuse? Not really. But there are legitimate reasons a team may seem to be lacking energy and effort.

The real question is what this loss, along with the team’s performance up to this point, say about where the Hornets are right now and what to expect from them as the season wears on. Truthfully, that all depends on what your expectations were entering the season. And that’s the rub. Performance tends to be judged against expectations, and I’m not sure fans’ expectations were what they should be. In defense of Hornets fans, and fans of any kind, the term “fan” is just short-hand for “fanatic.” By definition we are supposed to be unreasonable and temperamental. That applies both to expectations and results on the micro level.

I’d like to use this loss as an opportunity to manage expectations. First things first, high expectations for the Hornets made sense. The team finished over .500 for the second time in franchise history, went to the playoffs, and created their own emotional high by bringing back a Hornets name that mattered more than I think any of us realized (seriously, these home games have been hype). The front office upgraded clear weak points in the lineup by adding a versatile shooting guard and a plethora of shooters via free agency and the draft. Add in some internal improvements from young players and more familiarity with an excellent coach and you end up with words like “contender” and “division champs” being thrown around.

The problem here is that basketball is not a plug-and-play sport most of the time. Just ask the Cavs. There were a couple prominent tweets that really rubbed me the wrong way in regards to this.

I don’t mean to compare the Hornets to the Cavs. But I do want to address the idea of “system/personnel continuity”. Charlotte returned 4 starters, replacing Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams. But that’s not an entirely accurate depiction of the team. Gerald Henderson, a starter who had a usage rate of 22.4, can barely get in games. He’s averaging half the minutes he did last year, and that probably overstates his involvement considering MKG’s injury early this season. His replacement, Lance Stephenson, doesn’t exactly play the same way. In fact, you could argue that the adjustment to playing with Lance is akin to the adjustment the team had to make when Al Jefferson arrived. Stephenson comes over after posting a usage rate of 19.5. Many saw him as the playmaking replacement for McRoberts, but McBobs was a ball-mover and Lance is often more of a ball-stopper. He also handles the ball coming out of the backcourt quite a bit, something Kemba didn’t have to do with Hendo as his running mate. All that is to say this is a huge change.

Lost among his mid-season All-Star campaign and the excitement over his signing is the fact that Stephenson has never posted a PER over the league average of 15. He also went over 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career last season. This isn’t meant as an indictment of his abilities. He has improved every single year he’s been in the league. What I mean to point out is that he’s still learning about himself as a player both individually and in the context of the Hornets’ roster structure. There has been a clear lack of comfort when Lance is on the court. Guys don’t want to step on each other’s toes. Kemba is trying to make sure both Lance and Al are getting touches. There is a lot of adjusting to be done by everyone.
Perhaps none more so than Steve Clifford. Not only is he having to integrate new pieces, but he’s doing it without the benefit of a full preseason due to a plethora of injuries. There hasn’t been a consistent rotation on a night to night basis yet. And Lance isn’t his only mystery to figure out in the rotation. Cody is seeing an increase in minutes, from 17.3 mpg his rookie season to 22.9 this season, as he grows more accustomed to the NBA game. PJ Hairston got minutes due to injuries and showed that he needs a place in the rotation. When Gary Neal comes in the offense finally starts to flow, so Clifford has to figure out how to most effectively deploy him.

A lot has changed on this team. Growing pains happen. It’s easy to remember the big wins and the playoff appearance, but there was a major adjustment period last season. Given these facts, what are reasonable expectations for the 2014-15 Hornets? At the beginning of the season I suggested that they merely need to stay afloat, right around .500, heading into the new year, at which point I expect everything to start coming together. I haven’t really seen anything to move me off my 45 win prediction along with a playoff series win. The Hornets sit at 10th in defensive efficiency right now, even after that stink fest in LA. A top 5 defense should be the goal. Offense is going to be a struggle, even as it improves. There’s really not evidence you can build an efficient offense around a low post player in the modern game. It’s possible Kemba Walker is what he is. Right now the ceiling is relatively low. Defense is what drives this team’s success and that’s not changing any time soon.

Let’s pump the breaks on the panic, but also identify realistic expectations for this team. It’s going to be a good season. Home games have been great. The young guys are getting better. The team is undefeated in the division. And for the love of everything, don’t suggest to anyone that Derek Anderson should start over Cam Newton. That’s just beyond ridiculous.

Video Breakdown of PJ’s Defense

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Against the Grizzlies last week, the Hornets struggled to get anything going offensively. The fans’ natural response was to beg for one of the best shooters on the team, PJ Hairston, to get on the floor. Those same fans were also booing Gerald Henderson every time he came in the game, so there might have been some other agenda in play, but the unknown is always exciting and rookies are the ultimate unknown in the NBA.

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffering a rib injury and Gary Neal getting poked in the eye, there were suddenly minutes available on the wing against the Heat. Enter PJ. While he struggled with his shot, nobody is worried about that. He’s too good of a shooter to not find his stroke. The question has always been about his attitude and whether or not he has the defensive chops to stay on the court. 5 games in an NBA season is a tiny sample size. 2 games totaling 30 minutes is a crap shoot. I seriously doubt he shoots 22% from 3 all season. So with statistics out the door, it’s, “To the tape Batman!”

Shooting aside, the offense is worth a brief look. PJ’s offensive game clearly shows the benefits of the D-League. He understands NBA offense. He moved with confidence, found open spots on the perimeter, made himself available for kick-outs, and attacked the defense when a lane was available without ever forcing it. Surprisingly, he didn’t play the part of a gunner, more of a key offensive cog. All really good stuff.

That’s all good and well, but the defense is what Coach Clifford is watching. Unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a mixed bag. His performance can be broken down into 3 components: scheme, technique, and effort.

Just as with his offense, PJ’s ability to execute an NBA style defensive scheme reflects his experience in the D-League (seriously, if they can get salaries up, this is a much better option than college as far as development is concerned). In general, he stuck to the defensive blueprint. He helped and recovered on drives, bumped the roll man and got back out to his man, downed the side pick and roll (as seen below)… For his second NBA game he did everything expected of him.

PJIce

That’s not to say all was good schematically. At times he over-helped on the weak side, getting stuck in no man’s land, and failed to close hard with his hands up on the kick-out pass.

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Most of PJ’s struggles can be tied to his defensive technique.

In the below picture, you can see the aftermath of good schematic execution coupled with poor technique. PJ helps down off is man to bump Bosh as he rolls to the rim after setting a pick. Once that action has been turned away, he goes to recover to his man, Luol Deng, who has cut up from the corner to the left wing. What you see is a bad angle on the recovery coupled with poor balance (it’s like watching the Panthers’ secondary), all resulting in an easy 2 for Deng.

PJBadHelpAndRecover

PJ’s up-and-down nature on defense comes together in one play. He fights hard over a screen in the first picture, forcing the ball handler towards the baseline and preventing him from splitting the defense. In the second picture he sprints back, never giving up the pull-up jumper and continuing to push the ball towards the baseline. All really good stuff so far. Then things fall apart. Rather than squaring up to suspend the penetration or continuing to push the ball through, Hairston loses his balance and gets turned around with his back to the defender. Lucky for him, no foul gets called and the play results in a poor shot attempt and a stop.

PJCollage

It’s not all bad with PJ. One thing that stood out was his balance when closing out on shooters. He’s able to contest without fouling even on going hard. He did a decent job staying in front of ball handlers, though he was mostly guarding Luol Deng and Mario Chalmers, not really known for their isolation skills. He also uses his body and hands well off the ball, impeding the progress of offensive players without fouling.

The scouting report on PJ before the draft questioned his focus, particularly on defense. Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much of that against the Heat. He was attentive, communicating both verbally and with hand signals. He didn’t get beat on cuts. He didn’t pout or hang his head. He was engaged in the huddles and responded well to Clifford’s criticisms and instructions. This manifested itself in a much better effort in the second half.

Quick sidetrack to the negative so we can end on a happy note. One thing PJ can work on is staying in a stance. He also needs to play bigger. At one point he just lets Deng back him down and shoot right over the top.

With his size, I imagine the hope is that he can swing between SG and SF. To do that, he’s going to need to have the strength and put forth the effort to prevent easy plays like this.

Then there’s this:

Stays with the fake, fights through a screen down low, and erases the easy bucket. That’s the whole package. Discipline, technique, and maximum effort. He wasn’t perfect, and having MKG back reduces the available minutes, but Clifford has to be happy with what he saw from Hairston. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. If he can work hard to fine tune some things, Hairston could end up being a steal from the 2014 draft and a perfect fit on this roster.

What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

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10 Observations From Hornets @ 76ers 10/8/2014

I watched the Hornets game on an awful stream that made it impossible to distinguish between Marvin Williams, MKG, and Lance. It was a stupid preseason game with no real meaning and a disappointing defensive effort. But about 4 minutes into the game, it hit me. I was watching the Charlotte Hornets play basketball. I literally got chills. Not only was I watching the Charlotte Hornets, but I was watching a team that is relevant, now and in the future. I hope everyone else is as jacked up about this season as I am. Here are 10 things I saw in the game.

1. Let’s just get this out of the way. MKG’s shot is massively improved. It’s still in the discussion for the ugliest shots in the NBA, but it’s not THE worst. The question was if it would hold up in a game situation. I’m happy to report that yes, it did. There was a moment early in the game where he caught the ball on the wing, just inside the 3-point line, wide open. This was the moment. Would he have the confidence to launch it? Would his form break down again? He squared up, hesitated, and started dribbling left into the lane. Sad faces everywhere. Until out of nowhere, he plants, rises up, and nails a jumper over the outstretched hands of a defender.
MKG may never be a shooter. But having the confidence to take that shot influences the rest of his game. I’m curious to see if the aggressiveness he exhibited on offense tonight continues. 11 points, 7 boards, 1 assist, 2 steals, 1 block, and 1 turnover in 26 minutes? I think Coach Clifford can live with that.

2. The new guys struggled tonight. Lance was out of control much of the night. Marvin Williams couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, Brian Roberts was off all night, and PJ Hairston was looking to make a statement filling in for Henderson. Having said that, there was a lot to like. Lance is learning how to play with Kemba and Al Jefferson. That’s a big adjustment. I suspect things won’t really start to click until January. If they can hover around or right above .500 through then, I expect another strong second half to the season. The other guys will shoot better, which is all they’re really being asked to do.

3. Gary Neal: Flamethrower.

4. Bismack Biyombo is on thin ice right now. 1-4 from the field, more fumbled passes, and even got smoked by Brandon Davies in the post. The rebounding is still there, but when other guys are showing obvious improvement from last season, MKG and Cody Zeller in particular, it’s not a good look to be treading water.

5. Speaking of Cody, what a difference a summer makes. He was clearly playing at a better pace. He wasn’t getting ahead of himself, barreling into the defense. 2 plays in particular stood out to me. On one, he drove on the defender, came to a jump stop around the basket, and then kicked the ball out to a shooter on the other wing for a wide open 3 that missed. Later he drove left from the top of the key, drew in a defender, and kicked it out to the strong side wing for another wide open 3. I think Cody is going to be a really good passer as his career progresses and those skills showed in this game. Once he develops appropriate range he could be a very valuable piece.

6. Those purple jerseys really popped. Can’t wait to see the home court.

7. Coach Clifford has mentioned that he installed a very basic defense last season with more complexities to come. We saw one of those new wrinkles tonight. Philly was bringing the ball up with 10 seconds left in the quarter. Typically in this situation, the defense sits and waits for the offense to make a move, usually as the clock ticks under 5 seconds. In this instance, Clifford had Zeller sprint to the ball as soon as it crossed half-court to trap the ball-handler. Once the ball was picked up and moved, Zeller sprinted back to his man. It didn’t seem like they were trying to force a turnover so much as just disrupt the offense with the clock on their backs. It was an interesting way to leverage the speed and size of Zeller. Don’t expect to see Al Jefferson doing the same thing. This seems like a player specific assignment. It will be interesting to see if this is a tactic they continue to use, and what other players receive special defensive assignments like this.

8. Another game, another sick Kemba crossover pull-up jumper at the end of a quarter.

9. If you’ve ever been 30+ years old and tried to play a night of pick-up basketball after not playing for a couple months, then you’re probably like me and not worried one bit about Al Jefferson’s slow start.

10. I’m not particularly concerned with the half-court defense, which was putrid tonight. There needs to be more effort to get back in transition. It was way too easy for Philly tonight.

Preseason needs to be processed through the correct filter. San Antonio lost to Berlin Alba Berlin. Doesn’t matter a bit. If you’re worried about losing to the worst team in the league, don’t be. Just enjoy those jerseys and what lies ahead.

Jump Shot Ratings

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With the draft come and gone, summer league concluded, free agency past its height, and training camps a couple weeks away, we are officially in the worst part of the NBA calendar. Seriously, you can only read so many player profiles, preseason rankings, and projections before they all just start to say the same thing. Zach Lowe already has the eccentric NBA rankings market cornered, this year tackling court designs. Finding a topic worth covering without feeling redundant is a challenge in September. So, as your stereotypical short, un-athletic white guy I decided to tackle an important topic: ranking Charlotte Hornets jump shooters. This is a purely subjective, aesthetically based ranking. Results are irrelevant. Hornets fans need to know who has the Mona Lisa of jump shots, and whose jump shot belongs in the garbage (I hate to pile it on, but we all know where this end of the spectrum is headed).

Rankings take into account mechanical soundness and the “Eff You” factor. The “Eff You” factor is a matter of stylistic flair that demoralizes an opponent as soon as the shot goes up. The kings of the jump shot “eff you” are Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. To rate highly by this metric, consistent results are required, but being a consistently great shooter doesn’t necessarily grade out in style. So, without further ado, your 2014-15 Charlotte Hornets Jump Shot Rankings, in reverse order.

14. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

This has been covered. Nobody knows what MKG’s shot is going to look like this upcoming year, but the photo evidence isn’t encouraging to me.

MKG reconstructed jump shot

MKG is my favorite Hornet. But someone might want to call a priest to exorcise the demon living in his right elbow.

13. Bismack Biyombo

I wanted to like Biz’s shot more than I do. I love the guy. Who doesn’t? He obviously finds so much joy in life that I can help but feel my spirits lifted. But the jumper just doesn’t have it. First of all, he suffers from gangly limb syndrome. His arms and legs are so long he can’t seem to figure out what to do with them. His feet are spread way too wide, feet all pigeon-toed, knees appearing to buckle. The ball comes from the left side of his body, shooting elbow flared out, off-hand way too involved… I will say this, he has a nice high release point that helps corral his arms a little bit, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

12. Gerald Henderson

This might be a personal preference thing and probably isn’t fair at all, but Hendo’s jumper is sneaky ugly for me. Let’s start with the feet. I hate the “one foot (way) forward approach.” A shooter’s strong-side foot should be a little forward, say 6 inches. But a full step? It completely throws off your alignment. You can see how it opens up everything else (hips, shoulders). The release is fine, but there’s a mechanical slowness to the entire shooting motion. He never looks comfortable shooting, and I’m never comfortable watching.
What bothers me most is that there’s no reason for any of these issues. Henderson doesn’t have abnormally long arms or large hands. He grew up in a basketball family. And if he had a reliable 3 point shot with a quick release, he would be a completely different player. Alas, it looks like he has one more year as a Hornet before he opts out and moves on to a new team.

11. Marvin Williams

I’m not actually sure how to refer to Marvin Williams. One name? Both names? Marvin seems too personal. Williams is too generic… I digress. He’s expected to be a stretch 4 for the Hornets. Hopefully it works out but when it comes to my personal rankings, Marv here commits a cardinal sin. The leg kick. I’ve spent the past 2 years trying to eliminate the leg kick from my son’s jump shot (he’s only 11, so it’s probably too soon). Other than that, everything looks good. Balanced, a nice quick release, good follow through. But those feet…

10. Al Jefferson
Should Al be higher than Marvin Williams and Gerald Henderson and maybe even Biz? Nope. Why is he? Let’s check the tape.

9. Cody Zeller

Cody’s shot is exactly what you would expect out of an Indiana boy. Fundamentally and mechanically sound, balanced, elbow tight, full extension, follow-through… it’s also epically boring. I could fall asleep watching Cody Zeller jump shots. On a side note, Eric Gordon may have the most boringly effective jump shot in the league. Imagine that. Another Indiana guy.

8. Noah Vonleh

Vonleh is an interesting shooter. There’s not a lot of tape for his shooting, even if I had the patience to dig through college highlights. Another guy to play at Indiana, another mechanically sound shot. He beats out Cody with a little more “eff you” (love the extended follow-through) and his ability to maintain solid form despite having long arms that could get in the way and huge hands. The future is bright with this guy.

7. Jeff Taylor

I’ve covered Taylor’s shooting (here) extensively so I’ll keep it simple. Points for form and a little bit of style. Negative points for a snail-like release.

6. Kemba Walker

I like Kemba’s 3-point shot for the most part. He’s got solid balance, a nice compact release, good follow-through. I don’t love how he doesn’t fully extend his legs, but I love how quickly he gets his shot off. I think he’ll improve as a 3 point shooter over time. Things fall apart a little bit in the mid-range, something he loves a little too much. While he has an uncanny ability to find his balance using jump-stops, he doesn’t consistently follow through with his legs and arms once he gets inside the arc. As a fellow mid-range short-armer, it bothers me more than it probably should. Extra points for flair though. All of the flair. Putting Kemba above Jeff Taylor speaks to my soft spot for quick releases, high arc, and swaggy jumpers.

5. Lance Stephenson

Now we’re cooking. Quick release, no hesitation, consistent form, deep range with no effort… The results aren’t quite there, knocking him down a peg. But I see it getting better as his career progresses. I don’t need to say anything about the swag factor. Born Ready indeed.

4. Jannero Pargo

Pargo is the ultimate street ball gunner. When he gets the ball, shots are going up from anywhere and everywhere on the court. I love it. I have to dock him for doing it in garbage time. It’s one thing to drop 3’s against the Blazers when you’re already down 30 points (that game still hurts). It’s another to do it when it matters.

3. Brian Roberts

Roberts is a lot like Pargo, except he did it in games where it actually mattered. A quick trigger with an equally quick release and deep range. Charlotte has been lacking in overly aggressive shooters and Roberts is a member of the newest platoon of long range assassins, along with the next 2 guys. We need more pull-up 3’s in transition.

2. PJ Hairston

Not a lot of video here, so we’ll just roll with the NBA.com highlights (while giving my weak video editing skills a break). The D-League stuff isn’t high quality and I refuse to include anything in my posts involving that hideous shade of blue. The mechanics aren’t perfect, but this time I don’t care. It’s so fun to watch PJ jack shots up from all over the court. Quick and confident, unlimited range… Hopefully Coach Clifford can clean up the rough edges and turn him into a 3-and-D monster.

1. Gary Neal

Gary Neal was the inspiration for this list. I was recently watching clips for something else I was working on and I realized I had never recognized how great his shot looks. I’ll let the video do most of the talking. Just look forward to the constant movement, flying around screens and along the baseline, popping out for gorgeous 3’s. The form isn’t necessarily perfect. But it’s quick, it’s balanced, it’s consistent, and it has a flair about it that lets the defense know they’re in trouble. Lance, Brian Roberts (he needs a nickname that’s NOT B-Rob. Let’s be better guys), PJ Be Shooting, and Gary Neal are going to bring something this team desperately needed.

-Bradford Coombs
@bradford_NBA