Four and Eleven

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It’s November 25th and Charlotte’s NBA team is a disastrous 4-11. The rebranded Hornets were supposed to erase the fanbase’s memories of the Bobcats yet the slow, sloppy start has only brought back memories of that franchise’s blunders.

Steve Clifford’s squad has played unfocused, disjointed and undisciplined basketball; last season’s chemistry a distant memory. Can this ship be turned around before it’s too late? Bradford Coombs and I answers some tough questions:

1. The Hornets’ struggles are mostly a result of A.) roster makeup, B.) coaching philosophy, C.) injuries.

Bradford (@bradford_NBA): A fair amount of A and a little bit of B. For a team whose identity is supposed to be defense, the pieces aren’t a perfect fit. A single rim protector can cover up a lot of mistakes. MKG is the best defender on the team and missing him hurts. He can cover up some mistakes, but a wing defender’s impact isn’t nearly on the level an individual rim protector. McRoberts was a solid team defender that was willing to mix it up. The Hornets are 7 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Williams on the court. By comparison, McBobs was a -3. That’s a pretty big difference. The real problem is that Williams also has a negative impact on the offense while McRoberts had a decidedly positive impact. Clifford is being patient with moving Cody into the starting lineup, but the numbers and the tape speak for themselves. It shouldn’t be too much longer.

ASChin (@BaselineBuzz): I’ll cut Clifford some slack and say it’s 70% A and 30% B. MKG’s the team’s best defender by a mile and his absence has turned a once proud Charlotte defense into one of the league’s bottom third. Opponents are shooting nearly 47% against the Hornets and the team’s 18th overall ranking in points against belies Charlotte’s slow pace. Yet MKG’s absence wouldn’t hurt nearly as much on another team. Big Al and Marvin might be the worst defending 4/5 combination in the league which is why we’ve seen so much Cody over the past week and a half. If you’re going to build a team around Big Al – who, make no mistake, is excellent at what he does – you need to surround him with rim protectors and shooters. Period. The Hornets haven’t done that.

2. If the struggles continue, who is most likely to be shipped out of town during the season: A.) Steve Clifford, B.) Lance Stephenson?

Bradford: I would bet my life savings on neither. But I’m a good sport. You don’t need to look any further than his contract to see that the organization is being cautious about Lance as a Hornet. They were willing to break the bank for Gordon Hayward in the offseason, and really for Al Jefferson the year before. Lance got much less than many expected with a team option to boot. The facts speak for themselves I think.

ASChin: The organization can’t afford another coaching carousel. If one of them gets shipped out of town, it’ll be Lance – who is a much easier scapegoat. Kemba and Lance are a terrible backcourt pairing due to their overlapping strengths and weaknesses. Either their minutes need to be staggered or one will have to go. Walker’s cap number isn’t getting any smaller so I’m betting it would be Lance.

3. Has the rest of the league figured out Clifford’s defensive scheme OR is MKG’s absence to blame?

Bradford: Clifford’s defensive scheme isn’t unique in the NBA. To say the league has figured it out would be to condemn everyone else running the Van Gundy/Thibbadeau principles. I spent some time looking at opponent scoring numbers after the Miami game. The biggest discrepencies from last season to this season are in opponent FT% and opponent 2 point %. It will be interesting to see how the defense performs when MKG and Cody are in the lineup. MKG’s defensive numbers aren’t great this season, but he’s only played 6 games. If Lance can clean up some mental errors, the MKG/Cody/Lance trio should be able to do some really nice work on that side of the ball.

ASChin: I’m with Bradford on this one. Clifford’s system is fine – injuries have forced him to play some hyper-flammable lineups. We’ve seen way too much of Marvin/Al, Neal/Kemba or Roberts/Kemba. Very much looking forward to the following lineups once everyone’s healthy: Al/Cody/MKG/PJ/Kemba and Biz/Marvin/JT/Lance/Neal (or Roberts) – those groups have balance at both ends, especially on D.

4. Is MKG the next Gerald Wallace in a bad way? (i.e. misses 15-20 games a year due to reckless playing style)

Bradford: I’m not going to pretend to know anything about an individual’s health, but it’s certainly a concern. I’m not sure MKG is capable of dialing it back. It’s really disappointing as he has looked like a most improved player candidate early.

ASChin: He missed 4 games his rookie season, 20 games as a soph and 9 thus far this season. The guy plays full-on and refuses to turn it down a notch – which is admirable. He dives into the paint like it was a mid-90’s mosh pit and takes risks in transition. We watched Crash do similar things for nearly a decade. Let’s hope the sequel has a better ending.

5. Are Kemba’s struggles a result of plateaued development or is Lance just a poor backcourt mate with his overlapping strengths/weaknesses?

Bradford: Save the 2012-2013 season, Kemba’s shooting has been consistently below average. That has nothing to do with Lance and everything to do with Kemba. If he can’t be a consistent 3 point shooter and can’t finish in the paint….

ASChin: Then he’s a lesser version of Isaiah Thomas and significantly overpaid. I’m holding out hope but he turns 25 in May and is on the books for $12 million per for the next four seasons. All those step-back, fade-away J’s look great when they go in but I’ve yet to see Kemba develop a reliable spot up shot ala Tony Parker. Walker’s leadership qualities are solid and he’s become a better distributor in some ways but his inability to consistently finish in close or knock down shots should keep Rich Cho up at night.

6. Do the Hornets build around Big Al by finding or developing a high post PF who can protect the rim or do they let him walk and build around Cody and Vonleh?

Bradford: This is the million dollar question. Al is such a unique player in the league and really has to have an entire roster designed to maximize his skills. And even if you were to do that, would it be the type of team that could compete at the highest level? I honestly don’t know. I was pretty vocally against his signing for this very reason. I feel comfortable saying I was wrong in the short term, but that decision will have to be made again when he opts out after this season. If I’m being honest, Cho has to hope the answer is a Zeller/Vonleh front court, but it’s impossible to know if that’s realistic.

ASChin: In an ideal world, Cody develops into a borderline All-Star big this season with Vonleh turning into an everyday contributor next season. Big Al plays out his option and Charlotte either re-signs him at a similar number until Noah is ready to start or let’s Jefferson walk for bigger money. I LOVE Big Al and everything he’s done for the team in his short time here but if the organization can’t find the perfect pieces to surround him with, their ceiling will remain low. Either way, the team needs to keep their long-term strategy the same: build around the Cody/Vonleh/MKG core.

7. What’s a realistic trade scenario the Hornets could make between now and the Deadline?

Bradford: It’s way too soon for me to have an answer to that. It will be at the deadline if at all.

ASChin: They need three and D guys on the perimeter and an upgrade over Marvin at the four. I could see McRoberts coming back for the right price (Riley will ransom him). If the poop really hits the fan, I could see Big Al being traded to a contending team out West. Can you imagine a Davis/Big Al/Asik/Anderson rotation in New Orleans? Too bad the Pellies don’t have any picks to send back.

8. Will the Hornets make the Playoffs?

Bradford: Look, this has sucked. But it’s the east. The schedule will let up at some point, the 76ers and Pistons will come to town, and Charlotte is as viable a candidate as there is to do what Brooklyn did last year. The track record is there. And I’m an optimist. There’s a good team in those jerseys. We’ve seen it for stretches. Go home, eat some turkey, and things will get better. Right?

ASChin: Given the pressures of the rebrand, the assets available for trade and the veteran leadership within the lockerroom…I’m going to say yes. Barely.

Step Away From the Panic Button

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I honestly wish I didn’t have to write this, but it feels necessary. Yes, the Hornets just lost to a winless Lakers team. Yes, they should have won. And yes, I was upset about the game myself. But there is a bigger picture. I’m not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of the loss, but one thing of note is the Hornets’ schedule thus far. They’ve now played 7 games. An overtime game to start the season, 4 games in 5 nights that included an overly physical contest with the Grizzlies and 2 road games (New York and New Orleans). That was followed up by a double-OT game, then a trip across the country to play the Lakers who couldn’t have been more rested. There is a lot to be learned about NBA scheduling and its effect on performance, but that’s the type of game Popovich would have rested his entire team. Does this qualify as an excuse? Not really. But there are legitimate reasons a team may seem to be lacking energy and effort.

The real question is what this loss, along with the team’s performance up to this point, say about where the Hornets are right now and what to expect from them as the season wears on. Truthfully, that all depends on what your expectations were entering the season. And that’s the rub. Performance tends to be judged against expectations, and I’m not sure fans’ expectations were what they should be. In defense of Hornets fans, and fans of any kind, the term “fan” is just short-hand for “fanatic.” By definition we are supposed to be unreasonable and temperamental. That applies both to expectations and results on the micro level.

I’d like to use this loss as an opportunity to manage expectations. First things first, high expectations for the Hornets made sense. The team finished over .500 for the second time in franchise history, went to the playoffs, and created their own emotional high by bringing back a Hornets name that mattered more than I think any of us realized (seriously, these home games have been hype). The front office upgraded clear weak points in the lineup by adding a versatile shooting guard and a plethora of shooters via free agency and the draft. Add in some internal improvements from young players and more familiarity with an excellent coach and you end up with words like “contender” and “division champs” being thrown around.

The problem here is that basketball is not a plug-and-play sport most of the time. Just ask the Cavs. There were a couple prominent tweets that really rubbed me the wrong way in regards to this.

I don’t mean to compare the Hornets to the Cavs. But I do want to address the idea of “system/personnel continuity”. Charlotte returned 4 starters, replacing Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams. But that’s not an entirely accurate depiction of the team. Gerald Henderson, a starter who had a usage rate of 22.4, can barely get in games. He’s averaging half the minutes he did last year, and that probably overstates his involvement considering MKG’s injury early this season. His replacement, Lance Stephenson, doesn’t exactly play the same way. In fact, you could argue that the adjustment to playing with Lance is akin to the adjustment the team had to make when Al Jefferson arrived. Stephenson comes over after posting a usage rate of 19.5. Many saw him as the playmaking replacement for McRoberts, but McBobs was a ball-mover and Lance is often more of a ball-stopper. He also handles the ball coming out of the backcourt quite a bit, something Kemba didn’t have to do with Hendo as his running mate. All that is to say this is a huge change.

Lost among his mid-season All-Star campaign and the excitement over his signing is the fact that Stephenson has never posted a PER over the league average of 15. He also went over 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career last season. This isn’t meant as an indictment of his abilities. He has improved every single year he’s been in the league. What I mean to point out is that he’s still learning about himself as a player both individually and in the context of the Hornets’ roster structure. There has been a clear lack of comfort when Lance is on the court. Guys don’t want to step on each other’s toes. Kemba is trying to make sure both Lance and Al are getting touches. There is a lot of adjusting to be done by everyone.
Perhaps none more so than Steve Clifford. Not only is he having to integrate new pieces, but he’s doing it without the benefit of a full preseason due to a plethora of injuries. There hasn’t been a consistent rotation on a night to night basis yet. And Lance isn’t his only mystery to figure out in the rotation. Cody is seeing an increase in minutes, from 17.3 mpg his rookie season to 22.9 this season, as he grows more accustomed to the NBA game. PJ Hairston got minutes due to injuries and showed that he needs a place in the rotation. When Gary Neal comes in the offense finally starts to flow, so Clifford has to figure out how to most effectively deploy him.

A lot has changed on this team. Growing pains happen. It’s easy to remember the big wins and the playoff appearance, but there was a major adjustment period last season. Given these facts, what are reasonable expectations for the 2014-15 Hornets? At the beginning of the season I suggested that they merely need to stay afloat, right around .500, heading into the new year, at which point I expect everything to start coming together. I haven’t really seen anything to move me off my 45 win prediction along with a playoff series win. The Hornets sit at 10th in defensive efficiency right now, even after that stink fest in LA. A top 5 defense should be the goal. Offense is going to be a struggle, even as it improves. There’s really not evidence you can build an efficient offense around a low post player in the modern game. It’s possible Kemba Walker is what he is. Right now the ceiling is relatively low. Defense is what drives this team’s success and that’s not changing any time soon.

Let’s pump the breaks on the panic, but also identify realistic expectations for this team. It’s going to be a good season. Home games have been great. The young guys are getting better. The team is undefeated in the division. And for the love of everything, don’t suggest to anyone that Derek Anderson should start over Cam Newton. That’s just beyond ridiculous.

Video Breakdown of PJ’s Defense

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Against the Grizzlies last week, the Hornets struggled to get anything going offensively. The fans’ natural response was to beg for one of the best shooters on the team, PJ Hairston, to get on the floor. Those same fans were also booing Gerald Henderson every time he came in the game, so there might have been some other agenda in play, but the unknown is always exciting and rookies are the ultimate unknown in the NBA.

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffering a rib injury and Gary Neal getting poked in the eye, there were suddenly minutes available on the wing against the Heat. Enter PJ. While he struggled with his shot, nobody is worried about that. He’s too good of a shooter to not find his stroke. The question has always been about his attitude and whether or not he has the defensive chops to stay on the court. 5 games in an NBA season is a tiny sample size. 2 games totaling 30 minutes is a crap shoot. I seriously doubt he shoots 22% from 3 all season. So with statistics out the door, it’s, “To the tape Batman!”

Shooting aside, the offense is worth a brief look. PJ’s offensive game clearly shows the benefits of the D-League. He understands NBA offense. He moved with confidence, found open spots on the perimeter, made himself available for kick-outs, and attacked the defense when a lane was available without ever forcing it. Surprisingly, he didn’t play the part of a gunner, more of a key offensive cog. All really good stuff.

That’s all good and well, but the defense is what Coach Clifford is watching. Unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a mixed bag. His performance can be broken down into 3 components: scheme, technique, and effort.

Just as with his offense, PJ’s ability to execute an NBA style defensive scheme reflects his experience in the D-League (seriously, if they can get salaries up, this is a much better option than college as far as development is concerned). In general, he stuck to the defensive blueprint. He helped and recovered on drives, bumped the roll man and got back out to his man, downed the side pick and roll (as seen below)… For his second NBA game he did everything expected of him.

PJIce

That’s not to say all was good schematically. At times he over-helped on the weak side, getting stuck in no man’s land, and failed to close hard with his hands up on the kick-out pass.

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Most of PJ’s struggles can be tied to his defensive technique.

In the below picture, you can see the aftermath of good schematic execution coupled with poor technique. PJ helps down off is man to bump Bosh as he rolls to the rim after setting a pick. Once that action has been turned away, he goes to recover to his man, Luol Deng, who has cut up from the corner to the left wing. What you see is a bad angle on the recovery coupled with poor balance (it’s like watching the Panthers’ secondary), all resulting in an easy 2 for Deng.

PJBadHelpAndRecover

PJ’s up-and-down nature on defense comes together in one play. He fights hard over a screen in the first picture, forcing the ball handler towards the baseline and preventing him from splitting the defense. In the second picture he sprints back, never giving up the pull-up jumper and continuing to push the ball towards the baseline. All really good stuff so far. Then things fall apart. Rather than squaring up to suspend the penetration or continuing to push the ball through, Hairston loses his balance and gets turned around with his back to the defender. Lucky for him, no foul gets called and the play results in a poor shot attempt and a stop.

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It’s not all bad with PJ. One thing that stood out was his balance when closing out on shooters. He’s able to contest without fouling even on going hard. He did a decent job staying in front of ball handlers, though he was mostly guarding Luol Deng and Mario Chalmers, not really known for their isolation skills. He also uses his body and hands well off the ball, impeding the progress of offensive players without fouling.

The scouting report on PJ before the draft questioned his focus, particularly on defense. Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much of that against the Heat. He was attentive, communicating both verbally and with hand signals. He didn’t get beat on cuts. He didn’t pout or hang his head. He was engaged in the huddles and responded well to Clifford’s criticisms and instructions. This manifested itself in a much better effort in the second half.

Quick sidetrack to the negative so we can end on a happy note. One thing PJ can work on is staying in a stance. He also needs to play bigger. At one point he just lets Deng back him down and shoot right over the top.

With his size, I imagine the hope is that he can swing between SG and SF. To do that, he’s going to need to have the strength and put forth the effort to prevent easy plays like this.

Then there’s this:

Stays with the fake, fights through a screen down low, and erases the easy bucket. That’s the whole package. Discipline, technique, and maximum effort. He wasn’t perfect, and having MKG back reduces the available minutes, but Clifford has to be happy with what he saw from Hairston. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. If he can work hard to fine tune some things, Hairston could end up being a steal from the 2014 draft and a perfect fit on this roster.

Baseline Observations: Three Games In

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

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

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

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Baseline Buzz Hornets Season Preview 2014-2015

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FIFTEEN FOR FIFTEEN! Baseliner’s Dr. E, Bradford Coombs and A.S. Chin answer fifteen burning questions as we head into the neo-Hornets era:

1. The season is just hours away. We’ve been through the Draft hype, the Free Agency hype and now the Preseason hype. What are you most excited to see from these neo-Hornets?

Bradford: Without question it’s MKG for me. I expect incremental improvement from his jump shot and think it’s still a couple years away from being a reliable weapon. But anyone who has seen the preseason has noticed the aggressiveness that has come with his newfound confidence on offense. I think the improvement everyone expected from year 1 to year 2 is going to manifest itself in year 3. I’m probably too old to be buying jerseys, but I might need an MKG jersey.

Dr.E: Two things: A) MKG taking a step forward to become a more confident offensive player and B) How Lance Stephenson fits in. From a strictly basketball point, some of Hendo’s minutes going to Lance should be a good thing — all those fadeaway long twos Hendo had to take at the end of the shot clock when the first option on offense had been stifled? Many of those are going to be Lance drives to the basket now. But the chemistry thing is what I’m more interested to see — I still worry that Lance was a big part of the Pacers undoing last year.

ASChin: The Cho Show. It was the least hyped event of the Hornets offseason yet MJ’s decision to dump Rod Higgins in order to let Rich Cho run the basketball side solo could turn out to be the organization’s best move. Higgins track record was horrendous and while Cho hasn’t been perfect (drafting Biz over Klay/Kawhi/Faried/Vucevic), he’s been way more successful and consistent in his transactions than Cory’s father ever was. Hornets fans haven’t had a legit GM running the show since Bob Bass skipped town over a decade ago. This could be the start of something good.

2. The Hornets starting PF at the end of the year is…?

Bradford: Marvin Williams will start, but Cody Zeller will be a better player and have the better year. Vonleh will barely see the court. I love Cody’s playmaking in the preseason. He’s driving and kicking to the plethora of shooters in the second unit. Williams has the better shooting range, which the starters desperately need.

Dr.E: I’ll go chalk here and say Marvin Williams. I know he’s had a quiet preseason, but he’s a reliable vet who’s learning a new system — he’ll be fine.

ASChin: I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Charlotte is the only team in the league that has a ‘Cody’ backing up a ‘Marvin’. Also, I’m gonna go out on a longer limb and say that Cody is the starter by Playoff time. The mid-range release has looked faster during the preseason and he looks more confident shooting it. Zeller’s playmaking isn’t as flashy as McRoberts’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as effective. Cody makes smart basketball plays and goes hard for contested boards. He looks stronger too. A little bit more consistency and he might be too good to keep on the pine.

3. True or False: Rich Cho purposefully timed Lance’s final year (team option) with Gordon Hayward’s player option.

Bradford: True. But mostly for fun. Utah’s cap sheet is going to get interesting quickly having made so many draft picks so quickly. And if you’ve been watching Hayward whipping cross-court passes out of the pick-and-roll you can see what Cho liked. It’s pretty interesting that he was able to get such a team friendly deal with Stephenson. I can’t be the only one who thought, “They meant player option, right?” when I saw the headline.

Dr.E: I think it’s safe to say that both sides (Lance and the Hornets) wanted the contract to be on the short side. Lance knew he cost himself some money with his antics last season, and wanted to bet on himself with a shorter contract that expires when the salary cap will be significantly higher. The Hornets want future flexibility in general, as much for Steph Curry as Gordon Hayward probably.

ASChin: True. As the Baseline’s resident conspiracy theorist, I’m gonna say that Cho knew exactly what sort of deal Lance would agree to and poison-pilled Hayward’s contract in advance to give them another playmaking wing option should Stephenson bolt in a few seasons. The team made a HUGE impression on Gordon apparently – sending a crack team of investigators to uncover Hayward’s favorite refined sugar product and real-time strategy game. Don’t be shocked if Gordon’s wearing teal next to Steph Cur- *COUGH* Kemba Walker in a few years.

4. MKG will finish the regular season with the following stats:

Bradford: 12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block in 28 minutes per game. I think MKG plays closer to 30 minutes this year and all non-scoring stats increase proportionately. For scoring I used his pre-season usage rate and multiplied that by small increases in shooting and free-throw percentages. These numbers may seem modest considering my previously stated expectations, but the increased usage and efficiency are big deals in my mind despite the raw numbers not being overwhelming.

Dr.E: 11ppg, 7rpg, and a 15.0 PER in 27 minutes/game.

ASChin: Dr.E and I can’t compete with Bradford’s understanding of math. 12.5ppg, 7rpg, 1apg, 1.5spg, 1bpg AKA “The Young Gerald Wallace” line.

5. Most likely Hornet to be traded before the Deadline is…?

Bradford: Henderson is the easy answer. I’m going with Bismack Bye-ombo (see what I did there?). I’ve been really loyal to Biz, all the way up until the preseason where it’s just been the same old things. A good rim protector who struggles with defensive positioning beyond standing at the rim and waiting, with nothing to bring to the table offensively. You can’t even throw lobs or hit him as a roll-man let alone post him up. I could go out on a real limb and say PJ Hairston is going to come on strong and Biz will be packaged with Gary Neal at the deadline to fill out a contender’s roster, or Sacramento’s overly exuberant ownership.

Dr.E: It’s less likely now with Jeff Taylor no longer around, but I’ll still say Gerald Henderson. Dark horse would be Cody Zeller or Noah Vonleh if some big trade became available.

ASChin: Trader Cho has lots to work with heading into the Deadline. IF the team believes that both Cody and Vonleh are and always will be power forwards then one has to go, right? Before Taylor’s meltdown, I swore Hendo was the odd man out. Now the team desperately needs another athletic wing who can defend off the pine. Biz isn’t worth anything close to his upcoming qualifying offer or cap hold but he’s worth more to Charlotte now as a backup big than the 2nd Round pick he’d return. I’m going with Gary Neal.

6. Will Al Jefferson finally make the All-Star team?

Bradford: Sadly, no. I think you’ll see some combination of Bosh/Noah/Horford. If he does it will be due to Noah’s foot or Horford’s pectoral muscle.

Dr.E: As long as he doesn’t have a slow start, yes.

ASChin: If Charlotte is over .500 by the time the coaches vote, they’ll have to send a representative. YES.

7. The biggest dropoff from last season will be…?

Bradford: This one is pretty obvious when you think about it. It’s protecting the ball. Charlotte’s turnover ratio was tops in the league last season by a healthy margin. Lance Stephenson had a higher turnover ratio than anybody on the team last year.

Dr.E: I’m a little worried about regression for Big Al.

ASChin: Behind the back passes. Oh, how I grieve for you McBob…

8. The biggest improvement from last season will be…?

Bradford: Shooting, shooting, shooting. All credit to CDR and Anthony Tolliver for their efforts last year, but a full season of Gary Neal, Brian Roberts, PJ Hairston, Marvin Williams, Lance Stephenson… They shouldn’t be 23rd in 3 point percentage next year.

Dr.E: Hoping it’s MKG, but seeming more likely it’s Gary Neal, with the weight loss in the offseason and a full preseason in Clifford’s system.

ASChin: One more vote for shooting. The Bobcats were a very poor shooting team before the Break last season. Two of that team’s three point weapons, CDR (51) and McRoberts (105), DEMOLISHED their career highs in three pointers made – notching nearly two-thirds more makes than their cumulative previous career totals. Tolliver’s 105 makes will be missed but so many of his threes came in bunches early and he mostly sat once Douglas-Roberts proved a better defending option at SF. Marvin (84 threes in 66 games), Roberts (66), Lance (86), Neal and P.J. Hairston will more than make up for the departed. Each one of those guys has faster strokes and, outside of Lance, rarely hesitate to launch one. The big key to the Hornets becoming a very good shooting team is Kemba – he should get more spot up opportunities this year playing off of Lance.

9. Will Noah Vonleh log any meaningful minutes in his rookie season?

Bradford: Nope.

Dr.E: Clifford has already pretty much said no for the first half of the season, and if the Hornets are in the thick of the playoff race, might not be many minutes in the second half either.

ASChin: Not likely. I’ve been using Portland-era Jermaine O’Neal as a comp. He’ll sit as a youngster on a good team and learn valuable lessons behind vets who are trying to win now.

10. More likely to make an appearance at the TWC the season: Jeff Taylor or Rufus Lynx?

Bradford: My first inclination is to say Rufus. But if Taylor was going to get cut, why wait? He’s nothing more than insurance on the wing with no real future with the franchise (sorry JT fans). The team has to know more about the situation than has been publicly released. I don’t know if we’ll see him get minutes in an actual game, but I think you’ll be able to catch him chilling on the bench at some point.

Dr.E: Neither.

ASChin: Rufus and his friends Primoz Brezec and Melvin Ely will crash the Hornets opener wearing black B.W.O. t-shirts. OHMYGAWD IT’S A BOBCATS WORLD ORDER!!!

11.  Worst move of the offseason: Letting McRoberts walk for the mid-level OR Paying Marvin Williams $7 million per season?

Bradford: I’m going to say Marvin Williams at $7 million fully guaranteed. Some sort of team option or partial guarantee on year 2 would have made sense with such a high number. It’s not a crippling move, but it’s not very flexible either.
As for McRoberts, last year was a career year that I don’t think he’ll match again. It was a right place, right time kind of situation. The 3 point shooting probably won’t hold up. And even though he hit 3’s at a decent clip, teams still didn’t respect it according to SportsVU’s gravity measurements as discussed here  (Insider Only). The more interesting angle on McRoberts is which decision was worse, Cho not re-signing him or McRoberts choosing to leave?

Dr.E: Letting McRoberts walk for sure. If the Hornets don’t get off to a good start, it won’t be the end of the world, but it will be because McBob isn’t on the floor holding things together.

ASChin: McRoberts was set to become this generation’s Gminski, a bearded Dookie who played the game the only way a six-ten Jesus could: with style and grace; turning Lebron’s other cheek into his other elbow. Why Cho? WHY???!!!

12. The Hornets finish the season with a record of…?

Bradford: I’m sticking with my non-stats based 45-37 prediction from the summer.

Dr.E: 47-35.

ASChin: 50-32. The first time a Charlotte NBA team has notched fifty since 1998.

13. True or False: The Hornets will win a Playoff game this season.

Bradford: True. Not only will they win a playoff game this season, they’ll win a playoff series.

Dr.E: True.

ASChin: They’ll get to the Mike Woodson Invitational AKA The Second Round.

14. What does Kemba’s contract extension look like?

Bradford: 4 years, $50 million with a player option on the fourth year.

Dr.E: It’s really hard to say without knowing more details about how and how much the salary cap is going to go up over the next few years right?  I guess in the 10-11 million per range?

ASChin: Cap uncertainty is a major issue but Cho’s greatest strength has been contract negotiation. I’m gonna say it’s 4yrs, $48m with a team option after year three – timing it perfectly with a famous Charlottean’s free agency.

15. Unsung Hero: Which under the radar Hornet makes the biggest contribution this season?

Bradford: As a bit of a fanboy I want to say Brian Roberts, and I love his signing, but I’m going to go with Gerald Henderson. He’s the forgotten man and there are legitimate concerns about his fit with the team going forward. But I think he becomes an essential glue guy. He’s been overextended since he escaped the shackles of Larry Brown. He never should have been a first, second, or even third option on offense. He has an opportunity to redefine his career as a spot-up shooter and cutter who never handles the ball and puts most of his energy into defense. You know who else couldn’t shoot for the life of him until all he had to do was stand there, catch, and shoot? Thabo Sefalosha. Steve Clifford loves defensive versatility and Hendo is strong enough and athletic enough to defend multiple positions. An obvious trade target, and I’m not saying he won’t be, but Hendo is going to play a big role on this team. It’s all up to him to take on this new challenge and I think he’ll have a great year.

Dr.E: Gary Neal.

ASChin: Tyrus Thomas. MJ is gonna cringe every time he sends out a cut of the $9 million amnesty the team still owes T-Time. Every time Dougie McBuckets nails a three (Chicago acquired McDermott by packaging the Bobcats first rounder from the Thomas trade), MJ is going to curse the names of Larry Brown and Rod Higgins. The Tyrus and Tyson Chandler deals cemented Jordan’s status as a poor basketball mind five years ago. He’ll use these memories like he used getting cut from his high school basketball team. As the Waterboy would say, “Tacklin’ Fuel”. The Hornets will win a title in the next decade.

Bonus Predictions from Bradford:

  • Kemba shoots 45% from the field.
  • Cody Zeller averages 3+ assists per game.
  • PJ Hairston scores 30 in a game at some point.
  • Charlotte ranks in the top half of the league in attendance.
  • Lance Stephenson has less than 10 technical fouls all season.

Welcome Back Hornets Fans

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November 1988. I was right there with you. Eleven years old, I had just started getting into hoops a couple of years prior. The speed and the skill fascinated me. The Celtics fascinated me. Kevin McHale’s armpit hair fascinated me. If I had that much pit-hair, I absolutely would not play with my elbows that high. Kareem fascinated me. He fought Bruce Lee in Game of Death and trained with him in the offseason. That’s all a half-Asian/half-redneck kid needed to know. These were some cool dudes.

Then the Hornets showed up. The concept of “expansion” didn’t really hit me back then. I was in the sixth grade – nearly everything is expansion when you’re that age. Did you know that people in France eat snails? Expansion. Did you know there was a state called New Mexico? Expansion. Did you know that girls weren’t in fact “icky”? Expansion.

The Charlotte Hornets were bad that season. Not Michael Jackson BAD. Not Color Me Badd. They were Paula Abdul Straight Up now tell me bad. Still, there was an endearing circus quality about the team. Their best scorers were Kelly Tripucka and Robert Reid; each rocking a non-discriminatory tight curl perm-fro. Rex Chapman, the team’s star draft pick, was a twenty year old kid from Appalachia whose rare mullet/rattail combo never caught on outside of Kentucky. The team’s best known player was a nerd in horn-rimmed glasses named Kurt Rambis who dominated the Bojangles Hustle Stats. Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues was a point guard shorter than a few of the kids in my sixth grade class. Rounding out the roster were a stack of random create-a-player fodder that you would’ve been pissed to find in your pack of Fleer ’88-89’s if you happened to live outside of Mecklenburg County. Whatever. They were our guys.

The entire Charlotte area expanded like crazy back in the 80s and 90s. People arrived from upstate New York, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Looking for a better life with clean, safe streets, cheaper housing and something called sunshine. A symbol of the region’s growth and status, the Hornets united Charlotteans new and old.

Within weeks of the Hornet’s inaugural home opener my brother and I were playing our first organized hoops game for Long Creek Elementary in Huntersville, channeling our inner Curetons, our inner Kemptons and Rowsoms. We eventually took that show to Iredell County and then across the border to Fort Mill, channeling our inner LJ’s, Zo’s and DC’s for three. Our household was unstable growing up. We moved around a lot. Our parents divorced. Our dad moved back to Asia and before long our mother had re-married. There was however one constant: The Charlotte Hornets.

LJ-retro-01Come to think of it, the Hornets might’ve been one of the few things we truly enjoyed together as a family. We didn’t watch the same TV shows or movies. Activities were rare. Between work, school and the summers spent visiting our dad overseas, there just wasn’t much time to bond back in the Carolinas. This probably reads sadder than it actually was – mainly because we loved the Hornets so much. Perhaps the happiest moment in our household, when we all felt unified joy – was the moment Zo hit the shot from the top of the key to put away the Celts. I remember it vividly to this day. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

So when Shinn proved a cheapskate, an incompetent and (finally) a spoiled child who didn’t like sharing his toys, we all played it cool but were internally devastated. My mom and I attended that final, sad Hornets home game at the old Coliseum. Our personal lives were going great at that point – college, new careers – but that game felt like going to the funeral of a very dear friend.

The Hornets had become a massive part of our daily lives. Wake up, eat cereal and tear through the Observer sports page. Read Sorensen’s piece on Dr. K or Dave Cowens. Bonnell’s recap of a Playoff win against Milwaukee or a regular season loss to New Jersey. Talking about the last night’s game with your friends at school. The drive to the Coliseum listening to Matt Pinto and Gerry V’s pre-game show. Martin and McGregor in the booth. The energy at the Hive. Jr. Walker and the All-Stars “Shotgun” booming during timeouts. The Chris Farley looking guy who did backflips. The thrill after a win. The pain after a loss. GONE.

The NBA knew that it screwed up BIG by letting Shinn bolt and, in an unprecedented move, immediately awarded the city yet another expansion franchise just a couple of years later. (Consider that Seattle, a larger market with a championship history and major corporate dollars, is still waiting for another team five years after the Sonics bolted for the Midwest.) Unfortunately, rebound relationships almost never work and the Bobcats were no different. A legion of heartbroken fans stayed away. Shinn had abused your trust, your loyalty and your love for too long. You couldn’t go through this again. And you were right.

Unlike the self-hating masochists who identified themselves as Bobcats fans over the last decade (this writer included), YOU old school Hornets fans who stayed away played it smart. YOU had already been through the expansion nonsense once – the growing pains, the awkwardness. YOU had already made a sizable (and ultimately ill-fated) investment of blood, sweat, tears and benjamins into an NBA franchise. And look how it panned out? And now YOU were being asked to do it all over again? For another twerp? Screw this.

The league replaced Shinn with a dodgy, narcissistic, DC-based owner who will ultimately only be remembered for making a series of terrible business decisions and for naming an actual NBA team after himself – not in 2K but in real life. Aloof and insecure, Bob Johnson had little experience outside of the cushy confines of DC crony capitalism. His ill-fated C-SET regional sports network has hamstrung the franchise to this very day. Ever wonder why the arena has the words ‘Time Warner Cable’ written on it and why fans two counties away can’t watch the games? It’s worth a Google. Johnson’s overwhelmed front office passed on superstar after superstar in the Draft. The franchise quickly gained a reputation for thriftiness and instability both on and off the court. Given the needs and expectations of the QC’s abused fanbase, BJ’s reign was an unmitigated EPIC FAIL. The few fans who jumped back in got a heaping helping of headaches to add to our heartbreak. First time shame on you; second time shame on us. Well played, old school Hornets fans – YOU stayed away and it was the right move.

ammo-illustratedIt was a dark, sad era filled with miscues, short-term fixes to long term problems and lots of losing. LOTS and LOTS of losing. The Bobcats had exactly two winning seasons in a decade’s worth of work and never once won a playoff game or notched fifty wins in a season. They passed up a trade for Chris Paul, drafted every guy they shouldn’t have, whiffed in free agency and player development, alienated much of the region with that imbecilic TV deal and played nearly every hand wrong in between. If the United States had declared a War on Error, there would’ve been more troops stationed at the TWC than in Kabul.

Many of us who jumped back in did so with a kevlar dive suit – and the era was ripe for this new breed of distanced fandom. There was terror, fear, recession and pessimism at home; endless wars abroad. Charlotte’s seemingly infinite economic growth spurt had stalled.

sean-may-illustrationThe internet ushered in an entire wave of snark and cynicism fueled by the painfully self-aware. A new breed of knowledgeable, objective fans who followed “the league” at arm’s length were born. Analytics brought sanity to front offices and fan debates but it also risked transforming what was once (and at its core still is) an entirely emotional endeavor into an emotionless pastime. Hoops fans started to resemble Marvel’s Watcher character – quietly, passively observing in the distance. The raving lunatics who dominated The Hive back in the day were at risk of being turned into an orgy of once-bitten twice shy “smarks” – holding out just enough emotion so that they couldn’t be hurt again by the dispassionate business side of pro sports. Thank God for alcohol.

Professional sports is rarely uglier than when the owners leverage our absurd emotional investment for ever higher profits. It’s an exchange that feels downright gross. You could forgive us the first time because we were so naive and didn’t know what we were getting into. We love the Hornets and the Hornets love us. A child’s understanding of the world.

Here’s the good news. We’re no longer children. We’re no longer naive about how this stuff works. And we have nothing to lose. If the neo-Hornets flee to Seattle or St. Louis one day, then fine. Been there done that, got the closet full of oversized sponsored t-shirts.

Speaking of those neo-Hornets, the NBA ostensibly admitted (yet again) that it had screwed Charlotte hoops fans (yet again) by approving Johnson as owner. The league hastened the team’s sale to Michael Jordan back in 2010 and the rebrand process following shortly after. The league returned the Hornets name, the mascot, the colors and, amazingly enough, the team records. I repeat: these are UNPRECEDENTED MOVES. We’re here to make you whole again, the league said. We’re sorry. Apology accepted.

In the meantime, [and I’m looking at you OLD SCHOOL HORNET NATION] if we are gonna be fans, let’s go ALL IN. It’s really the only way to do it. The NBA has never been more fun. There are fantastic players, story-lines and franchises nearly everywhere you look (except for Philly). And it’s perfect timing for local fans because this Hornets team is potentially VERY good, very fun with a lot of room to get better.

Let’s start with the owner. Unlike George Shinn, Michael Jordan isn’t addicted to embarrassing the City of Charlotte. No, his addiction is to winning. And he’s been separated from the Larry O’Brien trophy for sixteen years now, learning a series of tough lessons along the way. Is he perfect? Of course not. He’s prone to nepotism, poor tipping habits and he likes to wear tattered jeans to meaningful press conferences. But he wants to win; needs to win. Also, he’s Michael freaking Jordan.

MJ’s shown growth as an owner. After surrounding himself with a never-ending stream of “yes-men” a few years ago, MJ essentially fired one of his longtime pals (former GM Rod Higgins – who, by the way, severely sucked at his job) in favor of a braniac Burmese-American dude. That dude’s name is Rich Cho and for all of his Draft drama (I’m looking at you Bismack Biyombo), in just three years he’s transformed a laughingstock franchise into a legitimate pro hoops organization. Shinn lucked into a guy like that back in the day named Bob Bass and Bass kept the franchise relevant for nearly a decade in spite of Georgie’s ineptitude. Imagine what that level of competence can do for an owner who actually wants to be the best?

The team has young players with a lot of upside. Many of whom aren’t even counted on to win today. They’ll develop steadily and become fine NBA veterans. Cody Zeller is seven feet, runs like a gazelle and jumps higher than Grandmama. He’s also incredibly skilled and a nice kid. His fellow Indiana alum, Noah Vonleh, is a 6’9″ power forward who can hit three pointers and handle the ball like a guard. He also has giant hands, just turned 19 and could still be growing. Michael-Kidd Gilchrist was once thought of as a draft bust but after a summer spent working on his jumper with former Cleveland great Mark Price, MKG has a chance to become one of the league’s best small forwards. He’s already thought of as one of the NBA’s top defenders. He just turned 21.

Speaking of Price, the Hornets coaching staff has some familiar faces next to uber-genius headman Steve Clifford. Bob Weiss used to coach the Hawks back in the day and is now in full mentor mode on the pine. Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing stopped sweating long enough to put on some weight and transform into a top big man coach and associate head guy. Clifford himself was groomed from the Van Gundy/Pat Riley school and those guys kind of know what they’re doing in case you’ve forgotten.

Remember how intense Alonzo Mourning used to get? Just like MJ, he wanted to win – BAD. That same fire burns inside of the Hornets’ twenty four year old point guard, Kemba Walker. The odds of Kemba hitting The Next Great Charlotte NBA Shot are huge.

And then there’s Lance Stephenson – you may have heard about him blowing in Lebron’s ear. Yes, he can drive opponents, teammates and fans crazy. He’s also quite good at basketball and tallied more triple doubles last season than the Bobcats had in their entire ten year history. Imagine if Magic Johnson played for the Hornets back in the day. Lance could be a version of that. He’s also just 24.

alFinally, there’s the team’s All-NBA center – Al Jefferson. Imagine if Armon Gilliam (my fave guy back in the day, RIP) was six foot ten, weighed nearly three hundred pounds AND had about a thousand more post-moves. Nobody in the league has Big Al’s back to the basket game. Nobody. There’s never been a more skilled big man in QC hoops history. It’s like watching a ballerina the size of a small tank straightup EMBARRASS the best paint defenders in the world on a nightly basis. He is an absolute treat to watch, O.G. Hornets fans – I’m telling you, YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE WATCHING HIM.

Twenty-six years later my brother and I still have Hornets hysteria. I write and Mike designs the site and creates all of the awesome illustrations. The Bugs are Back and we couldn’t be any more excited. There will be ups and downs of course. Injuries happen. Players get traded. Guys sign elsewhere (I still grieve over you Josh McRoberts). But it’s ok to like the Charlotte NBA team again. Go ahead. Understand what you’re getting into. Then open your hearts and get pumped. We’ve literally had the worst done to us and things can only get better from here. Have fun at the games. Maybe you’ll run into us. We’ll be the guys there with our mom.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

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10 Observations From Hornets @ 76ers 10/8/2014

I watched the Hornets game on an awful stream that made it impossible to distinguish between Marvin Williams, MKG, and Lance. It was a stupid preseason game with no real meaning and a disappointing defensive effort. But about 4 minutes into the game, it hit me. I was watching the Charlotte Hornets play basketball. I literally got chills. Not only was I watching the Charlotte Hornets, but I was watching a team that is relevant, now and in the future. I hope everyone else is as jacked up about this season as I am. Here are 10 things I saw in the game.

1. Let’s just get this out of the way. MKG’s shot is massively improved. It’s still in the discussion for the ugliest shots in the NBA, but it’s not THE worst. The question was if it would hold up in a game situation. I’m happy to report that yes, it did. There was a moment early in the game where he caught the ball on the wing, just inside the 3-point line, wide open. This was the moment. Would he have the confidence to launch it? Would his form break down again? He squared up, hesitated, and started dribbling left into the lane. Sad faces everywhere. Until out of nowhere, he plants, rises up, and nails a jumper over the outstretched hands of a defender.
MKG may never be a shooter. But having the confidence to take that shot influences the rest of his game. I’m curious to see if the aggressiveness he exhibited on offense tonight continues. 11 points, 7 boards, 1 assist, 2 steals, 1 block, and 1 turnover in 26 minutes? I think Coach Clifford can live with that.

2. The new guys struggled tonight. Lance was out of control much of the night. Marvin Williams couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, Brian Roberts was off all night, and PJ Hairston was looking to make a statement filling in for Henderson. Having said that, there was a lot to like. Lance is learning how to play with Kemba and Al Jefferson. That’s a big adjustment. I suspect things won’t really start to click until January. If they can hover around or right above .500 through then, I expect another strong second half to the season. The other guys will shoot better, which is all they’re really being asked to do.

3. Gary Neal: Flamethrower.

4. Bismack Biyombo is on thin ice right now. 1-4 from the field, more fumbled passes, and even got smoked by Brandon Davies in the post. The rebounding is still there, but when other guys are showing obvious improvement from last season, MKG and Cody Zeller in particular, it’s not a good look to be treading water.

5. Speaking of Cody, what a difference a summer makes. He was clearly playing at a better pace. He wasn’t getting ahead of himself, barreling into the defense. 2 plays in particular stood out to me. On one, he drove on the defender, came to a jump stop around the basket, and then kicked the ball out to a shooter on the other wing for a wide open 3 that missed. Later he drove left from the top of the key, drew in a defender, and kicked it out to the strong side wing for another wide open 3. I think Cody is going to be a really good passer as his career progresses and those skills showed in this game. Once he develops appropriate range he could be a very valuable piece.

6. Those purple jerseys really popped. Can’t wait to see the home court.

7. Coach Clifford has mentioned that he installed a very basic defense last season with more complexities to come. We saw one of those new wrinkles tonight. Philly was bringing the ball up with 10 seconds left in the quarter. Typically in this situation, the defense sits and waits for the offense to make a move, usually as the clock ticks under 5 seconds. In this instance, Clifford had Zeller sprint to the ball as soon as it crossed half-court to trap the ball-handler. Once the ball was picked up and moved, Zeller sprinted back to his man. It didn’t seem like they were trying to force a turnover so much as just disrupt the offense with the clock on their backs. It was an interesting way to leverage the speed and size of Zeller. Don’t expect to see Al Jefferson doing the same thing. This seems like a player specific assignment. It will be interesting to see if this is a tactic they continue to use, and what other players receive special defensive assignments like this.

8. Another game, another sick Kemba crossover pull-up jumper at the end of a quarter.

9. If you’ve ever been 30+ years old and tried to play a night of pick-up basketball after not playing for a couple months, then you’re probably like me and not worried one bit about Al Jefferson’s slow start.

10. I’m not particularly concerned with the half-court defense, which was putrid tonight. There needs to be more effort to get back in transition. It was way too easy for Philly tonight.

Preseason needs to be processed through the correct filter. San Antonio lost to Berlin Alba Berlin. Doesn’t matter a bit. If you’re worried about losing to the worst team in the league, don’t be. Just enjoy those jerseys and what lies ahead.