Hornets Offseason Predictions 2016

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Rich Cho’s Season Has Only Begun

Nearly seven months ago I predicted the Hornets would win 44 games and finish sixth in the East. Most called this prediction overly optimistic and a few called it naive. In the end, Charlotte surprised us all by totaling 48 victories, finishing just a game out of the third seed despite a myriad of injuries to key players and a drastic change in their style of play. It was without question the most successful post-relocation season in Charlotte NBA history. Now it’s up to Rich Cho and the team’s front office to continue this success and propel the team to the next level.

Batum is Everything

When Charlotte traded for Nic last summer, there was no question about the player’s talent or fit; it was Batum’s impending unrestricted free agency status that loomed over the entire season. Credit the Hornets for making his return feel more inevitable than it should and Nic’s postgame remarks after Game 7 sounded like a guy who plans on being back. The hope is that both sides have something on the table the minute free agency kicks off in July. They’ll need to make it quick. Why?

The Hornets have to structure their offseason plans around Batum for two reasons:

  1. He’s one of the team’s top three players along with MKG and Kemba Walker and his abilities as a point forward are a perfect fit alongside them.
  2. His near $20 million cap hold needs to be addressed before the team explores alternative options.

For those unfamiliar with cap holds, unrestricted free agents count against a team’s cap sheet until they either sign with another team or are renounced by their current one.

Batum will turn 28 next December and is in the beginning of his prime. Inking a deal that pays him near max money into his early 30s does make sense from the player’s perspective, especially a wing. Alternatively, Nic could gamble on himself with a short term deal or a player option after two seasons but as we saw last offseason, even with new CBA cash around the corner, players are much more likely to take the safe money – especially if it’s in the vicinity of $20m per.

Ultimately, Nic seems happy in Charlotte and comfortable with the coaching staff, front office and ownership. Expect His Airness to pony up with the largest contract ever signed on his watch as an owner: 5 years, $100 million with a player option in the 5th year. Little Ayden Richard Batum will be living that bon vivant 4LIFE.

PREDICTION: Batum Returns on a near max contract

Bon Voyage, Big Al

Jefferson finished the season in a quintessential Big Al sorta way. He shot 50% against Miami and manufactured offense when the Hornets couldn’t buy a bucket. But he was also in less than great shape and contributed to Charlotte’s atrocious postseason paint defense.

Coach Clifford received a blessing in disguise when Jefferson went down with an injury slash suspension midseason, discovering that a Cody Zeller/Marvin Williams frontcourt (especially when combined with MKG at the three) was much more effective at both ends of the floor.

Big Al turns 32 next January and his inability to get into or stay in shape does not bode well for his future play. Renouncing his rights frees up a valuable $20 million in cap space for Charlotte to use on Jeremy Lin (player option) or Courtney Lee (updated, see below) both of whom will need to be re-signed via cap space (no Bird Rights). The Hornets could also use the $20 million in conjunction with another move (salary dumping Spencer Hawes and/or Jeremy Lamb) to bring in Dwight Howard.

Either way, I fully expect Jefferson to be playing elsewhere next season. Thanks for the memories Big Al. We’ll always have the 2013-2014 Bobcats season.

PREDICTION: Jefferson is renounced, signs elsewhere

Key Secondary Guys

Of the three key secondary free agents (Williams, Lee, Lin), only Marvin ($9.1m cap hold) can be re-signed over the cap.

[UPDATED: The Hornets have Full Bird Rights for Lee, Early Bird Rights for Marvin and non-Bird Rights for Lin. So the team can go over the cap to sign Lee but given situation outlined below, I still believe he’s the least likely to return.]

Technically Lin isn’t a free agent yet but he’ll surely opt out of his $2.2 million player option in July; even so Jeremy’s cap hold will be less than $3 million so the Hornets will have some wiggle room to wait (if) they re-sign him.

Lee’s cap hold ($10.8m) complicates things for his return and with MKG healthy and Jeremy Lamb being groomed for a larger role, he’s my bet for least likely to return of the three.

Marvin will turn 30 in June and has logged a decent amount of miles. The elbow injury prior to the Miami series explains his disappearance on the offensive end. He was a key cog all season for Charlotte and a fantastic fit when Clifford goes small at the five with either Zeller or Kaminsky. I could see the Hornets offering a one-year $12 million deal and Marv taking it. Why that much and why one year? More on this later.

Lin is the most interesting of the three in many ways. He’s clearly found a home with Clifford as a third guard. MJ loves him and Lin’s off the court ability to attract East Asian/Asian-American interest in the team can’t be denied.

Given his consistent struggles with turnovers and his jumper (one of which did improve this season) I would be surprised if another team were to offer him their starting gig. Something in the neighborhood of 3 years, $21 million seems about right for J-Lin. He’ll get consistent minutes and a positive environment to showcase his talents. Consider him Kirk Hinrich in teal (or a more likable Ramon Sessions).

PREDICTION: Marvin and Lin return, Lee walks

A Big Handsome Payday

Cody enters the final year of his rookie deal next season that will pay him a little north of $5 million. The following season he’s scheduled to count over $13m via cap hold. Cho won’t let it come to that. Charlotte has extended their Lottery picks in back to back seasons (Kemba, MKG) and I fully expect them to do the same with Zeller this summer.

Fortunately Cody is still under the radar enough that Cho can likely get a deal done, even in the current cap environment, for something less than his on-coming cap hold. Again, just like Marvin, this is important and I’ll cover it more below. Something like 4 years, $40 million makes sense for a skilled, mobile seven footer like Zeller.

PREDICTION: Cody signs a four year extension lower than his 2017-2018 cap hold

Rounding Out the Roster

Troy Daniels, Tyler Hansbrough, Jorge Gutierrez are unrestricted free agents. Daniels is the most valuable and is likely to be retained if the numbers are right but don’t expect Charlotte to break the bank if another team shocks him with real money.

Aaron Harrison has a league minimum non-guaranteed option that could be picked up if the Hornets like his progress. Exhaustion plagued Kemba in the Playoffs; if Harrison isn’t ready to play, expect the Hornets to pursue a veteran 3rd PG later in free agency.

Charlotte owns the 22nd pick in the Draft and could find a developmental big man or rotation player late.

The Hornets traded their 2nd Round pick to Oklahoma City as part of the Jeremy Lamb deal.

PREDICTION: Charlotte supplements their core with a third PG and backup Center.

Focus on 2017-2018

Make no mistake, the Hornets will compete in 2016-2017. With a (fingers crossed) healthy MKG, Kemba and Batum and one of the league’s best coaches and GMs – Charlotte has assembled a solid foundation on which to build. Next season should be about building on the previous one, trying to earn homecourt and win a round in the Playoffs; then pushing the momentum forward towards the summer of 2017. Why?

Because (if you buy my predictions above) the Hornets will have all of their key guys under contract that summer with an additional $26 million in free cap space. If they can prove to a key All-Star free agent that they’re only one player away after next season, they have a shot of luring a top tier guy to the Queen City. Then the fun really starts.

Until then, enjoy the offseason Hornets fans…

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

What Happened?

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Things clearly didn’t go the Hornets’ way in game 1 against the Heat, getting shellacked by 32 points. One might assume the Heat are a far superior team and the series might as well be over after that kind of performance. However, the numbers over the course of the entire season point to this being the most competitive and evenly matched first round series. If that’s the case, and I believe it is, what went wrong and how fixable is it? In this case, the tape is far more instructive than the numbers.
The Heat built the cushion they would need for the entire game in the 1st quarter, outscoring the Hornets 41-22. That lead begins and ends with Luol Deng’s performance, who played the entire quarter and went 5-5 including 3-3 on 3 pointers and scoring 14 points. Of those 5 makes only 2 were contested. The other 3 were defensive lapses: a miscommunication on a switch, a transition 3 after Frank saved the ball to the wrong team, and a drive when the defense failed to get organized after an offensive rebound. While Deng is a good player, Charlotte shot themselves in the foot and allowed him to get his points.

For the Hornets to be competitive, Marvin Williams will need to play Deng to a draw. Instead he missed all 3 of his attempts, all of which were good shots that he’s been making all season. Other than Batum, the rest of the team didn’t pick up the offensive slack, though offense wasn’t the problem. The Hornets were getting good shots, they just weren’t going down. Miami pressured the perimeter heavily, to the point of over-extending the defense and leaving paths to the rim that Charlotte was able to take advantage of at times. Creating shots wasn’t the problem, it was making them. The whole team failed to convert open lay-ups, short runners, and free-throws.
Overall, the effort was just not there considering the stakes. Bad communication, boxing out an area rather than boxing out a body, trying to tip rebounds rather than go up with 2 hands and grab them, lack of second effort… It wasn’t pretty but the Hornets need only look in the mirror to see why they lost. Whether it was Batum letting Justise Winslow fly around for offensive boards or Jefferson failing to recover to his man for a rebound after helping on a pick-and-roll, the mental and physical effort just wasn’t there in a way that would off-set the poor shooting performance.

Aside from Deng, Dwyane Wade had a terrific game. Clifford gave Jeremy Lin a chance to guard him in the first quarter and it did not go well. While Lin has plenty of upper body strength, his base and core could not handle Wade’s post game. Rather than holding his ground with a strong base, Lin was leaning on Wade to use his upper body and Wade feasted on it, spinning every which way and getting whatever he wanted. This wasn’t the only mismatch.

But enough with the words, what did the video show? Frankly, poor communication. Here you can see Kemba do the right thing on a Dragic-Stoudemire side pick-and-roll. He helps off his man on the other side of the court, tagging Stoudemire to muck up his roll, while Frank slides down so he can recover to either shooter if the ball gets kicked out.

Kemba Tag

Stoudemire abandons his roll and steps out to give Dragic and outlet, then swings the ball to Deng who has repositioned himself to provide a kick-out option. Frank follows him while Al hangs back, prepared for a Stoudemire post-up or a Deng drive. Lee follows his man, Winslow, and all Kemba needs to do is get back to Richardson. Excellent, typical Clifford defense. Until Kemba hesitates, caught in no-man’s land and looking around, leaving Richardson wide open.

Where Did He Go?

Kemba does a solid job recovering, but Richardson never should have had a shot. The defense has done its job but a failure to communicate with Kemba, coupled with his own hesitation, lets the defense down.

Too Little, Too Late

At the end of the first quarter, with Dragic racing up the court, the defense again fails to communicate. I honestly have no idea what Jeremy Lin is doing here. I would guess he’s trying to anticipate the Stoudemire screen in an effort to get over it but he turns his back to his man, leaving a free lane to the rim. He and Jefferson have to do a better job of communicating what their coverage is supposed to be.

Ummmm.... Wut?

Transition communication was just as bad as half-court communication. In basketball, the guy with the ball is the only one that can actually score points, so maybe guard him.

Someone? Anyone?

The physical effort was just as concerning as the lack of communication. Despite having 9/10 of their feet in the paint on this shot attempt, the Hornets failed to get this rebound and, after several tips, Deng got the put-back:

Welp....

The lack of effort wasn’t just on rebounding. Here, Batum ices the side pick-and-roll and while Cody doesn’t do a great job containing Wade as he snakes back in front of the pick, Charlotte has 3 defenders in help position. Lin in particular has already left Richardson open to help, to the point he won’t be able to recover, but fails to take one more step and cut off the drive. Instead Lin, Walker, and Williams watch Wade convert an easy lay-up.

Wade Getting All Slithery
HEEEELLLLPPPPP!!!!!!

Batum isn’t doing anything to dispel the soft European stereotype here when he walks into a screen that Deng never had any intention of setting.

What screen?

Rather than taking one step up to pressure the ball, he allows himself to get screened.

Oops....

Marvin Williams, realizing what Batum is doing, has to change directions and hustle back to contain the drive, only to get smashed by a Haslem screen. Cody does a decent job preventing the easy lay-up, but Wade is able to convert a tough turn-around at the elbow like he has a thousand times before in his career.

CRUUUUNCH!!!

If it’s a botched switch, it’s poor communication as Marvin Williams clearly had no idea that was happening. I’m not convinced. Batum needs to step up and, if that screen hits him, he needs to shrug it off and not get dragged out of the play by it.

So the bad news: Charlotte got creamed. The good news: it’s easily fixable. I’m not convinced there were any serious schematic failures. There were concerns about the way Charlotte played pick-and-rolls, seeming to show hard more than dropping back, but I didn’t see that on tape. Cody has always done more hedging than Jefferson, especially on the sides. Here you can see that type of defense:

It's a trap!

The problem isn’t the hedge. Batum and Cody are in good position to cause a turnover or a timeout with no real outlet in sight and only 9 seconds left on the shot-clock. The strategy is sound. The execution fails though. They leave a seam in the trap, allowing Joe Johnson to step through with an escape dribble and hit Deng for an open 3. Close that seam and that pass never happens. Good strategy, bad execution.

The effort wasn’t there and shots weren’t going in. In the second quarter, the defense improved and held Miami to 26 points. With an offensive flurry the Hornets could have been right back in it by half-time.

Here, Lin helps off his man to stop a Whiteside roll to the basket. Making Whiteside make decisions with the ball in his hand outside the restricted area is a winning proposition most of the time.

Way to go buddy!

Basic pick-and-roll defense here as Jefferson walls off the paint and Lin fights over the pick, forcing Dragic to snake back in front of Whiteside, taking him out of the play and resulting in a tough, missed step-back jumper. Stan Van Gundy would be proud of that wall of defense.

Build an effing wall!

I don’t think there’s anything magic Clifford and Co. need to do, the team just needs to be more focused and on a collective string defensively. Grab rebounds with 2 hands, put a body on someone when a shot goes up, keep moving offensively, talk constantly, and make your shots. That’s not to say the team can’t make adjustments. 2 things stood out to me when re-watching the game, one offensively and one defensively.

On offense, Charlotte needs to get downhill. The Heat perimeter defenders are being very aggressive. Cody was able to drive right by Whiteside for a dunk because nobody was below the free-throw line. Aggressive attacks lead to buckets and fouls to the tune of 37 attempts to the Heat’s 21 attempts. Cody was as effective as a roll man as I think I’ve ever seen him. Whiteside can dominate physically, so you have to make him think and make decisions. When that happened, Charlotte often won. When they went straight at him, he was able to contest. Just keep attacking.
The biggest defensive adjustment involves some interesting action only Miami runs (that I remember). After multiple screens, they’ll get Wade or Johnson the ball at the elbow and immediately have Whiteside set a ball screen below the foul line.

Here it comes....

This forces Whiteside’s man (Cody here) to corral the ball handler (Wade) or leave a free rim run. With a shooter in the strong side corner (Richardson) and so little space between the screen and the basket, Lin is unable to bump Whiteside before he’s at the rim.

I GOT IT!

Whiteside’s length makes it easy to pass over the top, even someone like Batum, so a switch still leaves Charlotte at a disadvantage. What’s left is an easy pass over the top and a lay-up for Whiteside.

Ruh roh

This action repeatedly gave Charlotte trouble and will have to be addressed. To me, the best thing would be to have Batum deny Wade the screen, no easy task considering how quickly they get into the screen-roll once Wade gets the ball. If Batum can beat Whiteside to the spot and force Wade back towards the sideline/baseline, Cody doesn’t have to compromise his position on Whiteside and can drop back. Batum would have to recover in a hurry and use his length to bother any drive or shot by Wade. Otherwise Cody is stuck between contesting Wade and blocking the rim run by Whiteside. Lin might have to dig down a little to stop the drive without compromising his ability to defend the corner 3.

Spoelstra is a smart coach and this elbow screen-roll caused some serious defensive problems as Charlotte failed both in effort and communication. That being said, it’s not unguardable and I expect Clifford & Co. to have a solution.

I thought re-watching this game would be torture. I was pleasantly surprised. Charlotte can and will be better, both offensively and defensively. Increase the effort and communication, look to attack downhill offensively, and clean up some small schematic issues defensively and the Hornets will be right back in this series.

Health is the Key to the Stretch Run

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As the deadline came and went, there were some who said Charlotte needed to make a move if they wanted to make the playoffs this year. They did so, acquiring Courtney Lee in exchange for PJ Hairston and Brian Roberts, a move that clearly makes the team better. However, a trade is not what is going to get the Hornets into the playoffs. Health is the most important factor.

It’s easy to remember that the Hornets struggled in January, going 6-11. It’s also easy to get caught up in the MKG injury after such strong individual and team performances during his 7 game cameo. It’s also easy to forget that, in November and December, the Hornets were a top 10 unit both offensively and defensively.

A quick look at Charlotte’s lineup data on nba.com’s stats page, sorted by minutes played, shows 9 out 10 lineups with strongly positive net ratings per 100 possessions. Ignoring the MKG lineup, every one of these lineups includes at least one of the Batum/Lamb/Lin trio that struggled with injuries throughout January.

top10lineups

The same information for just the month of January hammers home the importance of health for the Hornets. Despite playing 17 games in January, no individual lineup appeared in more than 7 games. The typical non-Al Jefferson starting lineup maintained a positive +6.6 net rating. Meanwhile, lineups missing Batum and featuring PJ Hairston at the 3 along with Kemba and Lin were atrocious.

badlineups

The human mind has a tendency to over value the most recent results, in this case January results and the MKG injury. This is what’s known as recency bias or the recency effect. But a step back reveals the Hornets should be fine in the stretch run as long as they stay healthy. This is a good team with a good coach and good players. When all of those pieces are allowed to work as intended, the results speak for themselves.

53 Down, 29 to Go

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The post all-star break schedule represents the stretch run of the NBA season. When games resume, the trade deadline will have passed and rosters will be set, other than veteran buyouts looking to boost a contender in the playoffs. This provides a good opportunity to try to determine what the Hornets can expect to accomplish this season.

To determine where the team is going, we have to establish where they are (and by extension, where they’ve come from). Currently, the Hornets are in 8th place in the east, 1 game over .500 at 27-26. While Cleveland and Toronto are running away with the top 2 spots in the east, the Celtics are in 3rd place but are only 3 games ahead of the Hornets in the loss column. The playoff race cuts off with Orlando, only 3 games behind Charlotte in the loss column. With such a tight race, what lies ahead will play a major part in how things shake out.

If that wasn’t a boring enough lead-in, analyzing the upcoming schedule will put you to sleep. So I’m going bullet point on this. 10 important facts about the remaining 29 games on the schedule.

  1. 29 games in 54 days
  2. 13 home, 16 away
  3. 7 back-to-backs (1 home/home, 3 away/away, 3 home/away)
  4. At Milwaukee (2), Cleveland (2), Indiana, Detroit and Toronto; 22 on east coast
  5. 7 game home stand from 3/4-3/16 (10 of 12 home from 3/1-3/21)
  6. 8 games against bottom 5 teams (3 Brooklyn, 3 Philadelphia, 1 Minnesota, 1 Phoenix)
  7. 22 games against the east, 7 against the west (PHX, MIN, NOP, HOU, DAL, DEN, SAS)
  8. 10 games against teams within 3 losses, above or below, the Hornets1
  9. 4 games against top 4 teams (@ Cleveland twice, vs San Antonio, @ Toronto)
  10. No game on April 7th (that’s my birthday)

1. How the schedule stacks up with playoff contenders:

Team Home Away
Indiana 1 1
Atlanta 0 1
Detroit 1 1
Orlando 2 0
Miami 0 1
Washington 0 1
Boston 0 1
Total 4 6

 

Kemba’s Non-Highlight

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Of course, the 24hr media cycle devoted to Curry’s dominant performance against the Hornets was well deserved. The hometown phenom effortlessly hit long-range shots that no other player would have the guts to attempt, and put up 40pts in only three quarters of action.

After the latest episode of the Steph show, the online hoops outlets have finally put the spotlight on the competition. Unfortunately, Kemba Walker has been elected to represent the Demoralized Opponent Tasked with Guarding Steph Curry.

 

Vine Credit: Carey Wilkinson

Btw, Curry represented the QC with his new “Providence Road” Under Armour kicks while visiting Buzz City.

Vote of Confidence for Clifford

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Despite the task of installing a new offensive system in the last year of his contract, Hornets coach Steve Clifford received a vote of confidence from the team’s executives this past week. Clifford gained a well-deserved sense of security after coming to terms with the club on a multi-year extension. This should bode well for the organization, the coaching staff, and the still-congealing roster learning to play by Clifford’s fundamentals.

Now in his third season as head coach, it’s nice to hear a bit more swagger from his interviews. His bravado came through loud and clear when discussing how his extension could impact the team as a whole. The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell played a little tee-ball with Clifford, and asked him how his contract extension could possibly affect Nicolas Batum’s upcoming free agency. Here’s the coach’s response:

“(Batum) trusts me. He believes in me. So that could be a big factor.”

From a few rows back, it’s easy to see that the Charlotte basketball franchise is now legitimate with Steve Clifford at the helm. We need to take this Thanksgiving weekend to be grateful for that. The forefathers of the team – Bernie Bickerstaff, Sam Vincent, Larry Brown, Paul Silas, and Mike Dunlap – captained a franchise that was mostly a joke, a sucker, or a d-league affiliate to the other 29 members of the Association. The Hornets’ remarkable turnaround hasn’t been entirely the result of Clifford’s work, but he’s been a big part of the equation. Let’s hope that they can maintain the momentum with “Cliff” in charge.

Links:
Clifford’s Extension a No-Brainer  – Charlotte Observer
Batum et Clifford?Bleacher Report
Rich Cho on Steve Clifford’s ExtensionCharlotte Observer