Jeremy Lin VS Kemba Walker: By The Numbers

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I.

The point guard position has long been an issue for Charlotte’s NBA franchise. The city’s last great lead guard (Baron Davis) was hijacked along with the original franchise back in 2002. The expansion Bobcats subsequently invested three Lottery picks into the position over a period of six years (2005, 2008, 2011) yet failed to find their franchise defining quarterback each time.

Walker represents the last and best of those picks. He just turned 25 in May and is entering both his prime and the first year of a four year, $48 million contract extension. The team clearly sees Kemba as an asset and has positioned him as a major piece of the team’s future either as a starter or key reserve.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin is playing on a cheap one year contract with a player option that he’ll almost certainly turn down next July. Both sides have (wisely) framed the marriage as an opportunity to both rehabilitate Lin’s career after an ill-fitting season in Los Angeles and to provide Charlotte with a steady backup point guard behind Walker.

Again, this is how the team is framing it publicly. The brain trust has doubtlessly imagined a future in which J-Lin returns to semi-Linsanity heights and re-signs as the team’s starting point guard next July. The Hornets could begin to transition Kemba to his more natural sixth man role – where he could dominate both the ball and opponent’s second units.

After the Lin signing was made public, Coach Clifford spun tales of playing the two together for big minutes. I’ll believe it when I see it. Clifford hates going small and the team tried a similar experiment with Mo Williams late last season to mostly poor results. With a weaker defensive frontline this season, heavy dual point lineups could get even dicier.

II.

So how do we rate these not quite All-Star point guards? What individual strengths and weaknesses do they bring? For that answer, we’re going to have to go down the metric rabbit hole.

WARNING: I’m about to get geeky on you. If esoteric statistics and decimal points make your eyes cross, skip to the TRANSLATIONS at the end of each section. For those brave souls who remain, let’s start with the basics:

Jeremy and Kemba have played roughly the same number of career games (291 vs 283 in favor of Lin) while Walker’s notched around 1500 more career minutes. Kemba has 283 career starts compared to J-Lin’s 170. Walker just turned 25 in May while Lin will turn 27 in August.

Lin also notched around 9 minutes per game fewer than Walker last season so any non-weighted per game numbers will be converted by 32%. With that out of the way, let’s get on with the breakdown.

TOUCHES

SportsVU ranked Kemba 5th overall last season in Touches per game (92.4), eighth overall in time of possession (7.6 mins) with an average of 1.88 points per touch.

Lin averaged 56.3 (74.3 converted) touches, 4.9 mins in time of possession (6.46 converted) and exactly 2 points per touch.

TRANSLATION: Both guys like the ball in their hands but Kemba takes it to another level. Walker averaged more touches per game than Russell Westbrook and his time of possession suggests that he’s either an elite scorer (false) or the best scorer on a bad offense (true). The Hornets have added ball-movers and shot-creators all summer so Walker’s game will need an adjustment.

Advantage: Lin

ISOs

Despite his rep as a mini-Iverson, Walker ranked fairly low in isolation attempts per SportsVU. Only 9.9% of his plays per game were of the isolation variety and he converted at a relatively decent .84 points per possession.

Lin ranked higher at 12.1% isos per game and only managed .74 points per possession on those attempts. Score one for Walker.

More good news for Kemba: while each player manufactured the same amount of free throws out of isos (~14%) Walker did so with a fantastic 5% turnover frequency (as opposed to J-Lin’s concerning 14.8%).

TRANSLATION: No surprise Kemba is the better isolation player, a pleasant surprise that he is a relatively efficient one.

Advantage: Walker

PICK AND ROLL

Kemba used the pick on 48.1% of his possessions which ranked 9th overall – a surprising number considering Walker’s reputation as a non pick and roll player. Walker managed .83 points per possession off the pick, logged an eFG%** of 41.0%, Free Throw frequency of 11.6% and a fantastic Turnover frequency of just 10.6%.

By comparison, Lin used the pick on 40% of his possessions – again, surprising given his pick and roll heavy reputation. He notched an identical .83 points per possession, a much higher 45.8% eFG%, a higher 13.8 Free Throw frequency and a frightening 20.6% Turnover frequency.

*Effective Field Goal Percentage grants additional weight to 3PT shots*

TRANSLATION: Kemba used the pick more but scored less efficiently out of it. Lin uses the pick less but with greater shot efficiency and at a much greater risk of creating a turnover.

Advantage: None

PASSING

More SportsVU: Kemba registered .6 Free Throw assists, 1.5 “hockey assists” and 11 assist opportunities per game.

Lin averaged .4 (.53 converted) Free Throw assists per game, .8 (1.0 converted) hockey assists per game and 8.9 (11.75 converted) assist opportunities.

In terms of raw per game assists, Kemba tallied 5.1apg while J-Lin notched 4.6 (6.1 converted). Assist rates again have Jeremy out in front: Kemba 20.9 (career low average), J-Lin 26.5 (around career average).

The real story is in the turnovers: Lin has improved his ability to protect the ball in recent years but is still far, far behind Kemba’s Top 10 ranking in assist to turnover ratio.

TRANSLATION: Lin is nominally a better shot creator but comes at the high cost of turnovers. Kemba’s limited court vision is made up for somewhat by his elite ability to take care of the ball.

Advantage: Walker

SHOOTING EFFICIENCY

Basic stats: Lin shot 37% from downtown last season, raising his career average to 35%. Kemba regressed to 30%, bringing his number to 31.8% from deep. Overall FG% has J-Lin at around 44% for his career, Kemba just below 40% overall. Each draws FTs at a decent rate and converts at or around 80% from the line when they get there.

Jeremy wins the FG% battle on drives 46% to 41.6%. Kemba wins on “close shots” 66.7% to 57%. Catch & Shoot and Pull-up percentages are slightly in Lin’s favor but Lin’s three point shooting abilities has him easily out in front in effective FG% 47.3% to 42.9%.

ESPN’s True Shooting Metric takes eFG% even further, accounting for free throws as well as threes. Kemba notched a 48.6 (about average for his career), while Lin registered 53.9 (also around average for his career).

TRANSLATION: Easy (and expected) win for Jeremy Lin. Kemba has struggled mightily with his shot since entering into the NBA. If there’s one aspect of Walker’s game that has and will continue to prevent an All-Star appearance, it’s this one.

Advantage: Lin

DEFENSE

82games.com has Kemba as a slight net minus (–3.0) while ranking Lin a slight net plus (+1.0) which is in line with ESPN’s real plus minus rankings for both PGs (Lin is 19th at +1.66, Kemba 37th at –1.03).

Lin is clearly the bigger defender on the court and has at least three inches and fifteen pounds on Walker. Lin measured a 6’5” wingspan and an 8’2” standing reach at the Portsmouth pre-Draft camp back in 2010. Kemba measured a near 6’3” wingspan and just over 7’7” standing reach a year later. Both players are solid on the boards and have nearly identical rebound rates over their careers.

TRANSLATION: Real plus minus is far from perfect but when combined with the eye test and Lin’s physical advantages, it’s obvious that Jeremy is the better defensive option of the two.

Advantage: Lin

III.

Anyone who has traveled through Southeast Asia will have doubtlessly come across the expression “same same but different”. It’s a concise little phrase that the Thai people use to describe two things which, while quite similar, have a few key features that make them uniquely their own. Example: Banana bread and a banana muffin = same same but different.

In the midst of researching the Lin and Kemba combo, that lyrical phrase same same but different kept popping up in my mind over and over again. The Hornets now have two upper-middle class PG options. Neither are an elite talent but both are very good scoring guards who can benefit a team in their own way.

One guy can protect the ball and break ankles but can also shoot you out of a game. One guy can hit threes and score off the pick but is reckless with the ball. One can manufacture offense out of nothing while the other can elevate a team’s defense. Same same. But different. It will be fascinating to watch how Coach Clifford handles the dynamic and how each player responds. Who knows? Perhaps the Queen City’s next great point guard are a duo.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Illustration by @MikeSakoon – download an iPhone 6 wallpaper version here.

Hornets Summer Shuffle : June Edition

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Just two weeks removed from the closing game of the 2015 NBA Finals, and significant moves have quickly been made all around the league. Sparing little time, the Hornets kicked off the Summer as one of the most active clubs reworking their roster. At this point, GM Rich Cho appears to be ambitiously taking on major renovations, while hesitant to chisel at the foundation of last year’s disappointing squad.

Over the last decade, the Bobcats/Hornets haven’t hid their desperation to add legitimate talent. The results haven’t amazed, as they corralled rosters through free agency, drafts, or trades. The free agent market delivered a mixed bag of guys like Ramon Sessions, Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Jason Maxiell, and Lance Stephenson. Unfortunately, Charlotte’s habitual weakness – the NBA Draft – hasn’t counterbalanced their lack of free agent appeal (or cash). Their scouting and drafting practices have resulted in a young group of prospects that are living in the shadow of their own “potential” – Bismack Biyombo, Kemba Walker, Jeffery Taylor, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh, and the newest Hornet Frank Kaminsky. It’s a good bet that none of these guys will be wearing an All-Star uniform next February, but it’s possible that they can all contribute as pros somewhere in the Association.

If there’s one way to ease the anxiety or apathy of the fanbase, it’s a tool that Charlotte’s been leaning on for years – Trading. The Bobcats existed in a constant state of upheaval (internally and on the court). While the basketball product was underwhelming, they could always draw attention as we speculated on the next far-fetched (Allen Iverson) or bone-headed (Tyson Chandler) move they could make. Apparently, Michael Jordan decided to pivot from aimlessly swapping for dumb contracts and took an interest in shaping a balanced roster when he hired Rich Cho. Moving bad contracts and getting valuable, NBA-calibre talent through trades has proven to be Cho’s biggest strength as he’s rebuilt the club. Just a week ago, he surprised us by applying these skills to address his own mistake in signing Lance Stephenson last year.

After last season’s disappointing record, it should be no surprise that Charlotte is taking action to turn things around. Here’s a quick recap of what’s happened for the Hornets in June:

Moved Lance Stephenson (Guard)
Result: Saved us from watching him ruin every offensive possession while on the court.

Acquired Spencer Hawes (Center)
Result: Added a quality backup center with shooting range that opens up the floor, and gives Jefferson ten minutes of rest

Acquired Jeremy Lamb (Guard) for Luke Ridnour for Matt Barnes
Result: Now have a taller reserve guard with reliable shooting, and experience in a successful NBA offense. Rich Cho showed a little of his savviness to add talent in exchange for nothing.

Moved Gerald Henderson (Guard)
Result: Lost a captain and loyal teammate, but finally let Henderson see how things work outside of the ever-rebuilding Charlotte club.

Moved Noah Vonleh (Forward/Center)
Result: Gave away a promising young big man. Yet, allows us to watch him develop from afar without the risk of being let down by another failed developmental talent project.

Acquired: Nicolas Batum
Result: Kemba and Al will have room to work. Batum is enough of an offensive threat to spread defenses, allowing Charlotte to run a pro-style offense this season. As a bonus, MKG will have a handful more opportunities to slash to the paint with Batum drawing attention.

Drafted: Frank Kaminsky (Center)
Result: GM Rich Cho is going to have to defend this pick for a while. Charlotte just traded for Spencer Hawes, and Kaminsky will likely bring the same set of skills to the court. Who knew that Hawes was the prototype for the next generation of big man in the league?

Released: Bismack Biyombo
Result: The Hornets gave up on a project that wasn’t showing much return on their investment. This leaves the team without a real rim protector, and allows Biyombo to find a better fit elsewhere in the league. Rich Cho somehow gets a pass on this despite the obvious gamble.

Released: Jefferey Taylor
Result: More minutes are available for a wing behind MKG and Batum. Who will step up?

As a whole, these moves signal a concerted effort to address the team’s painfully unwatchable offense. This could be the wave that elevates the Hornets to the Playoffs, as they’ve already claimed the reputation as a top defense under Steve Clifford. The organization has yet to establish a “system” like some of the league’s most respected clubs, but this off-season has shown that they’ve transitioned away from simply clearing the books and acquiring young (cheap) prospects. This Summer, the Hornets look like they’re actually building toward winning.

– Mike


POLL : Best Move This Summer?

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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:

BigAlSC14 HardenSC KorverSC LowrySC

Now check out Kemba and Gerald:

GeraldSC KembaSC

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

Build Around the Disruptor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Baseline Observations: Three Games In

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

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

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

ASChin
@BaselineBuzz