The Case for Point Guard Malik Monk

The-Case-For-Malik-Monk-Point-Guard
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Real talk: Malik Monk was horrendous through his first seven pro games. Outside of his 17 point effort versus the Nuggets (with former coach John Calipari in the building) there was little to be excited about.

Monk shot 20 for 68 from the field (29%) through this stretch – not good considering that shooting was supposedly his one surefire NBA skill heading into the Draft. His defense was awful (so bad that I caught Jeremy freaking Lamb shaking his head when Malik lost his man for the gazzilionth time). Worst of all, Monk was a turnover machine, averaging nearly 2 TOs per game in just over 20 minutes per.

Not all of this was the rookie’s fault. Injuries to both Hornet backup PGs (Michael Carter-Williams & Julyan Stone) forced Monk into a lead ball handler role he wasn’t ready for in the NCAA much less the pros.

Yet some of these problems are (and will continue to be) endemic to the type player Monk is. His handle at the moment is loose and when a defender locks in, Monk resorts to a nervous head down dribble in the full court. Given his size, strength and ability, Monk is essentially fated to guard ones and micro-twos so playing him next to Kemba for long stretches will be difficult against good teams. If and when Malik goes through his physical “mansformation”, this could change but that won’t be for several seasons.

No one’s been more critical of Rich Cho’s decision to draft Monk over a ready-made defensive beast who can shoot (Donovan Mitchell) than me – and through Malik’s first seven contests I was terrified that Charlotte’s front office had done what they do best again: Nail trades (Dwight Howard) and blow the Draft (Monk).

Malik’s effort Wednesday night against Milwaukee lowered my stress levels by half. Aside from the ridiculous 4th quarter explosion (18 points in a blink of an eye – we knew he was capable of that pre-Draft), what warmed my teal and purple soul was Monk’s carefulness as a ball handler and how he was able to play within his niche.

So much of Malik’s struggles early on were due to his insistence on trying to do everything on offense. Against the Bucks he focused on catch & shoot opportunities and jump shots off screens – which perfectly setup two impressive dribble drives midway thought the 4th. He was beautifully efficient. Much credit to both Malik and the coaching staff for figuring this out so early in the season.

The Off Court Benefits of Monk at Point Guard

Cho and Steve Clifford have more than just on-court reasons for accelerating Monk’s ability to play point. For the reasons stated above, if Malik is going to reach his apex as an NBA player – and for the team to succeed while he does so – Monk is going to have to play a lot of his minutes at the one.

When (if?) this apex is achieved, the trickle-down benefits carry enormous ramifications. For one, Charlotte can finally end its yearly bargain-bin search for a primary backup to Kemba Walker and instead invest those meager funds in a quality third string player should either Monk or Walker miss time.

Malik’s rookie deal keeps him cheap until the 2020-2021 season, timing perfectly with Nic Batum’s near max deal. The only reason to pay a player like Nic that kind of money is to team him with a lead guard who’d rather play like a primary scorer. That’s obviously true now with Kemba in his prime and could continue as Malik approaches his.

Once Batum returns this season, I expect him to play quite a lot with the 2nd unit (as he did last year), especially now that Lamb has proven to be such a great fit with the starters. An early rest for Nic would see him playing most of the 2nd quarter with Monk at nominal point, creating more efficient scoring opportunities for the rook.

Perhaps most importantly, an effective Monk at PG can cut Kemba’s minutes down to the low thirties. Walker has had two knee surgeries in as many summers and the big minutes slowed him down late last season. With unrestricted free agency (and a massive contract) looming just 18 months from now, the less wear and tear on the 27 year old star, the better.

Future Concerns

Speaking of that next contract (and yes, I know it’s nearly two seasons away), it’s important to remember that Walker will be 29 when he signs it and potentially coming off of three straight All-Star appearances.

What happens if the Knicks decide to break the bank in order to bring the Bronx native home at the full max? Do the Hornets really want to be on the hook for that kind of contract? Is a 33 year old Walker at around $30 million per season a wise move?

What if Kemba has yet another knee procedure? How does his game age? No one wants to think about this now that he’s balling out (including me) but rest assured, these questions are being contemplated by the Hornets front office.

And if they look into deep recesses of Rich Cho’s database, they may see a scenario in which Monk is not only Kemba’s short term backup at PG but his longterm replacement should things go awry.

In that case, it’s very important for Monk to not only improve as a pro but to improve at a position few expected him to ever play.

–ASChin
@baselinebuzz

A Commitment to Relevance | Baseline 2017 Hornets Offseason Preview

Rich Cho - Baseline 2017 Offseason Preview
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JUMP TO SECTION: WHAT WENT WRONG | HORNETS DRAFT PHILOSOPHY2017 HORNETS DRAFT | TEAM NEEDS2017 HORNETS FREE AGENCY | 2017 HORNETS TRADE SCENARIOS | POTENTIAL DEPTH CHARTS | WRAP UP | BONUS: GEISINGER ON THE STARTING FIVE

Sometime around mid-afternoon on June 22nd, 2011, Charlotte Bobcats newly crowned general manager Rich Cho made his first significant roster move with the franchise.

Cho managed to contrive a scenario in which Charlotte moved up from the 19th to the 7th pick for the measly price of a disgruntled Stephen Jackson*. That’s twelve spots in a good Draft for essentially nothing.

The trade was a high level front office negotiation Charlotte fans were unfamiliar with since the days of Bob Bass. What Cho ended up doing with the fruits of his victory would exemplify the next half decade of his tenure.

HUGO IN THE MIDDLE

Flash forward six years and the Hornets are stuck in the NBA’s middle. Pundits on either side of Team Tank have seen this coming for years. The franchise is consistently too good to finish in the league’s Lottery basement and not good enough to do significant damage in the postseason. Their Drafting strategy of hitting singles and doubles prevent the strikeouts of the past (Adam Morrison) but also eliminates any chance of unearthing the next Greek Freak mid-round.

Charlotte’s roster is stacked with high character guys on guaranteed contracts that range from veteran bargains (Kemba) to slightly above going rate (Batum). No All-Stars on Rookie scale wages, no albatross 35 year olds on max deals. Again, right down the middle. Vanilla.

In an era of extremes, many fans hate this. If you’re not going to be the best, you need to be the worst and hoard draft picks like a prepper fresh off an Infowars binge.

But as we’ve seen with the Suns, Sixers and Magic – three teams that have committed to “The Process” much longer than Charlotte’s single tank season of 2011-2012 – this path is extremely taxing. Longterm tanking shakes a franchise to its very core and the architects in charge rarely survive to see the payoffs (if there are any).

Charlotte never really had a choice in the matter. The city is on its second NBA marriage. Unlike the first, this one had been bad from the start. There was no love affair. No passion. No “good times” to fall back on. They were single, we were single, it looked good on paper. The Bobcats were a disaster from the jump.

The franchise took a sober look at their situation and picked the only direction that offered any reasonable hope of success. Relevance may not be the storybook ending sports fans dream of but it’s a hell of an upgrade from the embarrassment of an eventual second relocation.

THE PAIN OF UNMET EXPECTATIONS

It’s important to remember that the 2016-2017 season was disappointing precisely because the team had such high expectations going into it. Any longtime fan of the franchise understands that this was a foreign concept to all involved.

For a decade the only thing one could realistically expect from the Bobcats was to be slightly less bad than the year before. Suddenly, the Hornets were a roster full of competent NBA players on the verge of breaking through 50 wins and making it past the first round of the postseason.

None of that happened and we were all let down by a season of nagging injuries, depth disasters and late game giveaways. Now that the pain has had a chance to wear off, it’s important to remember that the reasons many of us were so high on Charlotte last fall remain intact today.

The Hornets starting five were fantastic whenever they were healthy enough to play together (depending on how you sort, the starters had somewhere between a Top 5 and Top 11 net rating in the entire league) and are all locked up to relatively reasonable longterm deals. The team’s coach is well-respected throughout the league and is entering his fifth consecutive season with the team (a feat only one other Charlotte NBA coach has achieved in nearly 30 years).

The Hornets don’t owe any future first round picks and, aside from a very questionable midseason trade for Miles Plumlee, have rather clean-looking books going forward.

Let’s breakdown the primary culprits for Charlotte’s 2016-2017 swoon:

  1. Health
  2. Depth
  3. Inability to Close Games

A roster can overcome nagging injuries with depth and overcome depth limitations with a healthy core. A roster cannot overcome both simultaneously.

Last season’s enormous cap spike combined with Charlotte’s plethora of unrestricted free agents left Cho searching the clearance aisle to find replacements for Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson. He found mostly junk.

Roy Hibbert, either through injury or play style, just couldn’t give Cliff what he needed from a backup five every night. Ramon Sessionsthree-point aberration in Washington proved just that. Marco Belinelli was the best of the bunch but his defensive limitations (combined with the team’s lack of rim protection) overshadowed some truly special offensive performances.

There’s also the fact that each of the departing rotation players (Big Al, Lee and J-Lin) could be counted on to give you late game buckets that Charlotte was desperate for all season.

From CBS Sports – “(the Hornets) were 8-14 in games decided by five points or less, lost all six of their overtime games and went 0-9 in games decided by three or less points, which is the worst record in such games in NBA history.”

And even though Cho faces less unrestricted free agent chaos this summer, the front office is armed with precious few ways to resolve the team’s lingering depth and scoring issues.

DRAFT PHILOSOPHY: SINGLES AND DOUBLES

When the 7th pick was announced back in 2011, it marked the last time Charlotte swung for the fences in the Draft.

The story goes that Cho had scouted Bismack Biyombo extensively for years, well before Biz’s Nike Hoops Summit explosion that put him on the rest of the league’s radar. Having previously worked under Sam Presti in Seattle and OKC, Cho saw his own version of Serge Ibaka right in front of him; a shot-blocking centerpiece to anchor a defense around.

Never mind that Biyombo had few professional basketball skills. Never mind that Biyombo could barely catch a pass much less rain down corner threes like his Congo counterpart in Oklahoma. Cho was dialed in on this 19** year old’s potential.

Had Cho drafted either Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson with that pick (both players were Lottery projected and the ‘Cats needed a wing after trading both Jackson and Gerald Wallace in the previous six months), his legacy would be cemented as Greatest GM in Charlotte NBA history and he’d widely be considered one of the league’s best GMs today.

Instead, Cho’s Bismack Myopia – coupled with a few ping-pong balls the following June – cemented Charlotte’s middle of the pack future and overshadows his otherwise solid reputation amongst fans to this day.

The Biyombo legacy continues to shape the team’s guiding Draft philosophy. Drafting “busts” is simply not an option in the QC; the Hornets have made getting longterm contributions from top picks their utmost priority.

With the exception of Biyombo, every Lottery selection the team has made since 2011 has signed an extension with the team. The player who would’ve been eligible for an early extension this summer, Noah Vonleh, was traded for a key vet (Batum) who signed a new five year deal last July.

In brief, the team has made a commitment to extract longterm value out of their Lottery selections and this longterm value trumps any and everything else – including gambling on high risk/high reward projects.

And really, can you blame Charlotte for implementing this strategy? Between 2004 and 2011, the Bobcats owned seven Lottery picks. Just two of those picks signed extensions with the team after their rookie deals (Emeka Okafor, Gerald Henderson) and the rest either walked or were traded for nothing of longterm value (we can debate the Brandon Wright > J-Rich > Diaw/Bell swap another time).

Additionally, Michael Jordan’s own Draft trauma serves to only further cement the team’s conservative approach. After Kwame and AMMO, it’s doubtful the G.O.A.T. has it in him for another decade of Crying MJ memes mocking his talent evaluation.

HORNETS 2017 Draft Options

All of this points us in a likely direction for the Hornets to take in June. We know that they crave certainty, we know that they prioritize character, big collegiate program experience and are not above drafting for need. We know that Coach Clifford has at least some minor input into the process.

Couple all this with Charlotte’s cap constrictions and it leads me to believe that if they keep the pick, the Hornets will be motivated to land a guy who has a shot at making Cliff’s rotation as soon as possible.

And thus the dilemma. Two of the top players projected to be around when the Hornets pick at 11 are not rotation ready: Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and Strasbourg’s (France) Frank Ntilikina.

Collins flashes truly incredible skill for a seven footer but needs time to develop both physically and mentally on the court. Zach would also be the third 7 foot white guy Drafted by Charlotte in their previous four Lotteries. Does that mean anything on the court? Other than positional redundancy, no. But optics matter and I’m sure the organization has at least considered the negative fan response.

Ntilikina offers his own challenges. Aside from having many of the same developmental requirements as Collins, French Frank is a primary ball handler prone to Cliff’s least favorite hoops sin: unforced turnovers. The safe money is on Frank investing the first half of his rookie campaign in Greensboro.

Still, Ntilikina is in many ways the team’s best shot at nabbing a potential superstar at a position of need. Six-five point guards with 7 foot wingspans are the rarest of talents, especially those who can shoot, defend and are blessed with lead guard court vision.

Given their pasts, will Cho and MJ gamble on a high upside developmental pick? Or will they continue to play it safe? If they are bold, my prediction is that it’ll either be Ntilikina or Collins.

But if the franchise stays true to form and tries to find a rotation ready, “sure-thing”, I’d rank the rest of their Draft board in the following order:

  1. Donovan Mitchell, Combo Guard | Louisville
  2. Luke Kennard, Wing | Duke
  3. Justin Jackson, Wing | UNC
  4. Ike Anigbogu, C | UCLA

Of the four, I like Mitchell most. He’s a combo guard who can shoot and has the physical profile (6’10” wingspan, thick 215lb body) to finish at the rim and fight through screens. Donovan could play spot minutes at the one next to Batum when Kemba sits and alongside Walker when Cliff plays two points in the backcourt. Donovan also comes across as a very smart, grounded kid in interviews.

Shooting is why the team could go with a locally-sourced wing (Jackson/Kennard). I initially had them rated equally but as I watch them more, Kennard seems the better pro prospect. Luke is a year younger with a much faster, more consistent stroke over his career. He has very good court vision for his size and his ability to shoot, create off the dribble and move the ball with purpose make him an intriguing offensive prospect. But he comes with major defensive limitations; similar to Frank Kaminsky, opposing players simply go through him.

Jackson has better length and (theoretic) defensive potential but turned 22 in March – how much upside is left? Justin’s release is much slower, less consistent and his floor game (aside from a deadly, ridiculously beautiful looking floater) is behind Kennard’s.

Neither wing screams star but they’d have a chance to crack the rotation by at least the following season, when Marco Belinelli’s contract expires. The league has a wing deficit overall (see KCP and Otto Porter’s inevitable max contracts this summer) and Drafting even a middling talent could be one of the few ways of getting one on the cheap.

If the team decides to go with Anigbogu, I’d be a little surprised. The kid obviously has the potential to be a defensive beast – think Ian Mahimni or Hassan Whiteside without the baggage – but he’s got more than just a little Biyombo to his game and I can’t imagine Cho and Clifford going back to that well again unless they are certain he can become at least an average offensive player for his position.

HORNETS TEAM NEEDS

Before we get into free agency or potential trade targets, let’s review Charlotte’s depth chart:

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions (TO), Briante Weber (TO)
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli
  • SF: MKG, Jeremy Lamb
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant (TO)
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee
    (TO = Team Option)

The bench has two primary issues to be remedied and one secondary. First, Marco Belinelli and Jeremy Lamb are largely redundant. Both are strictly twos and neither have the physical profile or defensive ability to guard potent, big wings like Paul George or Jimmy Butler should either Nic or MKG miss time or need a rest. Adding a backup wing with decent size is a major priority. Preferably one who can score. More on this later.

The other primary bench issue is at backup point. Hornets fans were spoiled a season ago when the team had a starting caliber lead guard as a backup. Jeremy Lin was more or less the prototypical backup to Kemba: big enough to play alongside Walker, good enough to start when Kemba was hurt and smart enough at both ends of the court that Cliff trusted him to close games. Few of those things could be said about his replacement.

I asked hoops stat savant and friend of the Baseline, Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird – a MUST Twitter follow for Hornets fans) to give me a stat or two that reflects why Ramon Sessions was either under-appreciated or rightfully maligned by fans. Here’s what he sent me:

(if numbers hurt your brain, jump to my summary)

Geisinger on Sessions: The Bad

Ramon’s shooting declined at all levels, including important areas for a guard who made a name for himself as a driver: restricted area (48.9 FG%), inside 10 feet (44.2 FG%), and attempts after 3-6 dribbles (31.3 FG%).

His field goal percentage on drives dropped from 46.6 FG% to 38.3 FG%; his field goal percentage on pull-ups dropped, too, from 39 FG% to 32.9%

FT rate dropped from 47.8% to 44.9%, and so too did his FTA per 100 possessions — from 8.3 to 7.3.

When looking at two-man lineup combinations, Sessions had a positive point differential with only one other player: 13 minutes with Brian Roberts. In those minutes, which occurred in garbage time, Charlotte still scored fewer than 1 point per possession.

They did score well with he and Kemba on the floor, though: 116.7 points per 100 possessions (121 minutes). But they still had a negative point differential.

Sesh was just one of just six guys in the NBA this season with more than 800 minutes, a usage rate above 20%, BPM below -3, and a FG% less than 40% (it’s not good company).

(*All of these season comparisons are from 2015-16 to 2016-17. That doesn’t really do Ramon too many favors, because 15-16 was the best season he had in years. The drops wouldn’t be quite as jarring if looking at 14-15 or 13-14.)

Geisinger on Sessions: The Good

Pick-and-roll shooting dropped from 43 FG% to 36.8 FG%, and he dropped from the 74th percentile in PNR efficiency to the 59th percentile. But he still scored 0.82 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, which is pretty good. He drew a shooting foul on 17.8% of these possessions — good for the fifth best rate in the NBA amongst players with at least 150 PNR possessions.

Now back to the studio. Thanks Brian!

In summary, Sesh regressed beyond even Bobcat Ramon levels and was a slightly below average backup point when he was healthy. The Hornets hold a team option for $6.3m next season and it seems inevitable that they’ll decline it, right?…Right?

2017 FREE AGENCY: DEPTH AND TAXES

As I mentioned before, Cho has done a nice job of locking in a quality starting five. That’s the good news. The bad news is that after the midseason addition of Plumlee, the team is effectively capped out.

Baseline Hornets Salaries May 7 2017

Once Charlotte signs their Lottery pick and exercises team options on Briante Weber and Johnny O’Bryant (both expected), they’ll be around $6 million over the league’s $102 million salary cap.

Add in a full Midlevel offer (which jumps to $8.4 million starting salary this season) and you’re up to $110 million. Pickup Ramon’s team option and you’re at $123 million. The Luxury Tax is $121 million. No, the 36-win Charlotte Hornets are not paying the Luxury Tax.

This would seem to only reinforce Charlotte’s motivation to decline Sesh’s team option, right? RIGHT?!!! (C’MON!!! FOR THE LOVE OF-)

Hey kids! Here’s an exercise you can try at home today: head over to Hoopshype’s free agent page and check out July’s available point guards. Now filter out all the ones who would laugh at the Midlevel Exception. Now sort for fit, experience, cost to value ratio, etc. Here’s what I ended up with:

BASELINE FA PGS: Darren Collison (Full Midlevel), Yogi Ferrell (Restricted, Full Midlevel), Michael Carter-Williams (Restricted, Partial Midlevel or Biannual), Langston Galloway (Partial Midlevel or Biannual), Raymond Felton (Vet Minimum)

BARF. Other than Collison and Ferrell (the Mavs would match that offer in a microsecond), do we know that any of these guys are definitively better options than Ramon? I don’t. Nor would I feel comfortable offering Collison, MCW or Galloway longterm contracts.

If Charlotte is going to upgrade their backup point guard situation it will need to happen via the Draft (Mitchell, Ntilikina or trade up for NC State’s Dennis Smith) or via the trade market. If they can’t find an upgrade via either route, don’t be surprised if Ramon’s option is picked up for next season (No…no…NOOOOO!!!!).

CENTER DEPTH: MILES AHEAD?

The same Hoopshype > Filter/Sort > Vomit experiment can shed some light on the confusing Plumlee trade as well. Have a look at the following MLE or below centers available this summer:

BASELINE FA BIGS: JaMychal Green, Cristiano Felicio, Alex Len.

Some decent intrigue there to be sure. And yeah, maybe one of them would take the midlevel. Here’s the problem, all three are restricted free agents so, aside from maybe Len, the chances of them actually landing on Charlotte’s roster is slim to none. Sure, there’s always a chance the unrestricted big market peters out and someone like Amir Johnson would take $8m a year but sometimes it peters out and you’re left with Roy Hibbert.

Cho*** likely saw the upcoming big crop, looked at the team’s lack of cap flexibility and decided that it was better to give it a go with Miles. I still hate the trade (especially with Plumlee’s subsequent calf strain and knee surgery) but at least this shows that there was some thought process behind it however flawed.

SECOND LOTTERY WINGS

If the Hornets do use their midlevel this July, expect it to be on a wing. Once you calculate year to year raises, the new, full MLE will be around 4yrs, $37m. Hardly the sort of windfall guys like Allen Crabbe saw last year but with the cap plateauing, it’s feasible that a decent young veteran could lock in to this type of deal.

BASELINE FA WINGS: Ben McLemore (Restricted), Ian Clark (Unrestricted), Shabazz Muhammad (Restricted)****

The above list is essentially a “Second Draft” – young vets coming off rookie contracts who may have some untapped potential to mine. Clark has had some big scoring games with the Warriors but did not receive a qualifying offer from Golden State and one wonders whether or not his limited success was due to the organization or the player (AKA The Ezeli Effect).

McLemore has long been rumored as a potential Hornet trade target and it’s doubtful the Kings would be motivated to bring him back now that Buddy Hield has become their single building block of note.

Of the three, I like Muhammad the best. While he’s nothing like a lockdown defender, he’s strong enough to make big wings work and could offer Charlotte a valuable scoring presence off the bench (think Rudy Gay or a wing version of Big Al). Shabazz is still just 24 and the Wolves upcoming salary situation point to them not matching any offer sheet.

If the team decides to go with a more established wing via the MLE, I could see guys like Thabo Sefolosha or CJ Miles getting a call from the 704.

POTENTIAL TRADE SCENARIOS

Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. Longtime readers will know that Bobcats Baseline Fake Trades used to be a near monthly fetish of mine. Lemme shake off the rust and see if I still got any game left…

Miles Plumlee for Brandon Knight

The first of three “Dump Plumlee” scenarios, this one exchanging one crappy contract with another. Charlotte looks at the Draft and decides that they like Collins, Anigbogu or either of the wings more than the PGs.

Knight is still just 26 and could turn it around under Cliff. If Phoenix decides to let Alex Len walk, Plumlee’s second tour in the Valley of the Sun could fill a need behind the aging Tyson Chandler and shed some cash off the Suns’ books in each of the next three seasons.

Miles Plumlee, Jeremy Lamb + Protected 2018 First Rounder for Brook Lopez

Not sure if you’ve heard but the Nets are really bad and don’t have any Draft picks. Getting a Top 10 Protected 1st for Brook (who has just one more year left on his contract) would seem like a decent value at this point for the former All-Star center.

There are risks: Lopez turns 30 next April and foot injuries cost him a couple of seasons earlier in his career. His next contract is certain to be pricey.

But the trade could also work out wonderfully. Charlotte has long needed a second primary scorer to pair with Kemba and Brook has transformed himself into a three zone threat. Lopez connected on 134 three pointers this past season and his stroke passes the eye test.

A Lopez/Zeller platoon would give Clifford a ton of flexibility and variety at the five. If the Hornets are committed to being good now (more on this later), then making this type of splash could be their best bet.

Miles Plumlee + Protected 2018 First Rounder for Jeremy Lin

Don’t like Lopez? Miss J-Lin? Why not?

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for Courtney Lee

Let’s bring the band back together! Hell, if Josh McRoberts declines his player option maybe we can… (OK, I’m just trolling now)

MKG’S TRADE VALUE

Let’s take a break from the fake trades for a moment and focus on The MKG Situation. I’ll say this first, I have no idea what Kidd-Gilchrist’s value is – either to the Hornets or to the rest of the league. A wing who can’t (and won’t) stretch the floor in the modern NBA is offensive kryptonite. That kind of player has to be so special that you’d be willing to shoehorn an entire roster around them and MKG is no superstar.

He’s never lived up to the lockdown defender reputation he had out of Kentucky and the progress he made with his stroke under former assistant coach Mark Price has mostly regressed. Kidd-Gilchrist’s skillset is more suited for power forward in the modern game but his frame doesn’t seem like the kind that could put on the required mass to take a beating every night. Five seasons into his career, MKG is rarely on the floor to close games due to his offensive limitations.

All that said, we’re talking about a guy who doesn’t turn 24 until September (yeah, that freaks me out too). A player who is likely a top three rebounder at his position in the league. A player whose intangibles remain off the charts. And a player who is 1/5th of that very good starting five.

Who knows? Maybe MKG is a late bloomer? Gerald Wallace was well into his mid-twenties before he learned how to shoot threes. That’s the rosy scenario. Or maybe MKG is Jeff Green, a well-liked, talented Lotto pick who is destined to never find his place in the modern pro game.

Ok, one more fake trade and then we’ll wrap.

Frank Kaminsky + Jeremy Lamb for Jahlil Okafor

A 2015 Draft do-over. The Sixers need to surround Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with shooting and the Hornets need volume scoring off the bench.

Having engineered a Top 10 defense around Big Al for three years, Steve Clifford could work his magic and turn Okafor’s career around in the process. Charlotte would also shave off around $4.3 million in salary in this scenario.

ORGANIZING AN ORGANIZATION

Given everything above, let’s outline a few potential depth charts to start next season:

HORNETS POTENTIAL DEPTH CHART A (Draft Point Guard)

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Briante Weber, Frank Ntilikina (or Donovan Mitchell)
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Shabazz Muhammad
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee

HORNETS POTENTIAL DEPTH CHART B (Draft Center)

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Briante Weber
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Shabazz Muhammad
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Zach Collins (or Ike Anigbogu)

HORNETS POTENTIAL DEPTH CHART C (Draft Wing)

  • PG: Kemba Walker, Darren Collison, Briante Weber
  • SG: Nic Batum, Marco Belinelli, Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: MKG, Luke Kennard (or Justin Jackson)
  • PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Johnny O’Bryant
  • C: Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee

If Charlotte trades for a center (Lopez or Okafor), Depth Charts A and C stay mostly the same with Cody sliding back to the second unit for Brook and starting over Jahlil.

I can see the tweets now: “that roster ain’t gonna win sh$t, Cavs gonna destroy Bobcats HAHA MJ IS TRASH!!!”

Yes. There is little chance that this collection of talent will challenge the Warriors or Cavs – which places them in the exact situation as 27 other teams.

In the meantime, it would be an amazing feat for the organization to win 50 games and win a round in the Playoffs. Keep in mind that the Queen City hasn’t experienced such things in over fifteen years.

Look at the Wizards. They rose, they fell, then they put it back together and nearly made the Conference Finals for the first time since the 1970’s. DC fans were energized. A long dormant fanbase was given reason to care again. Same goes for the Raptors. Just because you don’t have a superteam chocked full of Hall of Famers doesn’t mean there are no rewards for trying.

Seeing it Through, Building a Foundation

The Hornets made a commitment to Relevancy over a half decade ago and they need to see this through. Get to 50 Wins, Win a Playoff Round, try and make a Conference Finals.

These are giant steps for a once dysfunctional organization incapable of even sniffing respectability. Cho, Cliff and MJ haven’t been perfect in their tenures but collectively, they’ve made the best moves this franchise has experienced in ages. See it through, gentlemen.

–ASChin
@baselinebuzz

*and a little used journeyman backup PG named Shaun Livingston
**yeah, right
***I would be surprised if the Miles trade originated as Cho’s idea
****I’m omitting guys like Jonathan Simmons and Tony Snell from this list because they are RFAs whose teams would likely match an MLE offersheet the instant it was signed

BACK TO TOP

Bonus Geisinger: Just How Good Were Charlotte’s Starting Five?

For lineups with 300+ minutes, the Hornets starters were No. 10 in Net Rating according to NBA.com. But if I set the minimum number to 400 minutes, the starters jump to No. 8. It’s top 5 in terms of net rating for lineups with 500+ mins, too.

Of 500+ mins, the only NBA lineups better than Charlotte’s Starting Five are Golden State, the Clippers, Houston and Washington. Which is why it was such a bummer when Cody Zeller was out and the bench dipped. The Starting 5 allowed 100.7 points per 100, which would rate as the No. 1 team defense in the NBA (Spurs were No.1 — 100.9).

Baseline 2016-2017 Season Preview

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As easy as it is for me to get hyped about the upcoming season – and let me tell you, I’m extremely hyped – there are legit reasons to be skeptical about the 2016-2017 Charlotte Hornets. You may have already heard some of these reasons voiced by league prognosticators and network pundits. And listen, I get their concerns, really I do.

Sure, last year’s team finished the season tied for third in the Conference – propelled by a Top 10 Defense (now a Steve Clifford hallmark) and, surprisingly, a Top 10 offense.
Sure, the team returns the bulk if its core roster and respected coaching staff.
Sure, half of the team’s top eight rotation players are 26 or younger.

But…things can go wrong…right?

Peaks and Plateaus

FACT: Half of last year’s rotation experienced either a career year or a bounceback season. Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker: all but Kemba were in contract years and each received massive raises in the offseason.

In all, Steve Clifford’s career rejunvenation system was responsible for roughly $300m in new contracts (including Al Jefferson’s deal with the Pacers) signed in the month of July. The Hornets have to hope that their two returning free agents (Williams and Batum) were no flukes – that the fires that fueled both players’ exceptional seasons will remain.

Walker’s motivation has never been questioned but last season’s peak was defined by an incredible increase in shooting percentage and overall efficiency – two areas in which Kemba has struggled with since arriving in Charlotte five seasons ago.

So, the question remains: was last year’s Kemba the “new” Kemba? KW annhilated his traditional and advanced shooting numbers (which had settled in at a vomit-inducing 39%/33% FG/3PFG% and 48% TS%) by hitting 42%/37% FG/3PFG% and 55% TS%. These are by no means say, Chris Paul numbers, but at least elevated Kemba’s previously horrific averages into the respectable Mike Conley tier.

Players have hit new sustainable plateus before. Kyle Lowry is another barely six foot lead guard who dabbled in mediocrity until he found a perfect fit in Toronto.

But Lowry is burly with a game that is as much power as speed. Kemba’s slight frame and lightning quickness require that he work at full athletic capacity – making his offseason knee surgery (the second surgery on the same knee) more than a little worrisome.

How long can a player of Kemba’s size and playing style function at a high level? Can Kemba build off of last season and become an All-Star? Or will he regress to the low efficiency, head-down lead guard of Bobcats past?

Replacing Two-Ways with One-Ways

Rich Cho did a tremendous job retaining and restocking talent given his unique free agency challenge back in July. The roster is arguably just as strong overall and potentially stronger if Clifford’s rejuvenation magic can continue. There is however, one potential area of concern.

With Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, the Hornets had perimeter players who could be counted on at both ends of the court. Lin’s ability to defend twos (Dwyane Wade notwithstanding) and Lee’s ability to switch onto threes was a huge reason for the Hornets late season surge. Last season’s Hornets could field “mismatch” proof lineups full of defensively sound, mobile defenders who could switch on to nearly anyone.

FACT: the Hornets replaced Lee and Lin with Ramon Sessions and Marco Belinelli. Ouch. Both players have ranked in the bottom tier of guards in defensive rating at their position over their careers.

Keep in mind that Clifford’s rotation featured just two defensive liabilities last season: Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lamb. Big Al’s role was minimized and he was ultimately allowed to walk in free agency. Lamb has one foot in Clifford’s doghouse and the other on the trading block. Maybe the pundits are right – this could be bad, right?

Now the good news: neither Marco nor Ramon suffer from the same defensive unawareness as Lamb (although Jeremy’s shown signs of improvement during the preseason). And their physical limitations won’t hurt Charlotte quite as much as Jefferson because they’re not in charge of protecting the paint. Also, they’ll likely have that other guy playing next to them…

*IF HE CAN STAY HEALTHY

Only four teams have ranked in the Top 10 in defensive efficiency over the past three seasons: The Spurs, the Warriors, the Pacers and Steve Clifford’s Bobnets. Amazingly enough, Charlotte has achieved this distinction without a single All-NBA defender on the roster.

That could change this year. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can crack 70 games this season (it would be his first since his rookie campaign), expect him to get a first or second team All-D nod.

Anchoring a Top 10 defense while consistently matched up with the opponents’ best perimeter scorer will place MKG in the All-D conversation; averaging double digit rebounds could seal it.

With no Big Al to soak up defensive boards and with rebound-phobes like Roy Hibbert and Frank Kaminsky manning the middle, expect Clifford to give MKG a free pass to crash the glass and push the ball all season – boosting his stats while covering up a potential weakness.

Clifford’s teams have led the league in defensive rebound percentage since he arrived – his first without Jefferson will be a challenge if MKG, now the team’s strongest rebounder, can’t stay on the floor.

In fact, if Kidd-Gilchrist goes down with another major injury, it could be the difference between this particular Hornets roster challenging for homecourt or barely sneaking into the postseason.

Ceiling and Floor

Speaking of which, what exactly is the team’s ceiling this season? Suppose the roster stays relatively healthy and no other Eastern Conference team loses a major superstar. How far can the Hornets rise? Let’s look at the East in Tiers:

TIER ONE | Elite

Cleveland
They’ll win just enough games to nab the one seed and enter the Playoffs rested and healthy.

TIER TWO | Homecourt Teams

Toronto
Great coach, roster continuity, rotation guys mostly in peak prime years. This team has averaged 50 wins over the last three seasons. I’m done doubting them.

Boston
Great coach, tons of flexibility to add talent during the season, deep, somewhat unfinished roster. Would be dumb to bet against them.

TIER TWO POINT FIVE | Potential Homecourt Teams

Atlanta
Great coach, savvy late-career vets (Korver/Millsap), potential Dwight rebound year, could also nosedive thanks to Teague/Schroeder, Horford/Howard downgrade.

Charlotte
Great coach, deep roster, young vets who could break out, free agent losses could weaken bench.

THIRD TIER | Playoff Teams

(6) Washington, (7) Detroit, (8T) Chicago, (8T) Indiana

Again, barring catastrophic injury, the odds of Charlotte (or any other East team) topping Cleveland are nil. It’s safe to assume both Toronto and Boston will be locks for homecourt. Which means one of Charlotte or Atlanta is most likely to nab both the Southeast Division crown and the final homecourt spot.

IMO none of the Third Tier teams listed has the combination of roster or coaching continuity, depth or talent to challenge for homecourt this season. Although I’m sure I’ll receive hate-tweets from deluded Pacers fans questioning my sanity.

So let’s assume Charlotte’s Ceiling is an Eastern Conference Top Four seed and a SE Division banner. 48-52 wins sounds about right.

Alternatively, let’s say Kemba misses 20 games, MKG misses another 20, Hibbert and Belinelli flame out as has beens while Batum and Marvin regress from last year’s highs. What does that season look like?

I’m betting high 30’s, low 40’s as the team’s floor – things would really have to break bad for that to happen but it’s certainly a possibility.

Clifford in 2014-2015: What Went Wrong?

In fact, things have only broken bad once in Cliff’s tenure as coach. The rebrand year or, infamously – and perhaps more accurately, The Lance Year is so far the only stain on Clifford’s resume.

There were injuries: Kemba, MKG and Big Al missed big chunks of time. But those same players missed even more games last season and Charlotte enjoyed their most successful campaign since relocation/expansion.

Ultimately, it was roster construction that sealed the team’s fate. Lance Stephenson was a horrible fit next to Kemba and Big Al. The team needed a “connector” after losing Josh McRoberts. Lance and PJ Hairston brought weird vibes to a previously joyous lockerroom.

Why rehash this now? If this year’s Hornets team underachieves it will not be because of what sabotaged them two seasons ago. The roster pieces, while not perfect, all fit.

TraderCho’s Midseason Bargains

So what could make this season’s roster more “perfect”? At every trade deadline since 2013, Rich Cho has made a low-cost, under the radar move that has turbo-charged the team’s finish:

  • 2013: Sends Hakim Warrick to ORL for Josh McRoberts. McBob plays well, re-signs and starts the next season, propelling team to a Playoff birth.
  • 2014: Sends Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien to MIL for Gary Neal. Neal’s scoring punch pushes CLT to the postseason.
  • 2015: Sends Neal to MIN for Mo Williams (and Troy Daniels). Mo steps in for an injured Kemba Walker, nearly salvages a lost season – winning Eastern Conference player of the week in the process.
  • 2016: Sends PJ Hairston and two 2nd Round picks to MEM for Courtney Lee. Lee’s acquisition propelled Hornets to the league’s third best record after the All-Star break.

So what bargain basement move will Cho make this season to boost the team’s Playoff push? Only Cho Knows!

UNDENIABLE STRENGTHS

The Charlotte Hornets have no superstar. There, I said it. Now we can move on.

What they do have is an All-Star caliber PG (Kemba), an All-Defense caliber forward (MKG), three Top 100 NBA players playing next to them (Marvin/Batum/Cody) and…wait for it…a two time NBA All-Star center anchoring a deep platoon.

Yes! Roy Hibbert is a two time All-Star. And he’s just thirty years old. So what if the game has passed him by. At least the Hornets finally have a guy who can stand a chance at guarding Hassan Whiteside or DeMarcus Cousins.

And really, Hibbert’s availability in special matchups highlights the first of Charlotte’s main strengths:

DEPTH: The team’s 10th and 11th men – Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes – are good enough to be rotation players on an average NBA team. Charlotte can throw four different looks at you at the five – and each of those looks are seven footers.

SHOOTING: Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, Kemba Walker and Marco Belinelli can all get hot from behind the arc. MKG is improving from distance. As a team, the Hornets improved their 3P% from worst in the league to 8th last season and I expect that to continue even with the departure of Lee.

DEFENSE: Again, Clifford’s teams have ranked in the Top 10 since his arrival – and that was with Big Al patrolling, er should I say, perusing the paint. Add in Hibbert and MKG and Cliff may be able to push this team into the Top 3.

CONTINUITY: A Charlotte NBA team is entering it’s fourth consecutive season with the same head coach!!! WHAT?! I know, I know. It’s bizarre given the Bobcats coaching merry go round we had grown accustomed to. Cliff installed his base defense in year one and built around it with new and returning personnel since. Last year he revitalized the offense. Compared to Vincent, Dunlap and Kvetchy-B (Larry Brown), Cliff may as well be our Pop.

DIVISIONAL WEAKNESS: The Miami Heat stink now! Atlanta may have downgraded two starting positions. The Wizards backcourt not-so-secretly hate each other. The Magic’s GM is throwing poop at the wall. The Hornets finally have a legit shot at winning their division (remember, they are guaranteed to play each of these teams four times). Three SE Div teams tied with 48 wins last season and CLT is the only team in the Division to return both its Top 3 players and coaching staff.

THINGS I’M EXCITED TO SEE

A random list; compiled in no particular order:

  • Frank at the Five
    Kemba/Nic/MKG/Marvin/Frank lineups have got me extremely intrigued as a late game offense-first unit. As Spencer Percy and Nate Duncan discussed on their Hornets preview pod, the current core’s ceiling is in many ways tied directly to Frank’s development at the center position. If he can become a legit two way stretch five on a rookie deal, the Hornets will be free to invest their resources into finding another All-Star either in free agency or via trade.
  • Center Rotation
    Given Cody’s injury situation, Hibbert will start the opener – what happens after that is anybody’s guess. Cody is a solid B- at basically every facet of the game so can’t kill you when he plays. Frank can work in some matchups. Roy is too slow to guard stretch fives. And what about Hawes? He still has too much value as an NBA player to rot at the end of the bench.
  • Backcourt Rotation
    Speaking of rotation, how will Cliff run his backcourt now that Lin and Lee are gone. Batum will slide over and take Courtney’s spot. Marco will eat up some of Lin’s minutes next to Kemba. Ramon will run the second unit but will he play next to Kemba? Will Lamb get PT? Will Cliff stagger MKG and Batum’s minutes so that they can each play more SF?
  • Jeremy Lamb
    Speaking of which, it’s a make or break year for Jeremy in CLT. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman had less conflict than Cliff and Lamb last season. Given the potential high value nature of his contract, only good things could happen if Jeremy finally figures it out. So far in the preseason he’s shown improvement. The team would love to have another dependable offensive creator off the pine – the key word with Lamb, of course, is “dependable”.
  • MKG
    Is he Andre Iguodala 2.0? What is MKG’s true potential? Is this the season we finally find out?

That’s all I got for now. Enjoy the season, Hornets fans…

-ASChin

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.

The Swarm Awakens

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The 2014-2015 Charlotte Hornets were the most disappointing reboot since The Phantom Menace. What was supposed to be a nostalgia-fueled romp to the Playoffs turned out to be an injury riddled, failed chemistry experiment that left casual fans and league observers shaking their heads, parroting old standbys like “same old Bobcats” or “same old MJ”.

What the skeptics missed in all of last season’s turmoil was that the Hornets organization had been trying like mad to be good. They went the extra mile to ditch the old brand and bring back the buzz. They hired competent basketball minds in Rich Cho and Steve Clifford over the years and phased out old cronies. They brought in real basketball talent instead of could be’s and could’ve beens.

Things simply broke bad. Lance Stephenson was a worthwhile gamble that went bust. Every starter either missed major time due to injury or went through a horrible slump. The glue that held the team together the previous season took his talents to South Beach. Stuff happened. Instead of scrapping the whole experiment, the franchise looked at what worked in ’13-’14 (passing + shooting + good vibes) and doubled down on it this summer.

Unlike George Lucas and his failed prequels, Michael Jordan isn’t forcing himself into the director’s chair and he isn’t selling the franchise in order to skip town. Jordan has given a primary directive (“be competitive, make the Playoffs”) and will occasionally make his opinions known in the Draft room when he feels it’s appropriate. To continue the analogy, MJ is now more Spielberg than Lucas – a collaborator working with a highly competent team. And last season, the shark didn’t work.

This season, the front office and coaching staff finally seem to be on the same page. Previously, Cho was attempting to hedge the “be competitive now” directive with one foot firmly in the future. For example: Sign Al Jefferson in his prime and then draft a 19 year old unpasteurized rookie to play next to him. In theory, that’s a neat idea but the league is much too competitive for that sort of hard-hedging to work. So Cho sent that rookie (Noah Vonleh) to Portland for 26 year old triple double threat Nic Batum. Both feet are firmly in the now (and near future).

The naysayers look at that trade and the Hornets selection of 22 year old senior Frank Kaminsky in June’s Draft as key evidence in the case for MJ as the Biggest Dummy in the league. The Hornets need to be collecting assets! They are striving for mediocrity! They need more Draft picks! They need to get better at Drafting! Jordan will never figure this out! He should sell the team!

It’s incredibly easy in life to point out what’s wrong. Twitter, YouTube and Xbox Live offer a cheap barrage of criticism daily. The Hornets struggles last season (and their macro-struggles as a franchise) require much more nuance and understanding. Since the time Cho was hired four years ago, the Hornets have made up a ton of ground from their past mistakes and taken several solid steps forward. Sure, they whiffed on Bismack Biyombo but scored on Kemba, MKG, Big Al and a slew of trades. They came within a few ping-pong balls of landing once in a generation talent Anthony Davis, barely missed and moved on to Plan B – build a winning culture. If you think this is naive, check out what perpetual tanking is doing to the Sixers organization.

For the first time in forever, the Hornets have a dozen competent professional basketball players and a well respected head coach. More than half of the roster can become free agents next season. Clifford’s on the last year of his deal. Motivation meet Incentive. They’ll bust their tails to go above .500 and make the Playoffs, come hell or high water. If a trade must be made, it will be made.

Charlotte will go 44-38 this season and make the Playoffs. The Force is Strong in this team. The Swarm will Awaken. Hugo, we’re home.

Charlotte Hornets ’15-’16 Bold Predictions:

1. MKG will return for a postseason run.

Defense, game planning and matchups reign in the Playoffs. MKG will be back and adhesively applying himself to John Wall, Jimmy Butler or DeMar DeRozan.

2. Frank Kaminsky will eventually start.

By mid-season if not before, Frank will be in the starting five. Offensively he makes so much more sense than Cody as a ball mover and floor spacer. Kaminsky shouldn’t play more than half the game as a rook but every one of those minutes need to either be next to Al or as a small ball five.

3. Nic Batum will not average 18 points a game.

That’s simply not his game. Expect a 14ppg/6rpg/5apg line from the French Army Knife. He’s not a perfect player by any means but Batum has the ability to fill in the gaps of an incomplete roster. Nic, Frank, Jeremy Lin and Spencer Hawes will do what Josh McRoberts did two seasons ago and much, much more.

4. Jeremy Lin gets Sixth Man of the Year consideration.

I initially thought he was going to start next to Kemba once MKG went down but J-Lin’s ability to run the second unit and finish games is much more valuable. His shot mechanics have improved and while he won’t shoot 50%+ from the 3PT arc as he did in the preseason, his ability to run the pick and roll, penetrate, distribute and draw fouls are absolutely sustainable. Expect Lin to average 28-30 minutes a night.

5. Steve Clifford gets Coach of the Year consideration.

If Clifford gets the defense in the top third of the league minus MKG (they’ve finished in the Top 10 during each of his first two seasons with CHA), he’ll not only get COTY consideration but likely a fat new contract from MJ as well. Let’s hope so. The idea of a Charlotte NBA coach lasting more than three seasons would’ve seemed mythical just a few years ago.

6. Kemba shoots over 40%.

He’s only done it once (his sophomore campaign) but Walker is due for a league average field goal season. With Batum and the other connectors moving the ball, Kemba will have to force less shot-clock bailouts and take less bad shots overall. Smart offense is contagious and my bet is that Kemba catches the bug.

7. The Wing is going to be a Problem.

Outside of Batum, the Hornets have serious depth issues at the SG/SF positions. Jeremy Lamb looks completely lost defensively and PJ Hairston is about as consistent as AT&T coverage. If Cho does pull the trigger on a trade, expect it to be for wing help.

8. If any Hornets are traded it will be Cody Zeller and/or Brian Roberts.

Roberts has shot lights out (44% overall, 45% from 3PT) in the preseason and has run the offense like a pro. He’s too good to be a third PG who sits behind Kemba and Lin. Some team with lead guard issues (maybe his old team in New Orleans) will come calling.

Cody is an extremely intriguing athlete who could blossom on a fast paced squad with scorers. He’s also the Hornets only big who’s a legit plus defender. If the right deal comes along (and only if), I could see Charlotte taking it.

9. The Eastern Conference Standings in April:

  1. Chicago
  2. Cleveland
  3. Atlanta
  4. Toronto
  5. Washington
  6. Charlotte
  7. Milwaukee
  8. Miami

Detroit finishes 9th. Boston and Orlando tie for 10th.

10. Final Prediction: This Hornets season will be much more fun than last.

Bank on it.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Projecting the Hornets Starters and Rotation

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Right around the time of the Jeremy Lin signing, Steve Clifford told local reporters that he’d feature a strict nine man rotation during the season. In Clifford’s eyes, an NBA player needs at least twenty minutes a night in order to get into any kind of rhythm.

This will be a challenge. Unlike so many Bobcat teams of years past, this seasons’ Hornets roster is stacked with talent and a few high quality players will find themselves hoarding DNP-CDs. Injuries, matchups and merit will likely keep the cast in flux but I fully expect Clifford to stick to his word and get nine guys real minutes each game.

WHO ARE THE STARTING FIVE?

Absent serious injury or any more #TraderCho activity, look for Charlotte to open the season with following starters:

  • PG: Kemba Walker
  • SG: Nic Batum
  • SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
  • PF: Cody Zeller
  • C: Al Jefferson

Clifford’s mantra of starting games with an emphasis on defense while ending them with an emphasis on offense gives Cody the easy edge over rook Frank Kaminsky. Even if Frank gets up to speed with pro defense during camp, Cody’s abilities as a mobile defender next to Al makes him a better fit to start.

LINEUP STRATEGY: Aside from the usual Kemba step-backs and Big Al post-ups, expect a steady diet of pick & pops with Batum and the two bigs. Nic ran a ton of them with LaMarcus Aldridge back in Portland and Big Al & Cody have dependable range out to around eighteen feet. Zeller and MKG will anchor the defense and look to exploit any extra attention given to Jefferson and Walker.

First Substitution: Mid 1st Quarter

  • PG: Kemba Walker
  • SG: Jeremy Lin
  • SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
  • PF: Frank Kaminsky
  • C: Al Jefferson

Clifford traditionally rests two of his starters halfway through the 1st in order to bring them back at the begining of the 2nd to play with the reserves. In years past Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson would sit for guys like Cody and Gary Neal. This year we’ll likely see Zeller and Batum get a rest with Lin and Frank making early appearances.

LINEUP STRATEGY: J-Lin replaces Batum and makes certain the playmaking onus is never on Kemba entirely. Expect to see a steady dose of Big Al posts ups and a pick & roll/pick & pop bonanza with Lin and Kemba exploiting open lanes for drives.

Second Substitution: Late 1st Quarter

  • PG: Kemba Walker
  • SG: Jeremy Lin
  • SF: Jeremy Lamb
  • PF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
  • C: Frank Kaminsky

Clifford’s goal of playing Jefferson around 30-32 minutes per game should come to fruition this year and sliding MKG over to the four for a brief stretch is a nice enticement.

LINEUP STRATEGY: Depending on how Kidd-Gilchrist’s 3PT shot has developed, this lineup will either be a 4 out or a 5 out – a deep shooting rarity given the Queen City’s recent past. Expect this unit to play at a much faster pace with Frank spotting up for trailing threes at the top of the arc.

Third Substitution: Beginning of the 2nd Quarter

  • PG: Jeremy Lin
  • SG: Jeremy Lamb
  • SF: Nic Batum
  • PF: Cody Zeller
  • C: Spencer Hawes

Batum and Zeller check back in early and play most of, if not all of, the 2nd quarter. We get our first look at Hawes as yet another floor stretching big who can make plays.

LINEUP STRATEGY: Expect every possession to run through Batum, Lin or Hawes. Lamb thrived in OKC as a spot up release guy who didn’t have to rely on his handle. Cody should see plenty of rim-diving opportunities off Batum and Lin PnR’s.

Fourth Substitution: Mid-Late 2nd Quarter

PG: Kemba Walker
SG: Nic Batum
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
PF: Frank Kaminsky
C: Al Jefferson

Clifford will slowly trickle back in the other starters towards the end of the quarter. Cody gets a rest swapping out for a floor spacing Frank.

LINEUP STRATEGY: A version of the starting five skewed for offense and floor spacing.

In this scenario, the Second Half substitutions play out in roughly the same sequence with Clifford riding hot hands deep into the 4th quarter.

240 Minutes of Action

There are 5 positions on the floor that need to be filled over 48 minutes for a total of 240 minutes per regulation game. If Clifford opts for a strategy similar to the above, we’re looking at an approximate minutes breakdown of:

  • Kemba: 34mpg
  • Batum: 34mpg
  • MKG: 30mpg
  • Cody: 28mpg
  • Big Al: 30mpg
  • J-Lin: 28mpg
  • Frank: 20mpg
  • Lamb: 18mpg
  • Hawes: 18mpg

Hawes and Lamb fall just a bit short of the 20 minute mark but of course that could change depending upon the matchup or individual performance.

The Expendables

The Hornets currently feature sixteen players on the roster. Two of the those players (Aaron Harrison and Elliot Williams) are signed to non-guaranteed deals and can be released at any time. A strict nine man rotation means that six or seven guys either sit or are inactive every night.

Brian Roberts

At risk of losing his roster spot to Aaron Harrison as the team’s third PG. Don’t be surprised if his expiring contract is traded to a team in need of PG depth before the start of the season.

Marvin Williams

Expect Marvin to be used in small ball matchups against bullying wings (Paul Pierce, Jabari Parker, Jared Dudley) as an alternative to Hawes.

Tyler Hansbrough

This year’s Jeff Adrien/Jason Maxiell. Psycho T (yes, I know he hates that name) will steal minutes from any big Clifford thinks isn’t being physical enough (you hear that, Frank and Cody?).

P.J. Hairston

Coming off a very disappointing rookie season and Summer League. P.J. was billed as a shooter but can’t seem to shoot. He’s another off-the-court incident away from joining Sean May and Jeff McInnis under the Tobacco Road overpass.

Troy Daniels

A nice Summer League surprise, Troy may get some burn as a bench scorer if Lamb and Hairston struggle with their shots.

Aaron Harrison

We should know by the end of camp just how serious a prospect Harrison really is. If he can build on his excellent Summer League, Brian Roberts may be out of a job. That said, Harrison won’t see court time unless one of Kemba/J-Lin goes down.

Elliot Williams

Not guaranteed to make the team.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

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.