Sources: Cody Zeller is destined to be a Spur, and also, How We Got Mozgoved

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It’s been a while since my last post.  Please allow me to explain.

Being a Hornets fan is really hard.

I spent the latter weeks of the regular season clinging onto the slim hope that the Hornets could get the 8-seed in the East.  And then on March 8th, they lost to the vastly inferior Brooklyn Nets by 14, and a few days later, they lost to the Knicks by 23.  Neither game was as close as the score indicates.  That is when I threw a white flag up on 2018.

If you read any of my earlier posts, you know that I held two things to be true: 1) Steve Clifford’s time as an effective coach was over (though I knew he would be hired by the Magic, check that Twitter feed to the left!), and 2) Dwight Howard was a black hole on offense.

Both of these situations have now been remedied.  By all accounts, an effective replacement for Clifford has been hired in James Borrego.  And today’s trade (that will become official after July 6th) of Dwight Howard for Timofey Mozgov, two second round draft picks and cash concerns is a classic case of addition by subtraction.

The Dwight Howard move was terrible.  It was never going to work out.  Every team he has ever played for claims that he is a cancer in the locker room.  He is a notorious goofball.  He is a child abuser, which was never going to fly longterm in Charlotte (this is the city that chased the original Hornets franchise out of town because the owner–George Shinn–had an affair with a cheerleader).  He is a center in a league where the center position–as Dwight Howard plays it–is no longer important.  Atlanta took on the terrible Plumlee contract just to get rid of him.  I could go on and on.

Timofey Mozgov may never play meaningful minutes for the Hornets.  He may not even be on the roster by Friday.  But if this trade results in Kemba Walker staying and/or the shooters on the team getting actual opportunities to shoot and develop a rhythm, this will go down as one of the most important trades in franchise history.

***

In other news: Cody Zeller is destined to be a San Antonio Spur.

Have you ever seen the sweet third passes that the CZA makes on the regular?  Those passes have ‘Popovich’ written all over them.  Sources say that Cody Zeller is the next Boris Diaw.

Kawhi wants out of San Antonio.  The Hornets are in a good spot to make a trade or be a third team facilitator for a draft day trade.  My gut says these sources are correct.

***

As for me, I’m in that pre-draft sweet spot as a fan.  Anything is possible.  Optimism reigns supreme.  The Dwight trade has me jazzed.  If the Hornets have to go down, I’d rather see them go down missing open threes and running an actual offense than see Kemba pass the ball in to Dwight and then stand around and watch until Dwight shoots just before the shot clock expires.  But the Hornets don’t have to go down.  The 8-seed is in sight.  The time is now.

(Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Rookie Mistake

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Greetings, and welcome to my first post for Baseline Buzz!

First, a brief history: I have been a Charlotte Basketball fan since 1988. My family owned season tickets during the franchise’s golden age (top row section 238, seats 1 and 2). I was at the playoff game when Zo hit the shot to beat the Celtics, and I was at every home playoff game in 2001 when the Bugs swept the Heat (and would have beaten the Bucks if Sam Cassell would have kept his glad-hands off the refs’ backsides). During the decade I lived in San Francisco, I bought NBA League Pass every year specifically for the purpose of watching every Bobcats game, and I was surely the only person to ever purchase a ticket to a game in Oracle Arena to cheer on Gerald Wallace. And no disrespect to Muggsy, Kendall, Johnny Newman, LJ and Zo, but I believe the greatest Hornets lineup of all-time was Baron Davis, David Wesley, Jamal Mashburn, PJ Brown and Elden Campbell (and the best bench player on that team was Eddie Robinson, for what it’s worth).

With Adam’s departure from Baseline Buzz, I am stepping in midseason and attempting to fill some gigantic shoes. It is no simple task, to say the least. Rather than pick one thing to hone in on, I am going to about two bad things, two unknown quantities, and two good things. Without further ado.

NEGATIVES

—Steve Clifford’s Refusal to Give Rookies Meaningful Minutes

Look, I get it. Steve Clifford is an old-school coach, and making rookies earn their place in the Association is an old-school move. The problem is that the Hornets are not old-school good.

I like Steve Clifford, and he is a much better coach than his predecessor. He seems like he would be a fun guy to have a beer with. But his propensity for driving rookies into the ground before they get their feet wet is one of his least endearing qualities. Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon are both solid picks with gigantic potential upsides, but they need to play in order to develop into anything more than second or third-tier role players. Bacon is a solid second-rounder—if he develops into a solid NBA player, that is all gravy. But Monk needs to be in games early and often. He is a rhythm shooter, and you can’t develop rhythm on the bench. Give him meaningful minutes now, and he could be a star. Bench him so he can “learn the game” and he could be…. reverse-MKG?

—The Dwight Howard Experiment

Speaking of old-school basketball.

Unlike Adam, I hated the Dwight Howard trade from the beginning. The shedding of Plumlee’s contract was huge, and Howard’s star power is undeniable, but Dwight has a reputation of being a cancer in the locker room, and he is an admitted child-abuser.

That being said, he is putting up All-Star numbers on the basketball court, he obviously cares about the team’s performance, and I get the sense that he is trying very hard to push his teammates into the playoffs.

The problem is that he is a black hole on offense. A large portion of the Hornets’ plays so far this season consist of Kemba (or MCW) bringing the ball up court, passing it to Dwight, and then dropping back and watching Dwight either shoot or pump fake until he gets fouled.

In the past, the Hornets offense has worked with Cody Zeller at center because the CZA knows how to make the second, third and fourth pass to a cutting teammate or a shooter out on the perimeter. Of course Cody has been injured for a season and a half, so he hasn’t been an option of late.

Look, Dwight Howard is very good at basketball. There is a solution out there, I am just not sure if that solution is to teach Dwight how to pass to his teammates or look to trade him to a contender who needs a center that doesn’t know how to pass to his teammates. Either way, he has been a disruption to offenses on both sides of the floor.

 
UNKNOWNS

—The Coaching Situation

Coach Clifford took a hiatus from the team for undisclosed health-related issues, and though Stephen Silas has a strong tie to Charlotte Basketball’s past (his father is former Hornets coach and current season ticket holder Paul “Huggy Bear” Silas), he doesn’t appear to be the answer should Clifford’s health or job performance become a longer term issue.

Jason Kidd just became available.  Just throwing that out there.

—The Kemba Walker Fiasco

Floating Kemba Walker’s name in trade conversations was a mistake.  Woj knows all and Woj tells all. The only scenarios that make sense regarding this mistake:

1) Motivation

Kemba has been a little stagnant of late. Maybe a trade rumor is the fire he needed to get going.

2) A Godfather Offer

An offer along the lines of Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Love and the Brooklyn pick or a package including Andrew Wiggins makes sense for both sides (Minnesota has always been high on Batum).

3) The Steph Factor

There is a Berenstainian possibility that a trade of Kemba Walker could pull Steph Curry further towards the Hornets in the future.

Reasoning: If Kemba does not get traded, he is all but guaranteed to pass Dell Curry as the leading scorer in Charlotte Basketball history.  A trade to preserve Papa Curry’s legacy is sure to be looked upon favorably.

Now, the trade scenarios that do not make sense:

1) Cap Relief

I don’t believe the Hornets are willing to dismantle their franchise to save a few bucks so long as Jordan is at the helm. Jordan wants to win, even if he hasn’t figured out how to do so as an owner.

2) Anything Involving Draft Picks

The Hornets are terrible at drafting and even worse at developing rookies. Trading an All-Star caliber player for draft picks does not make sense for this franchise.

Onto:

 
POSITIVES

—The Remaining Schedule

Over the first half of the season, the Hornets had one of the toughest schedules in the league (anywhere from the toughest to the fifth toughest, depending on metrics used). For the remainder of the season, they have the easiest schedule in the league. Barring further injury or a dumb trade, the playoffs are still in reach (as of this writing, the Hornets stand four games back of the 76ers for the eighth seed).

—Chemistry

The advantage of developing an organization where you draft and retain players is that the players have the opportunity to learn together and grow together as professionals. Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrest, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon have all spent the entirety of their careers as products of the same developmental system. They don’t know anything different than Charlotte Basketball. Injuries to MKG and Zeller have derailed several potentially prime years, but they still know how to contribute if they are able, and everyone mentioned above is still very young.

And speaking of oft-injured players, Nic Batum isn’t a native Hornet, but he has recently built a house in Charlotte, so one can imagine that he has bought into the organization as much as he possibly can. If Dwight Howard and Michael Carter-Williams are able to become more comfortable with their teammates, good basketball could be over the horizon.


 

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

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

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.

Josh McRoberts Sad Face

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McRoberts-Gone

Josh McRoberts has agreed to join the Miami Heat and a tear forms in the eye of every Hornets fan. After being misused at Duke (Coach K misusing a big? No way!) and wandering the league in various states of hair growth, Steve Clifford finally unlocked the McBeast that had been lurking all along. By moving him to the perimeter, Clifford allowed McRoberts to take advantage of his play-making skills, facilitating the offense and being just productive enough as a shooter to keep the defense honest. By almost every metric (plus/minus, RPM, WARP, EWA) McRoberts was one of the most productive and important players on the team. Losing him hurts. But there’s no value in dwelling on the past, so it’s worth looking at how this affects the team for the upcoming season. We’ll approach it on a mostly individual basis. It should be noted these are just my opinions and don’t reflect any sort of insider knowledge. For whatever reason Rich Cho and Steve Clifford won’t return my phone calls and I was recently delivered a strange piece of mail that says something about a restraining order and being within 100 yards of either of them. I need to figure that out… (none of that is true, except that these are just the opinions of an uniformed nobody).

Rich Cho

Cho is all in on the young players. He easily could have outspent Miami to retain McRoberts. This is pure speculation, but it seems a player option on the 4th year rather than something like a team option or a partial guarantee was the sticking point. Cody Zeller has 3 years left on his rookie contract after which he’ll be getting a raise on his salary. Kemba Walker has one more year and MKG has 2. Cho’s specialty is managing the cap and failing to meet Miami’s offer is, in all likelihood, a matter of doing that aand preparing for extensions to kick in. This is the first real gamble of Cho’s tenure. Betting on Biz, Kemba, MKG, and Zeller in the draft wasn’t making a bad team worse if they didn’t work out. Losing an essential member of a playoff team for the sake of future financial flexibility, just as the team is gaining momentum, is a bold and potentially dangerous move. If the young guys turn out to be what he hopes and the flexibility gives him a chance to make a move down the line he comes out looking great. If the picks are all busts and the team takes a massive step backwards his job might be on the line. Cho will also need to find a 5th big to go with Zeller, Vonleh, Jefferson, and Biyombo. Kris Humphries’s name has popped up and Jeff Adrien is always a welcome addition to the roster.

Steve Clifford

McRoberts was Coach Clifford’s safety blanket. He facilitated the offense, opened up the floor, and allowed Al Jefferson to operate on the block without clogging the lane. He made hustle plays and was always willing to do the dirty work, as LeBron’s throat can attest to. With him moving on, Clifford is going to have to find a way to craft a post heavy offense that lacks elite shooters. He’ll have to find ways to take the burden of creating off solely Kemba’s shoulders. Most importantly, he’s going to need to bring Cody and Noah Vonleh along and make them productive players on offense and defense sooner rather than later. This is an area where Gregg Popovich excels and is part of what sets him apart from other coaches. If Clifford wants to prove himself as one of the elite coaches, this is a time to do it.

Cody Zeller

Zeller will be affected more than anyone else on the team. He seemed to be in line for similar playing time to last year. Clifford started experimenting with playing him and McRoberts together towards the end of the season. He averaged 22.2 minutes per game in April and that looked like it would continue. He will now be forced into the starting lineup, most likely absorbing all of McRoberts’s 30 minutes per game. He should look to stretch himself as a shooter and as a playmaker. Clifford has been very deliberate about how he has brought Cody along, but there is no longer time for that. The first thing he will need to do is cut down on the turnovers. McRoberts turned the ball over 8 times for every 100 possessions. Cody turned it over 13 times per 100 possessions. That number needs to go down. A lot of those turnovers were on destination-less drives to the basket. Hopefully a strengthened core and more experience will help him keep his balance on such drives or he will look for an open teammate more often. The other are for improvement is his shooting. This is an area that almost assuredly will be better. In March and April he shot over 50% from the field as he got more comfortable in his role. The key is to add more range to his shot. With his smaller frame, he is going to have to develop a 3 point shot in order to be effective, especially with Al Jefferson on the team. That development may not come this season, but he does need to start shooting them. The only way to get comfortable in game situations is to do it in game situations. The coaching staff will need to be patient as he adapts to the longer shot and he will need to maintain his confidence even if he struggles some. He doesn’t need to go all Channing Frye this season, but he needs to let it fly when he is open to start the process. Zeller will have to take a step forward for this team to be effective again.

Noah Vonleh

The rumors surrounding Vonleh’s drop were centered mostly on the amount of development he required and his work ethic. The Hornets’ players are a hard working group without question, so they will be there to help him stay focused. The lack of NBA preparedness is going to be a much bigger problem, especially now. Steve Clifford is not Larry Brown. He sees the value in young guys and gives them appropriate time while not necessarily hurting the team. Vonleh probably wasn’t going to see a lot of time this year. Somewhere in the 5-10 minute range. That’s now going to be closer to 15-20 as the only legitimate power forward on the bench. Nobody knows what to expect from him. He was billed as a shooter, but his college sample size was tiny. He didn’t dominate at Indiana, but Tom Crean wasn’t doing a lot to help him out there. He can be inattentive and needs to develop a better feel and IQ for the game. For now Clifford will probably expect him to focus on rebounding, defending the basket, and stretching the floor. In all likelihood he won’t be asked to create or facilitate the offense. He probably won’t have any plays run for him outside of the pick and roll where he will be expected to roll hard to the basket. If he can focus on the basics he should be able to be a neutral presence on the floor. That sounds harsh, but for a project big man with limited experience not hurting the team would be a big win.

Bismack Biyombo

Biz looked dead in the water going into next season. He played only 14 minutes per game this past season. While he improved significantly overall, his development hasn’t been quite what the team had hoped and management seriously considered not picking up his option. Towards the end of the season Clifford started using Zeller as a center with McRoberts on the floor at the same time rather than going to Biz. Don’t plan on seeing a lot of Zeller and Vonleh on the floor together. Instead, Clifford may choose to do what he was doing with McRoberts, subbing him out relatively early and letting him stabilize the bench unit. Biz’s responsibilities won’t change. He will still expected to rebound and defend and to try to stay out of the way on offense. This may be his last chance. He needs to take advantage of it.

Gerald Henderson & Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

With McRoberts gone, the wings are going to have the ball in their hands more with an opportunity to create for themselves and others. For Henderson, this means a couple things. The first and most obvious is that he needs to unshackle himself and start shooting the 3 ball. No more taking one dribble in for a mid-range shot. There is a banner up in the Hornets’ practice facility that says, “Quick Decisions: Shoot It, Drive It, Move it.” If anyone needs to take this motto to heart, it’s Henderson. He has a tendency to catch, turn, face, and survey. Then look some more. Look a little more. Then drive to the right baseline and shoot a fade-away jumper. The surveying needs to be done before the ball comes. He should know where guys are on the floor and where the defense is and make a decision. This will keep the defense on their heels and all the team to generate offense out of more than just Jefferson post-ups and Kemba Walker dribble drives. Henderson is not a great passer, with an assist ratio lower than JR Smith and Caption Iso-Joe Johnson, and gets tunnel vision when he gets the ball, another reason he needs to be more decisive on the catch. If the jump shot isn’t there and the lane isn’t open, make the simple pass and get the offense going.

MKG’s approach shouldn’t change as much as Henderson’s. He will still be expected to score off cuts and offensive rebounds. His shooting can be addressed elsewhere. The change MKG will experience is tied to Gerald Henderson. Clifford could look to play more small-ball, moving Henderson to the small forward position and MKG to the power forward position with Jefferson or Zeller at center. Assuming Vonleh doesn’t have much to contribute as a rookie and Biz hasn’t magically replaced his hands with something other than stone cut-outs of hands, going small would be a way to get Jefferson and Zeller rest without a massive drop-off offensively. Clifford didn’t throw small-ball lineups out there at all last season according to 82games.com. He might have to out of necessity this year.

Kemba Walker

Kemba’s adjustment will be simple, but heavy. He will have to accept even more responsibility initiating the offense. Plays often began with Kemba bringing the ball up on the side of the court. McRoberts would cut to the top of the key to receive a pass, Kemba would cut through and get to his spot, and the offense would begin from there. Zeller will do this some, but he’s not nearly the passer McRoberts is yet. Clifford may choose to use more pick and roll to initiate the offense, taking advantage of Zeller’s speed and athleticism and Vonleh’s shooting ability. But it will likely be Kemba’s job to get the offense going more than he did last season. Ideally, Cho would be able to find a backup point guard with the size to play with Kemba to help alleviate some of that pressure but as presently constituted, it’s all Kemba.

Al Jefferson

Similar to other players, Jefferson will need to be more of a play-maker out of his spots. While his passing has improved over his career and his assist ratio was right in line with other back to the basket centers like Brooke Lopez and Dwight Howard, he still has a tendency to attack double and triple teams on the block. He’s successful far more than one would expect but without McRoberts’s shooting and passing Jefferson will have to assume some of those creator responsibilities by recognizing double teams quicker and moving the ball, even if it doesn’t immediately lead to a basket.

There’s no way around the fact that losing McRoberts is a major blow to the Hornets. He’s a rare player that combines shooting, passing, athleticism, and unselfishness into a productive and essential role player. He can’t be replaced but his responsibilities can be distributed across the remaining pieces. To keep the ball rolling as an organization everyone is going to have to step up and it begins with a clear vision from both Rich Cho and Steve Clifford. Expect a tough start to the season as the players and coach adjust, but with quality leadership from the organization and the players’ ability and willingness to do what is asked of them it should be another successful campaign in Charlotte.