Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part One

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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.

PART I: THE KEMBA CONUNDRUM

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.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

A Disruptive Force

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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:

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Now check out Kemba and Gerald:

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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).

Conclusion

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.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Really interesting stuff from the Knicks here. Try figuring this one out in an image.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

Five and Fifteen

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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”.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Four and Eleven

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.