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.

BrianRobertsUhOh

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.

AcyTooEasy

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.

BizDoinWork

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.

LanceCantCommit

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.

BizUpUpAndAway

Really interesting stuff from the Knicks here. Try figuring this one out in an image.
KnicksScrum
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.

JRPullUp

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.

LancePullUpWhy

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.

NealNoMansLand

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.

defensiveBreakdown

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…

DoSomethingKemba

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.

DontPassItLance

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.

SpreadTooThin

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.

KembaForce

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.

Five and Fifteen

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The Problem with Charlotte’s Roster Explained in Six Easy Steps:

1. The team’s biggest offensive threat – BY A COUNTRY MILE – is Big Al Jefferson. How do I know this? Because every time he gets the ball close to his kill spots (low block) the opposing defense bails on the other four guys to collapse on him. They know he’s a legitimate threat to score the ball on every posession. The message is obvious: stop Jefferson and let one of their other guys beat you.

2. The easiest way to punish a defense for triple teaming your best guy is to punish them with open three point shooters. The problem is, as it was last year, Charlotte doesn’t have those types of shooters. Y’know, quick release, dead-eyed long ballers who don’t need to dribble ten times or execute a couple of head fakes before launching a (by now) contested shot.

3. The few guys the Hornets do have who can shoot deep and quick are turnstiles on defense. A lineup of Big Al, Marvin Williams, P.J. Hairston, Gary Neal and Brian Roberts could cure the spacing issues in an instant but then give up a billion points at the other end.

4. After ascending into the league’s Top 10 defenses last season, Steve Clifford’s squad has slipped back into the Bottom 10 thus far this season. The team’s best defensive center, Bismack Biyombo, is barely functional on offense outside of a new-found dive game. The best wing defenders have either been injured (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) or suspended (Jeff Taylor) and while Taylor has shown promise as a ‘three and D’ guy, neither he nor MKG could be mistaken for an offensive terror.

5. The team has major investments – either financial, thru draft status or both – in three other players (Lance Stephenson, Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller) who are neither great long distance threats nor high-end defenders. Kemba is an (at times) very good off the dribble scoring threat who can hit from deep just enough to force the defense to account for him but he’s small, can’t fight over screens and owns an overall shaky jumper. Cody Zeller’s eighteen-footer has come a long way from last season’s abominable percentages. He’s shooting around 40% from outside the paint and the form looks pure. The problem is that the shot is neither fast enough nor far enough to really stretch a defense. Josh McRoberts’ release had a methodical wind-up but the fact that he was several feet back gave Big Al more time and space to make a move. Zeller’s made progress on defense but is still out-muscled down low and struggles on the perimeter guarding stretch fours. And then there’s Lance…

6. Stephenson has been an all around disaster. As a shooter, he’s 7-42 from beyond the arc (16.7%) and 32.7% from outside the paint. Keep in mind that the guy he was supposed to be an upgrade from (Gerald Henderson – never confused with Kyle Korver) has gone 30% and 46% from those same spots. Also, Lance may put up a beefy stat line but most of his rebounds are of the “gimme” variety – defensive boards grabbed out of the hands of a teammate with nary an opponent in sight. “Born Ready’s” 5.4 assists per game come at the price of 2.6 (often egregious and unnecessary) turnovers per and any on-ball defensive benefits are easily out-weighed by his loss of focus off the ball. In short, Lance is good at things the Hornets don’t need and he’s bad at all the things the Hornets do need.

What to do about it

The obvious conclusion is to either trade Lance – who is still young, talented and on a no-risk value contract – OR trade peripheral pieces plus an asset or two (2015 1st Round pick, Noah Vonleh, Zeller) for a two-way, tough-defending three point threats.

The problem is that shooting is extremely valuable in today’s NBA. And guy’s who can make you pay from deep while hounding their man at the other end don’t grow on trees. Take a look at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings: Orlando, Boston, New York, Indiana, Charlotte, Detroit and Philly. Aside from the Knicks and the surprising Magic, every single one of those squads rank in the bottom third of the league’s top distance shooting teams (Charlotte ranks 29th). The entire league is on the lookout for the same guys which explains why Klay Thompson is a max player and why Danny Green may get eight figures per next summer.

This is where Cho’s magical ability to find Bargain Bin Ballers needs to come into play. Finding the next Chris-Douglas Roberts, Anthony Tolliver, McRoberts, etc – is the best way to shore up the team’s weaknesses without mortgaging any of the future. Obviously, the team made a huge mistake not re-signing McRoberts in the first place and while I’d love to see the team make a move to bring him back from Miami, Heat President Pat Riley has absolutely ZERO incentive to empower a division rival. My guess is that they would only trade McRoberts in a package for either Zeller, Vonleh or a first rounder. That’s a tremendously steep price for a guy you could’ve just re-signed five months ago.

The Knicks are a natural landing spot for Lance but what do they have to trade back? Tim Hardaway has a fantastic stroke but would add yet another one-way player to the Hornets’ roster. Iman Shumpert is likely a downgrade from Gerald Henderson. The Nuggets could be convinced of Lance/Arron Afflalo swap. Something like that is the best case scenario if the organization wants to steer clear of the asset carpet-bombing days of Larry Brown and Rod Higgins.

That previous era’s lack of patience and long-term roster construction lies at the heart of the Charlotte’s current crisis: Ensure competitiveness in the re-brand year or take the PR hit today and keeping adding assets. It’s a huge question that doesn’t have an obvious answer. One good, costly trade could elevate the team today and push them into the thick of the East’s Playoff picture come April. The city would buzz and the Hornets would be relevant. But if that kind of trade were to backfire…well, all I can say is Google the phrase “2011 Bobcats”.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Four and Eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Will the Hornets make the Playoffs?

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

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

Step Away From the Panic Button

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Breakdown of PJ’s Defense

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

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

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

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

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

PJIce

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

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

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

PJBadHelpAndRecover

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

PJCollage

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

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

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

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

Then there’s this:

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

Baseline Observations: Three Games In

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

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

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

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Baseline Buzz Hornets Season Preview 2014-2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bradford: Nope.

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

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

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

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

Dr.E: Neither.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr.E: 47-35.

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

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

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

Dr.E: True.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr.E: Gary Neal.

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

Bonus Predictions from Bradford:

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