Film Room: Anatomy of an Almost Collapse

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The Hornets have quickly established a reputation for building up big leads, then letting teams come back in the fourth quarter. Until this past Friday, all of those comebacks had resulted in Hornets losses. Finally, thanks to Kemba Walker’s layup, Charlotte was able to pull one such game out, giving me the perfect opportunity to go back and try to figure out what actually happened (I just couldn’t stomach watching the losses again). And so I present a punch-by-punch recounting of the fourth quarter of the New York Knicks at the Charlotte Hornets on December 5, 2014.

I went with the picture below description setup for this. I don’t know why, I might end up hating it. But for now, that’s what we’re working with. Some of the image sizes don’t quite work. Might have to go back and fix that later, but I wanted to get this out sooner rather than later. Just bear with me. I’m hoping to make this a consistent part of the site if people are interested.

Things did not start well. Pablo Prigioni brings the ball up, Melo uses a screen to get to the elbow and receives the pass from Prigioni who gives a slight jab left, then cuts towards Melo to take the hand-off. Pretty basic action, nothing special. Except Brian Roberts bites on the jab step and is left in the dust, completely unable to disrupt the hand-off in any way.

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Because Melo is Melo (and probably a little of Marvin being Marvin), Marvin Williams has to stick, leaving Biz to rotate over and stop the Prigioni drive. Standard stuff. Except the rotations stop there. Quincy Acy casually walks to the rim, takes the dump off, and stuffs it home while Gary Neal and Lance Stephenson occupy the same space on the weak side.

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One of those guys has to help down to prevent that pass. It doesn’t happen. And here we go….

New York tries to run the same play with JR Smith and Melo this time. This time the hand-off gets disrupted. Biz helps on JR Smith cut then recovers to block Acy after Melo fires it down low. Beautifully done.

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Next, Melo looks to exploit his strength advantage over Marvin Williams in the post. He backs him down, waiting for Lance to commit to the double team or to get deep enough to score. In the end, Lance doesn’t commit completely. He brings the double, but not hard enough to disrupt the kick-out, leaving an easy pass out to Tim Hardaway Jr for an open 3.

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In classic Lance fashion, you get a little bad then you get a little good. After a couple pick and rolls, Amar’e and JR Smith try to ice one on the baseline. Biz reads the defense, drops off the pick, heads to the rim, and goes up high to throw down a great Lance read and pass. These guys are developing some really interesting chemistry worht watching.

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Really interesting stuff from the Knicks here. Try figuring this one out in an image.
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This is how it goes down. Prigioni kicks it to JR Smith on the wing. Amar’e comes and sets an off-ball screen for Prigioni right in front of JR Smith, drawing Biz with him just enough to stop him from getting back in time to contest Smith’s pull-up jumper after dribbling around Amar’e’s flipped screen. Gary Neal and Marvin Williams are stuck to Tim Hardaway on the perimeter and Melo just outside the paint. Nobody really did anything wrong schematically. Biz might have over-helped a little. Lance could have fought a little harder to get through the screen, but he recovered decently and crowded the shot without fouling. But keep in mind the goal of Clifford’s defense to prevent lay-ups and force the opponent into long 2’s. In that regard, mission accomplished. JR Smith just hit the shot. Can’t win them all.

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Here Lance runs a pick-and-roll with Kemba. With a head of steam and only Amar’e Stoudemire between him and the basket he decides to pull up for a crowded long 2. It’s a decent look with much better options available.

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This set starts with a Prigioni-Melo pick and roll. The defense rotates properly, leaving Neal responsible for JR Smith and Tim Hardaway on the perimeter. He over-helps in the paint and ends up stuck in no-man’s-land guarding nobody. Hardaway for 3, buckets.

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The next defensive possession was a bit of a disaster. It starts with a Prigioni-Stoudemire pick and roll. Jefferson has to lay back to compensate for his lack of foot speed, but he’s practically on the right block putting no pressure on the driver to make a decision while also forcing someone else to step up and bump Stoudemire. Williams does his job by stepping in front of the cut while Lance wanders up to the elbow, just watching the play develop. There’s really not that much space between Melo and Hardaway on the kick-out. Properly positioned, Lance could have at least contested a shot. Instead it’s another wide open 3 pointer for Hardaway and a single digit lead for the Hornets. This one really bothered me.

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On this one, Kemba enters the ball Jefferson in the post, where he then holds the ball 4 seconds. He kicks it back out to Kemba, re-posts, gets the second entry pass, feels the double team coming, and kicks it out to Kemba again. Good so far. Wide open, Kemba hesitates, allowing the defense to recover, and throws up a contested 3. Short. Either shoot it our kick it, don’t hesitate and let the defense recover. This is one of the more frustrating possessions for me. Holding the ball, hesitating, stuck on one side of the floor…

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After some pretty basic action, Lance gets the baseline and goes up with nothing but a lazy contest from Stoudemire in the way. Instead of going up strong, he wraps a pass around to Al, who probably gets fouled on his attempt, but ends up missing. Coach Clifford has talked about how Lance is a creator at heart, not an alpha scorer. It shows here. Yes, he should have just dunked the ball. But it’s just not his approach to the game so it’s hard to begrudge him too much. What I will criticize is what happens next. Frustrated with someone (Himself? Al? The ref? No clue…) he proceeds to foul Melo in the backcourt for no reason. What makes this so egregious is it put New York in the penalty. Melo gets 2 free throws, a reward for doing nothing but dribbling the ball up the court. These are the things that lose you games in the fourth quarter. You just can’t be giving points away.

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I would argue this is where the team started to tighten up. Kemba dribbles up the court, turns down a Jefferson pick, and takes an extremely difficult floater with 4 defenders around him and 13 seconds on the shot clock. You have to find a good shot here. This one was little more than a prayer. The spacing isn’t great, but Kemba’s not really helping things by short circuiting the play so quickly. Up until this play and the foul right before it that cut the lead from 10 to 8, Charlotte was withstanding a run of 3’s and tough shots and keeping the Knicks at arm’s distance. With 2 free throws and a really difficult, contested mid-range jumper from Melo, it’s a 6 point game with 2:49 left and the Hornets have put themselves in a position they didn’t need to be.

The next section of the game goes as follows: Henderson hits a tough elbow jumper after the ball moves around the perimeter a couple times; With the Knicks extra small and Jefferson as the back line defender, the Hornets get spread out, Kemba gets enveloped by a Stoudemire screen, Henderson has to take an extra step in to stall the drive (perhaps unnecessarily, considering the ball-handler), and JR Smith is wide open in the corner (see pictures below); Following some non-threatening movement on the perimeter, Jefferson gets his look on the block against Stoudemire, fails to feel the defense collapse on him, and turns the ball over; Melo isolates at the top against Williams and hits a pull-up 3 that everyone, including Dell Curry, knew he was taking.

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On the Hornets next to last possession, holding a 2 point lead, Clifford designed a play to get Jefferson a look on the block. It starts with some decoy action including a cross screen for Henderson and a pick and roll with Kemba (1). This is just a ruse to get Jefferson down on the block by swinging the ball to Henderson while Al sets up (2). It’s pretty basic, but you can see in the second picture that Stoudemire failed to recognize Al’s cut in time. He was getting to that block either open or with Melo switching down onto him. But that’s not what happened. Prigioni sniffed it out and got a finger on Kemba’s pass to Henderson. This sent the Hornets into scramble mode, somewhere a team like this doesn’t excel. It all adds up to a horrible runner from Kemba that never had a chance. A solid play by Clifford, but credit to the Knicks for making things difficult.

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We all know how it goes from there. Kemba tries to draw a charge on Prigioni but doesn’t get the call. Marvin jumps at the Prigioni pump fake, inexplicably leaving Melo wide open for 3. Buckets. The Hornets got some really nice movement coming out of the timeout leading to a wide open baseline jumper for Jefferson that he just misses. The beauty of the design was that it left time for one more possession if needed. 2 chances is always better than 1, especially when you can get such a solid look on the first possession. This was followed by a beautiful defensive possession that led to a difficult shot from Melo that clanged off the rim.

After all that, the Knicks gave the game away. 4 seconds left and a foul to give, Derek Fisher throws in Pablo Prigioni, JR Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr, Melo, and Stoudemire. No Iman Shumpert, no Sam Dalembert. Maybe he thought they were still on offense? They don’t take the foul, Kemba gets a clean line to the basket, and he hits a difficult shot around Stoudemire. Ball game.

Re-watching this game gave me a different perspective on what happened. The way I remembered it, with no ball movement and awful defense, is an oversimplification. There were definitely defensive breakdowns and some poor offensive plays, but nobody runs things perfectly all the time, not even the Spurs. Guys missed some wide open shots that they normally make. The Knicks caught absolute fire from 3. Melo hit some tough shots. That’s not to say there aren’t things within their control the Hornets could have done. They gave the Knicks the avenue to come back. But with no MKG, there’s nobody strong enough and quick enough to check Melo. Al just isn’t a rim protector, so when a team goes small with shooters you have to pick your poison. Charlotte’s margin for error is so slim, mostly because of roster construction. Cho is trying to fix that, but it’s often easier said than done.

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.

compositeMetrics

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.