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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Jump Shot Ratings

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With the draft come and gone, summer league concluded, free agency past its height, and training camps a couple weeks away, we are officially in the worst part of the NBA calendar. Seriously, you can only read so many player profiles, preseason rankings, and projections before they all just start to say the same thing. Zach Lowe already has the eccentric NBA rankings market cornered, this year tackling court designs. Finding a topic worth covering without feeling redundant is a challenge in September. So, as your stereotypical short, un-athletic white guy I decided to tackle an important topic: ranking Charlotte Hornets jump shooters. This is a purely subjective, aesthetically based ranking. Results are irrelevant. Hornets fans need to know who has the Mona Lisa of jump shots, and whose jump shot belongs in the garbage (I hate to pile it on, but we all know where this end of the spectrum is headed).

Rankings take into account mechanical soundness and the “Eff You” factor. The “Eff You” factor is a matter of stylistic flair that demoralizes an opponent as soon as the shot goes up. The kings of the jump shot “eff you” are Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. To rate highly by this metric, consistent results are required, but being a consistently great shooter doesn’t necessarily grade out in style. So, without further ado, your 2014-15 Charlotte Hornets Jump Shot Rankings, in reverse order.

14. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

This has been covered. Nobody knows what MKG’s shot is going to look like this upcoming year, but the photo evidence isn’t encouraging to me.

MKG reconstructed jump shot

MKG is my favorite Hornet. But someone might want to call a priest to exorcise the demon living in his right elbow.

13. Bismack Biyombo

I wanted to like Biz’s shot more than I do. I love the guy. Who doesn’t? He obviously finds so much joy in life that I can help but feel my spirits lifted. But the jumper just doesn’t have it. First of all, he suffers from gangly limb syndrome. His arms and legs are so long he can’t seem to figure out what to do with them. His feet are spread way too wide, feet all pigeon-toed, knees appearing to buckle. The ball comes from the left side of his body, shooting elbow flared out, off-hand way too involved… I will say this, he has a nice high release point that helps corral his arms a little bit, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

12. Gerald Henderson

This might be a personal preference thing and probably isn’t fair at all, but Hendo’s jumper is sneaky ugly for me. Let’s start with the feet. I hate the “one foot (way) forward approach.” A shooter’s strong-side foot should be a little forward, say 6 inches. But a full step? It completely throws off your alignment. You can see how it opens up everything else (hips, shoulders). The release is fine, but there’s a mechanical slowness to the entire shooting motion. He never looks comfortable shooting, and I’m never comfortable watching.
What bothers me most is that there’s no reason for any of these issues. Henderson doesn’t have abnormally long arms or large hands. He grew up in a basketball family. And if he had a reliable 3 point shot with a quick release, he would be a completely different player. Alas, it looks like he has one more year as a Hornet before he opts out and moves on to a new team.

11. Marvin Williams

I’m not actually sure how to refer to Marvin Williams. One name? Both names? Marvin seems too personal. Williams is too generic… I digress. He’s expected to be a stretch 4 for the Hornets. Hopefully it works out but when it comes to my personal rankings, Marv here commits a cardinal sin. The leg kick. I’ve spent the past 2 years trying to eliminate the leg kick from my son’s jump shot (he’s only 11, so it’s probably too soon). Other than that, everything looks good. Balanced, a nice quick release, good follow through. But those feet…

10. Al Jefferson
Should Al be higher than Marvin Williams and Gerald Henderson and maybe even Biz? Nope. Why is he? Let’s check the tape.

9. Cody Zeller

Cody’s shot is exactly what you would expect out of an Indiana boy. Fundamentally and mechanically sound, balanced, elbow tight, full extension, follow-through… it’s also epically boring. I could fall asleep watching Cody Zeller jump shots. On a side note, Eric Gordon may have the most boringly effective jump shot in the league. Imagine that. Another Indiana guy.

8. Noah Vonleh

Vonleh is an interesting shooter. There’s not a lot of tape for his shooting, even if I had the patience to dig through college highlights. Another guy to play at Indiana, another mechanically sound shot. He beats out Cody with a little more “eff you” (love the extended follow-through) and his ability to maintain solid form despite having long arms that could get in the way and huge hands. The future is bright with this guy.

7. Jeff Taylor

I’ve covered Taylor’s shooting (here) extensively so I’ll keep it simple. Points for form and a little bit of style. Negative points for a snail-like release.

6. Kemba Walker

I like Kemba’s 3-point shot for the most part. He’s got solid balance, a nice compact release, good follow-through. I don’t love how he doesn’t fully extend his legs, but I love how quickly he gets his shot off. I think he’ll improve as a 3 point shooter over time. Things fall apart a little bit in the mid-range, something he loves a little too much. While he has an uncanny ability to find his balance using jump-stops, he doesn’t consistently follow through with his legs and arms once he gets inside the arc. As a fellow mid-range short-armer, it bothers me more than it probably should. Extra points for flair though. All of the flair. Putting Kemba above Jeff Taylor speaks to my soft spot for quick releases, high arc, and swaggy jumpers.

5. Lance Stephenson

Now we’re cooking. Quick release, no hesitation, consistent form, deep range with no effort… The results aren’t quite there, knocking him down a peg. But I see it getting better as his career progresses. I don’t need to say anything about the swag factor. Born Ready indeed.

4. Jannero Pargo

Pargo is the ultimate street ball gunner. When he gets the ball, shots are going up from anywhere and everywhere on the court. I love it. I have to dock him for doing it in garbage time. It’s one thing to drop 3’s against the Blazers when you’re already down 30 points (that game still hurts). It’s another to do it when it matters.

3. Brian Roberts

Roberts is a lot like Pargo, except he did it in games where it actually mattered. A quick trigger with an equally quick release and deep range. Charlotte has been lacking in overly aggressive shooters and Roberts is a member of the newest platoon of long range assassins, along with the next 2 guys. We need more pull-up 3’s in transition.

2. PJ Hairston

Not a lot of video here, so we’ll just roll with the NBA.com highlights (while giving my weak video editing skills a break). The D-League stuff isn’t high quality and I refuse to include anything in my posts involving that hideous shade of blue. The mechanics aren’t perfect, but this time I don’t care. It’s so fun to watch PJ jack shots up from all over the court. Quick and confident, unlimited range… Hopefully Coach Clifford can clean up the rough edges and turn him into a 3-and-D monster.

1. Gary Neal

Gary Neal was the inspiration for this list. I was recently watching clips for something else I was working on and I realized I had never recognized how great his shot looks. I’ll let the video do most of the talking. Just look forward to the constant movement, flying around screens and along the baseline, popping out for gorgeous 3’s. The form isn’t necessarily perfect. But it’s quick, it’s balanced, it’s consistent, and it has a flair about it that lets the defense know they’re in trouble. Lance, Brian Roberts (he needs a nickname that’s NOT B-Rob. Let’s be better guys), PJ Be Shooting, and Gary Neal are going to bring something this team desperately needed.

-Bradford Coombs
@bradford_NBA

On Al Jefferson and True Shooting Percentage

Al Jefferson illustration by Mike S
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As I was attempting to answer this on twitter, I realized I needed a little more room. So I started a blog post. Then it grew, and I decided it belonged here. I feel it’s an interesting question and an example of my concerns about how readily available advanced statistics have become. Al Jefferson is a player that has interested me for some time. I have never been a fan of his game and was strongly opposed to the Bobcats signing him. In retrospect, I could not have been more wrong, which I’m more than happy to admit. My arguments against him revolved around his teams’ failures up until last season and individual statistics like those referenced in the above tweet. His defense, which was an obvious weakness (though much of that can be attributed to Ty Corbin and whatever it was he was trying to do), was an eyesore. At times he was a serious black hole on offense. However, having him on “my” team has made me re-assess his value and look a little closer.

The first thing to understand is exactly what EFG% and TS% mean. Both of these numbers are specifically shooting metrics. Many savvy fans could tell you that EFG% accounts for the added value of 3-pointers while TS% does that while adding value via free-throws. What I believe some fans fail to understand is how to interpret those numbers from a practical application standpoint. By definition, they are skewed towards players that shoot 3-pointers. In the right context, this makes a lot of sense. If you shoot 30% on only 3 pointers while another player shoots 40% on only 2 pointers, the 30% shooter will have scored 90 points on 100 attempts while the higher 40% shooter will have scored 80 points on the same number of attempts. Weighting shooting percentages based on shot selection levels the playing field, allowing us to more easily compare players. These metrics also give some insight into shot selection and a player’s understanding of the value of one shot vs. another, for example stepping in to shoot an 18 foot jumper rather than taking a step back to shoot a 3-pointer.

Now back to Jefferson and context. FG% generally favors players who take fewer shots and only score right at the basket. The top 13 FG% numbers in a minimum of 15 minutes per game were posted by Brandan Wright, DeAndre Jordan, Mason Plumlee, Chris Andersen, Andrew Bogut, Chris Wright, Andre Drummond, Ronny Turiaf, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Greg Stiemsma, Samuel Dalembert, and Al Horford. Of those, only Dwight Howard and Al Horford shot more than 10 times per game (Drummond was at 9.5). Horford lead that group in 3-point attempts per game at .4 per game.

Switching to TS% (because big guys draw a lot of fouls, we want to include free throws), the top 15 is as follows: Brandan Wright, Chris Andersen, Troy Daniels, Mason Plumlee, Kyle Korver, LeBron James, Pablo Prigioni, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Brooke Lopez, Mike Miller, James Harden, Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry. These players break down into 4 categories: All-World players, elite shooters, low-usage post players (and by post I mean they catch lobs and that’s it), and Brandan Wright (so weird). Lopez had a 62.9 TS% but only played 17 games and has been closer to 55% over his career. You can see how TS% levels the playing field for shooters.

Jefferson is more than a low-usage dunker, but he’s not an elite shooter. By cherry picking a stat that, by design, rates him poorly, you would be misrepresenting his true value. Taking a broader approach paints a different picture. The statistic that really stands out to me as being elite is his ability to have the ball in his hands (29.7% usage rate) while not turning it over (7% TO rate). The only other players with a usage rate over 25% and a turnover rate 7% or lower are LaMarcus Aldridge (29.9/6.5) and Dirk Nowitzki (26.8/6.6). Additionally, he’s in the 94th percentile for rebound rate, 96.5th percentile in defensive rebound rate, and the 69th percentile in offensive rebound rate. Let’s keep going. Jefferson is in the 80th percentile for assist ratio among centers and 84th percentile in assist to turnover ratio among centers.

That’s a lot of stats. I didn’t put them in a table to prove a point, that you can go on and on about what makes Al Jefferson an elite player, especially at a position that is becoming less and less involved offensively. If you couldn’t get through all those numbers, consider the following. Analysts are constantly trying to find the basketball version of the Theory of Everything. The goal is to find a single metric that combines all other numbers in order to compare players and truly understand their value. I’ll put this one in a table for ease of reading.

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PER and its derivatives love Jefferson, as does nba.com’s PIE. Kevin Pelton’s numbers less so. What’s the takeaway from all this? First, you can make a case for anything by selecting the right stat. At the root of the original question posed is confirmation bias. Someone’s not a fan of Al Jefferson for whatever reason, so when they find a stat that paints a negative picture of him, that stat becomes the basis for their argument. We all do this and, as fans, it’s a difficult tendency to overcome. But basketball isn’t black or white. Players aren’t just good or bad. Not everyone can be LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and everyone isn’t Austin Rivers.

Al Jefferson is an imperfect player. He can get tunnel vision at times. He doesn’t show any type of second effort on defense. Even in a conservative scheme, he struggles with pick and roll defense at times. But this is what I know. Charlotte jumped from 21 to 43 wins with only the significant additions being Al Jefferson and Coach Steve Clifford. Charlotte’s offense went from a 98.3 rating, 27th in the league, to a 101.2 rating, 24th overall. Not only did the offense improve, it improved while Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson regressed from the previous season. Charlotte started the season first with Jefferson spraining his ankle, then Kemba hurting his arm. After getting healthy and comfortable with one another, Charlotte posted a 105.8 offensive rating, what would be a top 10 mark for the season. Again, the same roster from the previous year. In 2012-13, the Bobcats had the worst defense in the league. A part of that was the second worst defensive rebound rate in the league. I’ve already established Jefferson is an elite defensive rebounder. The next year, they had the 6th best defense in the league. A large part of that was being the best defensive rebounding team in the league. To play defense, you have to finish defensive possessions. Al Jefferson ends possessions.

Individual stats? Post all-star, a 105.1 individual offensive rating. With Jefferson on the court, the Bobcats had a 105.1 offensive rating. Again, top 10 levels of offense. Off the court, that number dropped to 102.2. Plus all the numbers outlined above.

Al Jefferson isn’t going to individually take a bad team and make them elite. Those types of talents are few and far between. He probably can’t be the best player on a championship team. But he can clearly be the best player on a good team (if you don’t think the Bobcats were a good team last year, you weren’t paying close enough attention). Jefferson was voted All-NBA 3rd team and it was no fluke. I fully expect, health permitting, Big Al to make his first all-star team and gain the recognition he deserves while continuing to lead an improved offense and team.

What To Do With Hendo, The Stats Edition

Gerald Henderson Illustration by Mike S
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Earlier this week ASChin did an excellent job of explaining how Gerald Henderson will likely be the odd man out in the rotation and could be on the move in a trade sooner rather than later, even offering up some potential trade destinations (Find that here). I had no idea he was working on that post and, independently, had been thinking about Henderson and if/how he fits on the team this coming season. I wanted to take a statistical approach to determining his value either on the team or as a trade target.

The case for keeping Henderson relies on the hope that he’ll recover after a down year while handling a reduced role after having been a team captain and one of the franchise cornerstones during a painful rebuild, ceding a starting position and minutes to the newly arrived Lance Stephenson. That’s a reasonable expectation, right? Let’s pretend it is. And let’s pretend last year was more adjustment period than future projection. Given those extremely reasonable parameters it would be hard to let him go right now when Charlotte couldn’t even get a late 1st from a contending team for him, after which said contender (Clippers) drafted essentially the same player in CJ Wilcox that they did last year with Reggie Bullock.

2012-13 Gerald Henderson was a solid role player. He posted the 10th best PER among shooting guards at 16.48. That’s better than Monta Ellis (16.3), Kevin Martin (16.09), Eric Gordon (15.43 and a max freaking contract), JJ Redick (14.74), Ray Allen (14.72)… Hendo can be an extremely frustrating player to watch, but don’t let all those mid-range jumpers fool you. He was extremely productive in 2012-13. He wasn’t particularly great at anything, but he was good at enough things.

So what would bench mob Henderson look like? Since I don’t have my own database set up to do a sufficiently deep search (I’m working on it), I had to use the tools at stats.nba.com. Searching for players that played more than 25 minutes with an offensive rating between 98 and 102 and a true shooting % between 47% and 53%1 and perusing several years’ worth of results, 2 names stood out as being similar while also having transition from a starting role to a bench role at some point. Evan Turner hasn’t spent enough time coming off the bench as a veteran, so he was out, so I settled on Rodney Stuckey, which, after thinking about it, made a lot of sense. They have similar size, similarly limited range, and average play-making abilities. Stuckey is the better passer while Henderson is a better defensive player and rebounder. You can see how similar they are in the following chart, created using career data from basketball-reference.com.

Henderson vs Stuckey

Stuckey was a (mostly) full-time starter in 2011-12, when he started 54 games and came off the bench in 16. Over the next 2 seasons, he came off the bench in 120 out of 149 games played. As if the career numbers weren’t enough, the career arcs are eerily similar. Both players steadily improved each year before having career peaks in their 4th year, followed by a regression year, then a demotion to the bench as their respective teams went in different directions. This makes Stuckey a decent place to turn to when trying to gauge the effect of a bench move. It should be understood that this isn’t necessarily what can be expected from Henderson, it’s just an example of a similar player making a similar move at a similar point in his career. Let’s go straight to the numbers for this.

Stuckey Career

Stuckey peaked as a starter in 2010-11, showing real progress and the potential to be a solid long-term contributor for the Pistons both as a scorer (but not necessarily a shooter) and a play-maker. The following season, again mostly as a starter, saw him regress some. In 2012-13, Stuckey spent most of his time coming off the bench and his game suffered. Every shooting metric, drawing fouls, assists, as well as the overall offensive rating and PER metrics all dropped significantly. The team around him changed very little. Lawrence Frank was coach through both seasons. Ben Gordon was traded for Corey Maggette (in Cho we trust) while Andre Drummond and Kyle Singler were brought in. Given that level of continuity, it appears something else was going on. Given the decrease in usage rate coupled with a significant decrease in earned free-throws, I’m going to roll with Occam’s razor and suggest Stuckey struggled adjusting to a role off the bench. Anyone who has played pick-up basketball knows what it’s like to play a game where you only take 1 or 2 shots, sit out a couple games because the court is way too crowded, then come in and try to get back in the flow of the game. Some players seem to be born for it. Most struggle to find a rhythm playing so inconsistently. Another factor that causes me to think he struggled with his new role is his improved play the following season under similar circumstances. While he didn’t recover to the success he saw as a starter, he did see his usage rate and shooting numbers improve. This suggests to me that, as he grew more comfortable coming off the bench, his efficiency improved.

I expect Henderson to experience a similar dip if/when he starts coming off the bench. My biggest concern for him as an effective bench player is his how he scores, as seen in the chart below.
Hendo Shot Distribution

With 54% of his shots coming from the mid-range, my concern is that his efficiency too dependent on rhythm. This concept is rooted in more than just conjecture and personal experience. As his opportunities increased each season, seeing bumps in both shots per 36 minutes and usage rate in every successive season, his shooting numbers improved. When Charlotte added Al Jefferson, a high usage player and the new focal point on offense, Henderson’s field goal attempts per 36 minutes dropped by almost 1 attempt while his overall usage slipped from 23.5% to 22.1%. Being the pessimistic person I am, I expect Henderson to struggle much like Stuckey. He doesn’t have the type of game that would benefit from playing against 2nd units, as he doesn’t attack the rim or post-up. He limits himself to scoring off cuts and pull-up mid-range shots, the types of things he already gets at will (mostly because the defense wants him taking those shots). I do think he can be an effective bench player in time, and that his numbers will improve as he adjusts, much like Stuckey’s did, but I’m skeptical he’ll ever match his production from the 2012-13 season.

The best path to improvement for Henderson is developing a 3-point shot. Shooting is something that can be, and often is, improved over time. I would be more optimistic about that type of improvement if Henderson had more confidence. LeBron is an obvious example of a player going from a below average 3-point shooter to a very effective shooter from deep. I’m relatively cool on Henderson experiencing that type of improvement. The difference between the 2 players when it comes to improving shooting is confidence. Nobody has identified a metric using SportVU data that measures confidence, but I think that lack of confidence bears itself out in quantifiable performance. Even when he was shooting under 35%, LeBron was still jacking up between 3.5 and 4.7 3’s per 36 minutes. Henderson has never attempted even 2 per 36. Ignoring mechanical issues in his shot (which there are plenty), his unwillingness to even attempt available shots isn’t going to help him become a better game shooter. Watching video2, he doesn’t come off cuts or screens ready to shoot, often choosing to take one dribble in and pull up. I think it’s more likely that a move to the bench hurts any progress he has or might make more than it helps.

With multiple options waiting in the wings (pun intended) in Gary Neal, Jeff Taylor, and PJ Hairston, coupled with a likely dip in production from Henderson, I have to agree with our fearless leader that Henderson has to go. His stock isn’t going to improve playing less minutes with decreasing levels of production. It would have been best to move him following the 2012-13 season. Plenty of reports have suggested Cho has been gauging the league’s interest the last couple years and nothing has materialized. I expect the market will be fairly dry. I’m not much for guessing at trade options, but I think it’s worth assessing his value as a trade target.

I believe I’ve sufficiently covered Henderson’s offensive value. Anyone looking to add him will do so in hopes of improving their wing defense. The problem is that Henderson’s defense appears to be much like Jeff Taylor’s shooting, little more than reputation. With the caveat that defense is much harder to quantify for an individual than offense, there is little evidence that Henderson is a plus on that end of the floor. Over his entire career, Charlotte has been 1.4 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Henderson on the floor, per basketball-referene.com. Turning to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, he posted a -.95 defensive RPM, 41st among shooting guards3. His block and steal counts are perfectly average for a shooting guard.

If Cho is looking to move Henderson, and I think he should, I don’t think he should expect much in return. Finding an interested team will have less to do with his value in a vacuum and more to do with his value to said team. You can probably cross off rebuilding teams. Henderson appears to be what he is at this point. That leaves contenders looking to shore up their wing defense (Henderson is probably a better defender than the numbers show). Given those parameters, I would be looking to pick up some potential asset in return. A late-round pick, an underused young player, the rights to a euro-stash… I like Charlotte’s roster as constituted right now. There is a solid PG rotation, depth and versatility on the wings with guys that can play multiple positions, and enough bigs to do the job. There really aren’t any immediate needs that I see. I like ASChin’s proposal with Cleveland in principle. While I don’t like helping out a team in the east, they have a clear need for a defense oriented wing. I would look to involve a 3rd team before trading Biz for Varejao just because of durability concerns while picking up an asset.

Henderson has been a solid Bobcat during his career. He’s bridged the gap between 2 different eras of Charlotte basketball and deserves credit for sticking it out. But it’s time for the franchise and player to move on from one another. A trade at this point would be mutually beneficial and the sooner, the better, so as to avoid any potential conflicts over roles and/or playing time. As I see it, trading Henderson is an opportunity to continue to build for the future without sacrificing anything this coming season.

-Bradford Coombs
@bradford_NBA

1. I chose effective FG% because it takes into account added value from 3 point shots, and NBA.com only lets you add 5 custom filters, so it represented a reasonable composite number to use. Limited filters was the motivation for using offensive rating as well, also a nice composite type of number to use.
2. Per multiple requests, I tried to embed gifs or create videos as examples. For a software developer, it’s pretty sad how incompetent I am when it comes to anything other than programming and system maintenance. Tutorials are welcome.
3. Wesley Matthews was 44th with a -1.08. There’s still a lot to learn about RPM.

Josh McRoberts vs Cody Zeller: An Exhaustive Study

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Author’s Note: This is an important post for me. It’s the type of analysis I would like to bring on a regular basis, combining statistical information with game tape analysis. Any feedback would be appreciated as I try to find my voice in writing and improve with each post. You can send me comments and criticisms on twitter @bradford_NBA or through e-mail at bradfordcoombsNBA@gmail.com. No criticism is too harsh. Thanks for reading and please spread the word.

Fresh off a rare Playoff appearance and armed with cap space, picks and motivation to improve, Hornets GM Rich Cho started the offseason with an emphatic THUD as starting power forward Josh McRoberts took his unique talents to South Beach. The Heat offered Josh the full mid-level (4 years, $23m) and the Hornets chose not to match the offer.

This wasn’t a Lance Stephenson/Indiana situation. Charlotte had nearly $20m in cap space to play with and were nowhere near the tax line. Rich Cho’s hands weren’t tied. He simply decided that: A.) McRoberts wasn’t worth that much money for the Hornets mainly because B.) he believed Josh’s eventual replacement was already on the roster: Cody Zeller, the team’s lottery selection in the 2013 draft.

Cho, Coach Clifford, and owner Michael Jordan showered McRoberts with praise over his eighteen month stretch as a Bobcat – with good reason. Josh was a vital piece of Charlotte’s success last season and was often the glue that held an iffy offense together. Will Cho’s gamble pay off? Can Cody replace Josh’s contributions or will this seemingly minor exchange of role players backfire into chaos?

Dissecting Josh’s Game

It’s worth looking at exactly what McRoberts did to help the offense go and to see how Zeller’s skill-set fits into a similar role. When Zeller replaced McRoberts on the floor he played a similar, though reduced, role in the offense. Clifford had both McRoberts and Zeller play mostly from the outside, involving them in a series of pick-and-pops and dribble hand-offs to get the ball moving from side to side and into the hands of perimeter ball-handlers on the move.

McRoberts thrived as a secondary ball-handler on the perimeter. He often initiated the offense at the top of the key and looked to make plays from the outside. His surprising three point shooting was a major plus, both in the points added and space created, but it was his playmaking ability coupled with a low turnover rate1 that made him such an effective role player.

Looking beyond the numbers gives us a better understanding of how and why he was so valuable. I watched every2 assist and turnover McRoberts recorded last season. With assists, I tracked what type of action led to the assist and whether it resulted in a three pointer, a mid-range shot, or a lay-up/dunk.

The idea was to identify how McRoberts operated within the offense and what types of results his actions were producing beyond just a made shot. I broke the various actions up into dribble hand-offs (including give-and-go’s), drive and kicks, drive and dishes, hitting cuttersdirect passes (post entry, swing, stationary teammates), kick-outs from the post, dump-offs in the post, and fast break passes (outlet or on the break). In all, I charted 321 out of 348 assists, including the playoffs.

The first thing to look at is the offensive system and what type of actions led to McRoberts’s assists. Looking at this specific set of results strips out some of the stagnation of less involved plays like post-ups and isolations. Clifford’s system clearly called for plenty of ball and player movement with multiple series of actions taking place in a single possession.

There were very few plays that didn’t have some kind of dribble hand-off involving McRoberts and they accounted for 18% of his recorded assists. He hit cutters for 73 baskets or 22.7% of his assists. Gerald Henderson in particular stood out as a strong cutter and finisher, very aggressively attacking the rim off the catch, as did Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Assists on what I defined as direct passes added up to 27.4% of the total. This is an important part of the offense because the majority of these passes were into the post for Jefferson to quickly go to work.

McRoberts was a very good post entry passer, having a good feel for where to put the ball and where other defenders were on the court. He wasn’t asked to create out of straight post-ups much, registering only 26 assists on dumps and kick-outs, and those numbers might be a little generous based on my classifications.

Finally, Josh assisted on 62 baskets off drives, dumping the ball off 28 times and kicking it out 34 times. He almost always looked to pass on the drive and was a very patient ball handler, never overcommitting or getting out of control. At times his drives were so patient there was hardly a difference between a dribble drive and a post-up. He committed 7 offensive fouls all season and only committed one charge on a relatively questionable call by my eyes. This tendency bears itself out in his shot distribution chart where only 33% of his shots came around the rim. For better or for worse, Josh was always looking to get his teammates involved.

One thing that stood out was how simple a lot of these assists were. McRoberts certainly wasn’t short on flair at times, but his greatest attribute in my mind is his court vision and awareness. When paying attention it’s easy to see how active his eyes were when he had the ball, never zeroing in on an individual player, the basket, or the ball. He was much like a quarterback in that regard, going through progressions and reads and looking defenders off. Much like a good quarterback, McRoberts was also able to put the ball in a location that allowed the recipient to immediately make a play. I credited him with 41 turnovers in 82 games due to bad passes and the majority of those were off deflections or miscommunications on cuts. Very few were the result of a poorly placed pass. The key to McRoberts’s effectiveness as a facilitator was his efficiency. His ability to make the right pass to the right player in the right spot made life easier for everyone on the offensive end.

The Efficient Point Forward

As the game and the analysis of the game have evolved efficiency has become a defining attribute of successful basketball teams. People aren’t just interested in the number of points scored, but how those points were scored. Part of that evolution has been determining which types of scoring opportunities lead to a higher success rate.

The once bemoaned death of the mid-range game is now recognized as a natural progression towards more efficient basketball. Three-pointers, lay-ups, and free throws are the priority for offenses. The Bobcats weren’t a terribly efficient offensive team, ranking 24th in the league with an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 103.6 per basketball-reference.com. With McRoberts on the floor the team had an offensive rating of 106.2, which would have put them just below the league average of 106.7. When he was off the court, that number dropped to 101.1.

Only the 76ers and their abomination of a team had a worse offensive rating than the McRoberts-less Bobcats of last season. While those numbers are dramatic, they likely overstate his value. Turning to ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, which accounts for the value of the other players on the court, McRoberts added .03 points per 100 offensive possessions. For some added perspective, Paul Millsap posted a .04 ORPM (offensive real plus-minus) while David Lee had a -.12 ORPM. I think it’s fair to assume Josh’s true value was somewhere in the middle. He was an important cog in the offense, but not a foundational cornerstone like Al Jefferson (1.31 ORPM, 2nd among centers).

Having looked at how McRoberts helped generate points and understanding his overall impact on offensive efficiency, let’s take a look at the actual results:

McRoberts assists generated 148 layups, 108 mid-range shots, and 65 three pointers. I personally don’t frown on mid-range shots quite as much as some statistically inclined people, but even for me that’s not a great distribution. While the lay-ups are great, ideally some of those mid-range shots would move a couple steps towards or away from the basket. This is mostly a function of how the roster was constructed: Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and Al Jefferson are all mid-range type players. Henderson in particular often takes a dribble in from the three point line when he could just let it fly from deep.

Thirty-five of McRoberts’s assists that lead to mid-range shots were of the direct variety. While some of those were post passes to Jefferson, others were the result of players setting up inside the arc. The team would benefit from players extending themselves out to the perimeter as it would improve spacing, something that was almost painful to watch on tape, and create more three point opportunities.

The action with the second highest number of mid-range results was dribble hand-offs. These came in the flow of the offense, usually at the elbows. Ball-handlers receiving the hand-off could certainly look to attack more often, rather than settling for so many jumpers. The team could also look to extend those plays out to the three point line, creating more space to drive or to pull up from deep, though it’s possible Steve Clifford wants that action taking place where it does.

There is one caveat to all this passing information. Only completed assists have been charted. Looking at SportVU data, teammates converted 54.4% of all assist opportunities generated by McRoberts. That’s actually slightly better than Chris Paul, whose team converted 54% of their opportunities. This provides some confirmation for what the tape showed, that not only did McRoberts find open men but he got them the ball where they had an opportunity to make a play. Additionally, SportVU reported .7 secondary (hockey) assists per game and .5 free-throw assists (passes that led to a shooting foul where the shot was missed and at least 1 free throw was made). These numbers are very similar to Joakim Noah’s, who played a very similar role as a facilitating big for the Bulls, though he did produce 1.7 more points per 48 minutes than McRoberts did.

Can Cody Keep Up?

Which brings us to the big question: What will things look like with Zeller manning Josh’s spot and what will he need to improve upon for the team to avoid a regression? 

First and foremost, Cody should not try to “be” McRoberts. He is a different player, despite having a similar pigmentation and hailing from the same home state. Having watched a lot of Cody Zeller tape, specifically how the offense was run when he replaced McRoberts on the court, it’s clear that Coach Clifford is going to put him in similar spots and expects him to make plays from those spots.

Starting with the raw statistics, Zeller averaged 13.7 assists and 13 turnovers per 100 possessions. As a reference point, McRoberts averaged 32.7 assists and 8.1 turnovers per 100 possessions. Both players’ numbers come via stats.nba.com. SportVU data credited Zeller with .1 free-throw assists per game, .3 secondary assists, 2.3 assist opportunities per game, and 7.1 points created by assist per 48 minutes. The disparity in numbers between these two power forwards makes sense when you watch the games: While Zeller played a similar role to McRoberts, receiving the ball in the high post with a charge to pass, attack, or set a screen as a part of a dribble hand-off, it was in a smaller role.

Something that stood out in the McRoberts tape was the confidence his teammates had in him. They saw him as a safety valve, looking for him frequently to keep things going. They clearly did not have the same confidence in Zeller, not looking for him as quickly. Zeller was also quicker to move the ball, spending less time surveying the defense to find open cutters. By letting McRoberts walk, the front office is putting their trust in Zeller to have the confidence to look to make plays and be more than just a ball mover on offense.

Looking at the same assist categories and distributions as I did with McRoberts reveals a very different type of player. Where 19.3% of McRoberts’s assists were the result of drives to the basket, drives made up 23.5% of Zeller’s assist. Zeller wasn’t nearly as adept at hitting cutters as McRoberts, registering only 7 assists off cuts out of 81 total, or 8.6% to McRoberts’s 22.7%. Part of this is a product of being quicker to move the ball as well as being more aggressive attacking the basket. Additionally, Zeller was more comfortable operating out of the post: 19.8% of his assists came out of the post while McRoberts created 8.1% of his assists out of the post.

Zeller’s kick-outs were a valuable way of generating three point attempts. McRoberts aversion to contact as a ball-handler made him steer clear of the post, resulting in only 11 kick-outs for threes overall. In far more limited minutes and opportunities, Cody kicked the ball out of the post for 7 threes. While that’s a tiny number for an entire season, as Zeller’s opportunities and minutes increase those types of plays can be a productive way of generating points. Overall, Zeller had a much healthier distribution of shots on which he assisted. Of 81 assists, 34 led to lay-ups, 28 led to mid-range shots, and 19 led to three point shots.

Cody Zeller: STRENGTHS

There was a lot to like in Zeller’s playmaking: He was both quicker and more aggressive off the bounce than McRoberts. He was able to get a shoulder past his man and draw help defenders, then find teammates at the basket or on the perimeter. He doesn’t have the flair that McRoberts does, but he often makes the simple, correct pass.

His passes also have a zip that McRoberts’s can’t match. In the March 3rd game against Miami, McRoberts threw a nifty cross-court pass along the baseline for a Luke Ridnour three. He used a lot of spin on the ball to get it around the defenders and to his man. In a similar play while facing the Warriors on February 4th, Zeller took a dribble along the baseline then fired a one handed pass over the top to the opposite corner for an Anthony Tolliver three that I had to rewind and watch several times. Thase two plays are a prime example of how McRoberts and Zeller differ in their passing styles.

Several times, Cody showed great patience while pivoting. There was no panic as he kept the ball out of reach of defenders and was able to find a teammate for a bucket. For all his turnovers, he was very strong with the ball, not allowing it to get knocked out of his hands by feisty defenders. He used his size to keep the ball out of reach while keeping his eyes up and surveying the floor.

Zeller also used his size to make direct passes over the top rather than some of the more crafty ways McRoberts used to get the ball to guys. Cody made good use of ball fakes when passing into the post, keeping both his defender and the post defender guessing. He was particularly effective in dribble hand-offs, using his back-side to create space and prevent his man from getting a hand in to muck up the hand-off. Overall, he set much better screens than McRoberts, who often didn’t make contact with the defender (he seriously hates contact). The foundational elements are there for Zeller to build on and, in time, he should become a solid passer and play-maker for the Hornets.

Cody Zeller: WEAKNESSES

If you’ve ever watched a Draft Express scouting video (you should; they’re superb) you know that feeling of getting really excited about a player while watching their strengths, only to be crushed with the sadness of their weaknesses. Zeller’s short but sweet tape of 81 assists was really encouraging. Immediately following that with 82 turnovers3 was a gut punch and was more in line with my memory of his rookie season. November and December were particularly brutal, as he tallied almost half of his season’s turnovers, 38 out of 82 to be exact. Over those two months, he had 19 bad passes4, 7 mishandles with the ball, 7 offensive fouls, and 5 travels. The deer in the headlights description was completely accurate. Overall, he got whistled for 16 offensive fouls, threw 36 bad passes, some of which were complete head scratchers, including one to a lady on the first row and another on an inbounds play after a made basket, traveled 11 times, mishandled the ball 17 times, and even got called for 3 seconds twice.

He was often indecisive and out of control, driving to the basket and jumping in the air with no plan to shoot or pass. There were times it was clear he didn’t know where his teammates were going to be. He lacked the necessary court awareness, failing to see secondary defenders or throwing the ball into crowds. On drives he had poor balance, getting his shoulders well ahead of his legs and trying to complete plays around defenders rather than going through them.

In Conclusion

While there are valid concerns about how the Hornets will fill the void left by McRoberts’s departure and in particular how Zeller fits that role, Cody has the pieces to do a lot of what McRoberts did so well while using his own unique skill-set. He will need to improve his upper-body and core strength, something he has talked about before.

A stronger core will help him maintain his balance and leverage his speed with the ball while better upper-body strength will enable him to go through defenders at the basket and finish for himself or find an open teammate. A stronger approach to attacking the basket will also result in more fouls drawn and less travels and desperate heaves. He could benefit from eliminating spin moves off the dribble from his repertoire altogether. His aggressiveness with the ball is a valuable trait, as he averaged 4.15 drives per 48 minutes while McRoberts averaged 3.16 drives per 48, as calculated using SportVU data. That aggressiveness also shows itself in Zeller’s higher usage rate of 18.2% as compared to 13.8%.

mcrobertsZeller

One thing Cody could learn from McRoberts is to have patience on his drives. If he learns to slow down at times, rather than barreling into the teeth of the defense, he will be able to create more opportunities for others as defenders collapse. His most important path to improvement is gaining experience. It took a while for the game to slow down for him, and when the playoffs came around it seemed to be back to square one. He will need to learn how to read defenses, account for the speed and length of NBA athletes, operate and know where other players are within the offense, and finish without getting blocked. That seems like a lot to improve but it should come with experience. Cody has a chance to be every bit as good an overall offensive player as McRoberts, and a better scorer and defender.

When McRoberts agreed to his deal with Miami, it was assumed Zeller would just take over his role, including the starting position and starter’s minutes. Not long into the official start of free agency, the Hornets went out and signed another power forward in Marvin Williams. He had similar shooting numbers to McRoberts, a low turnover rate, was a better rebounder, but isn’t nearly the passer McRoberts is (or Zeller for that matter). Expect Williams to be the starter and Zeller to play essentially the same role as last season, at least to start. While the idea of contending vs rebuilding/tanking is an oversimplification, it is true that Coach Clifford and the Hornets are looking to build on the success of last season. Guys like Zeller, Noah Vonleh, and PJ Hairston will have their opportunities. Clifford knows the importance of player development, but not at the cost of winning.

While everyone expects Zeller to be improved from his rookie season, he’s going to have to earn his opportunities and minutes. I predict he starts the season coming off the bench for around 20 minutes per game, just as he was at the end of last season. I would guess that the organization is hoping he will take over the starting spot by the All-Star break. While Vonleh is several years away from being ready to really contribute, the clock is ticking for Cody Zeller. If he doesn’t make strides, both as a shooter and a playmaker, the team may start looking at Vonleh sooner, rather than later.

-Bradford Coombs
@bradford_NBA

1. 8.1 turnovers per 100 possessions and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.01 that ranked 2nd in the league behind only Chris Paul.
2. Videos are available at nba.com/stats. Some of the videos don’t really match up to what they’re supposed to so really I watched a video that was supposed to be every assist. A couple games were marked wrong, but the vast majority were right over the season.
3. The real numbers are 94 assists to 89 turnovers including playoffs but footnote 2 still applies.
4. Playing with the bench unit for most of the season didn’t help. I counted 5 interior passes to Bismack Biyombo that should have led to dunks but resulted in turnovers.

VERY SPECIAL THANKS to Timmy Hoskins for “The Dude” artwork. It is FANtastic.