Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part Two

al
Standard

The Lottery is over and we now know the Hornets will own (or at least temporarily own) the ninth overall selection in a very solid 2015 Draft. But before I jump into what the Hornets should do with that pick, we need to do a little free agent housekeeping.

Part II: The Free Agents – Will They Stay or Will They Go?

The Hornets have just about every type of free agent on the roster and each of these players will influence the team’s strategy heading into June’s Draft and beyond.

Unrestricted Free Agents:

These are the straight-forward, vanilla variety free agents. Guys who played for Charlotte last season and whose contracts runs out in July.

  • Mo Williams
  • Jason Maxiell

The big questions start with Mo Williams – professional NBA journeyman – who joined the Hornets midseason (his seventh team in fourteen eleven seasons) and kept them competitive once Kemba Walker went down with a knee injury. Even after Mo cooled off late in the season, Williams’ shooting and pick and roll/pop abilities were real assets on a team lacking both.

In many ways, Mo’s game represents Kemba Walker’s best case scenario long-term: an above average, volume scoring point with enough distribution skills to run a team alongside a point-forward. It’s no coincidence that Mo’s best season came playing next to Lebron on the ‘09 Cavs.

Williams has close ties to fellow Mississipian Al Jefferson and has gone on record saying that he’d love to be back – but will the Hornets bring him back? Money shouldn’t be an issue – Williams will be 33 next season and is far from a franchise cornerstone. Anything around $3m per is reasonable. There are a couple of issues however:

  1. Charlotte already has $2.8m committed to fellow backup PG Brian Roberts next season and
  2. may decide to move on from yet another head-down iso player.

In fairness to Mo, he’s the least ball “poundy” of the Lance/Gerald/Kemba/Big Al crew – but if the front office decides to go in another direction with their lead guards either in free agency, trades or the draft (Cameron Payne?) – Mo may be the odd man out. That said, my gut tells me Mo wears teal again next season; Roberts’ contract is easily movable and the Hornets will likely end up drafting a wing.
PREDICTION: STAY

As much as Coach Steve Clifford enjoyed Maxiell’s veteran presence last season as the rotation’s fourth big, there would be a guaranteed fan mutiny if Jason is brought back – simply because his mere presence would tempt Clifford to play him over Noah Vonleh. The front office, who’ve invested heavily in Noah, likely feels the same.
PREDICTION: GO – VONLEH UNCHAINED!

Potential Free Agents:

The Hornets have two veteran starters with player options for next season: opt-in and these guys play out their final contract year as Hornets, opt-out and they either re-sign new deals with the team or move on.

  • Al Jefferson
  • Gerald Henderson

How quickly things change. A year ago, Big Al Jefferson was a third team All-NBA center and a franchise building block who led Charlotte to its first winning season and Playoff birth in ages. But Al never fully recovered from the effects of the plantar fascia injury he suffered in last year’s sweep against the Heat. He arrived at camp out of shape and it all went downhill from there.

It wasn’t exclusively Big Al’s fault. Josh McRoberts’ departure created all kinds of spacing and post entry problems. Jefferson struggled to stay upright and effective all season and you could literally see it on his face. The guy was legitimately scowling and grimacing for 65 games – sometimes out of pain, sometimes at his own teammates. With little shooting or ball movement in the halfcourt, opposing defenses keyed in on Al knowing that he was Charlotte’s only legitimate weapon. It worked.

Jefferson has gone on record saying that he’ll opt-in and play the free agency game again when the cap skyrockets in 2016. That’s good news as it’ll be even more motivation for the 30 year old to drop some weight before November. If he does, we could see the return of the franchise cornerstone. If not, happy trails.
PREDICTION: STAY

Hendo had the quintessential Gerald Henderson season: he played hard on D, he hit lots of mid-range jumpers, he made great cuts and threw down some ridiculous dunks. He also showcased a much more frequent corner three (the release is slowish and he doesn’t take enough of them but it’s still great to see). He’s always been a professional. The team had him riding the pine behind Lance Stephenson for nearly two months and Hendo said nary a word. He’s a lunch pail two guard who is sorely under-appreciated by the local fanbase – mainly because his weaknesses (distance shooting, ball-handling, head-down iso drives/post-ups) have also been the team’s.

Gerald turns 28 next season and his game is HIGHLY dependent on his athleticism. While other types of players his age could choose to wait for a bigger pay day in 2016, Hendo may survey the scene, see a weak free agent class and say, “screw it.” Wes Matthews’ unfortunate injury literally cost him tens of millions of dollars this summer. Gerald has always been both smart and practical. I could see him opting out and signing a nice sized deal with the Clippers, Knicks or Lakers.

Doing so would free up around $6 million for the Hornets to play with. That by itself won’t buy much – but if the Hornets combine the number with, say, a strategic cut (COUGH*LANCE*COUGH) – they may have just enough cash to offer a proper “3&D” shooting guard real money on the open market.
PREDICTION: GO

Restricted Free Agents:

These are guys coming off the last year of their rookie deals. They are free to negotiate with any team and Charlotte has the right to match any offer.

  • Bismack Biyombo
  • Jeff Taylor

Let’s start with Taylor – and oh man, where do we start? JT is like a TV pro hoops character come to life. Meaning, he LOOKS like the prototypical NBA player but he’s not really all that good in real life. There’s lots of drama though. Tragedy in the form of his ill-timed achilles tear in 2014 and scandal in the form of his weird Detroit-based domestic violence incident that (thankfully) turned out to be more stupid than violent.

Aside from being a very solid on-ball defender, there’s really nothing to recommend here. Taylor was billed as a 3&D guy coming out of Vanderbilt but his shooting numbers (32% from 3PT, 41% from 2PT) are Kemba-like. JT turns 26 next month and we still have no idea how his game will transition post-achilles long term. His $1.2m qualifying offer is basically league minimum and I could see Charlotte picking it up to give him one last shot at putting everything together. I could also see the team moving on from a fringe rotation player who made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
PREDICTION: GO

The real fun starts with Biz. Want to start an internet flame war? Get stat-geeks and casual fans talking about Biyombo’s merits as an NBA player. I understand both sides. The naked eye suggests that Biz should be nowhere near a professional basketball game. Four years into his career and he still has no idea what to do with the ball on offense unless it’s a dive to the rim for a dunk or an uncontested putback.

Biyombo will force moves in the post that will make you laugh/cry/laugh with regularity. These forced moves are universally proceeded by an offensive rebound because there’s no way in hell a teammate is going to feed Biz with a post look; thus beginning a viscious cycle (“this is my only chance to show people my stuff!!! I don’t care if Dwight Howard is standing right over me!!!”).

The real hoops smarties out there like Grantland’s Zach Lowe, At The Hive’s Frank Berndt/Bryan Mears and the Baseline’s own Bradford Coombs can paint Biz’s positives way better than I can. All I’ll say is that defensively, Biz is a legitimate game changer. He’s strong. He goes hard and he covers a ridiculous amount of territory for a center. Most importantly, he makes the paint a less friendly place for opponents. I don’t know if Biz will ever make the rotation of a legitimately good team but it could be possible in the right role.

Speaking of which, unless the Hornets draft another center (Frank Kaminsky, Myles Turner, Willy Trilly Cauliflower Wonka), I’m fairly confident that they aim to bring Biz back on a second deal. That could change if another team jumps in with a real offer. There will be teams with rim protection problems that lose out on DeAndre Jordan in free agency. And if Roy Hibbert stays in Indy, a metrics-savvy, ballsy exec may say “screw it” and hand Biz $25-30 million. To the casual fan, this sounds crazy – I know. But getting a guy who can make up for the Damian Lillards’ and the Monta Ellis’s of the world is a real thing nowadays. Biz may end up getting paid.
PREDICTION: STAY

State of the Roster

Making the proceeding free agent moves (and unloading Brian Roberts’ contract) would leave the Hornets with 11 filled roster spots minus any draft picks.

  • Point Guards: Kemba Walker, Mo Williams
  • Shooting Guards: Lance Stephenson, P.J. Hairston, Troy Daniels
  • Small Forwards: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams
  • Power Forwards: Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh
  • Centers: Al Jefferson, Bismack Biyombo

There’s an obvious hole at the wings – which is why it’s the position the team is most likely to fill via June’s Draft and/or via run at shooter in free agency. More on those options coming up in Part III…

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Hornets 2015 Offseason Preview | Part One

kemba-sketch-01
Standard

Open browser > Navigate to DraftExpress > Talk myself into prospects. Oh my. Oh dear. How did this happen again? Is it real? How did the Hornets rebrand season – once so full of promise – nosedive into a Bobcats-worthy dumpster of lethargy and chaos?

So many things had to go wrong for Charlotte to miss the 2015 Playoffs. Injuries were a legitimate problem but the roster construction did plenty of damage before the neo-Hornets ever stepped onto their honeycombed court. Seriously, has a prized free agent ever tanked as mightily as Lance Stephenson? It happens in the NFL all the time (Sean Gilbert, Albert Haynesworth) but in the NBA, a dramatic fall like “Born Ready’s” is nearly unheard of. And how could a seemingly minor roster move like replacing Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams prove so tone deaf in retrospect? How did a coaching staff once so promising completely lose the players’ focus when it mattered most?

If we learned anything this season, it’s that successful NBA franchises function as unified organisms. They embody singular visions of HOW WE ARE GOING TO WIN which is ultimately manifested on the court. The coach, the GM, the scouts, ownership and the roster are all on the same page; all focused on the same goal. The Spurs are the obvious example of this kind of vertically integrated masterplan – but so are the Hawks (Spurs wannabes), the Grizzlies (finally rid of the curmudgeon Lionel Hollins), the Warriors (perfect front office/coach/roster combination), the Rockets (superstars, superstars, superstars) and the Clippers (GM/Coach = same dude). The Bucks are on their own unified, distinct path and could very well rule the East over the next half decade.

When I look at the Hornets I see a fractured blueprint from roster to ownership; a team that hasn’t committed to one direction. A team that’s trying to be good now while also trying to develop (very) raw talent. An ownership group that staffs up one of the league’s largest analytics teams and then proceeds to place a few of the chairman’s relatives into key positions. A front office that (rightly) attempts to mine the draft for superstars in the rough and then signs Win-Now veteran free agents to hog all of their precious developmental minutes. A coach who preaches players’ untapped potential and versatility and then stifles any display of it with an ultra-conservative offense from decades past.

To be clear, I still believe that Michael Jordan, Rich Cho and Steve Clifford have the potential to build a perennial winner in Charlotte. These are high-level, smart and experienced people. MJ wants to win and has spent the cash to make it happen. Cho skates to where the puck’s going. Clifford is respected by his players and his peers. And in order to succeed, they’ll need to get on the same page and answer some very tough questions about the franchise’s future.

PART I: THE KEMBA CONUNDRUM

Starting in July, Kemba Walker goes from being a nice young player on a rookie deal to a guy in his mid-twenties making $12m per season. And yes, I know the cap is rising and that $12m won’t be AS painful two seasons from now. Still, the fact that we’re even talking about it potentially being a problem is a problem.
If you were the most casual of casual Hornets fans you would be forgiven in believing that Kemba is the team’s best player. Google “Hornets highlights” and one of his step-back, crunch-time jumpers will inevitably flash before your eyes. By virtue of UConn’s storied 2011 Final Four run, Walker is perhaps the most recognizable name on the roster outside of Lance and his size and character are ready-made fan favorite qualities. Indeed, there are games when Kemba is the Hornets best player – he’ll single-handily swing games by hitting tough shot after tough shot while his teammates cheer even louder than the fans.
And then there are the other games. The ones the casual fans either don’t see or don’t want to admit to seeing.

Antithetical Prototypes

The QC’s own Steph Curry just won the MVP of the league. He did this by distilling his game into the perfect modern, post-D’Antoni Point Guard. A lead ball handler who can devastate defenses off the pick, Steph dares you to go over OR under. On the ball or off, Curry panics defenses at every turn. He’s an exquisite shooter with fantastic court vision and surprisingly good handles. Like Steve Nash before him, Steph forces you to pick your poison – and they’re all deadly.

Let’s contrast this with Walker. If you’re an opposing defense, does Kemba terrify you at the point of attack? Hardly.
Walker is statistically a very below average shooter (he’s at 39% from the field for his career, 31% from three) and lacks above-average rim-finishing skills or court vision (his per 36 and per 100 possession assists dipped even further last year) to make up for it. Most alarming: despite his shooting limitations Walker is often stricken by what hoops optometrists refer to as “tunnel vision”. Squint and you’ll almost see Allen Iverson out there running a one man show. Squint a little more and you’ll realize that it’s the Detroit version of AI.
And even if Kemba was the second coming of peak-Iverson, would you want that sort of player leading a team in 2015? The modern NBA is all about ball movement and disruption. Never allow a defense to get comfortable; attack them anywhere and everywhere. Give Doc Rivers credit, he’s let Chris Paul and Blake Griffin improvise for much of the Playoffs and it’s worked wonders keeping elite defenses on their heels.
With Kemba, an opponent requires only one strategy: let him shoot it. So what if he gets hot? At sub-40% shooting you’ll live with that choice – and, better yet, a suddenly hot, myopic Walker negates any need to waste intellect or energy defending much easier buckets from open teammates. Yes, Kemba is fast and can penetrate with the best of them. Again, so what? If he’s unable to hit guys with easy looks underneath or finish at a higher than average rate, let him have it. A seven game series is a law of averages and eventually Kemba’s averages will win (or lose) out.

Repair or Replace?

Previous issues aside, if the Hornets are intent on moving forward with Kemba as their starting point guard, there is a way to make it work.
During the season that earned Kemba his $48 million extension (the Bobcats finale) Walker thrived due to the simple fact that he didn’t really have to play point. The team had Josh McRoberts to handle the rock in the half court, to stretch the defense, to shift opponents with crafty dribble post-ups across the paint, to notch hockey assists. Cho attempted to find a younger, similar player to team with Kemba longterm but the Jazz matched the Hornets’ max-contract offer to Gordon Hayward. McRoberts subsequently took his talents to South Beach* after the team de-prioritized him and the Hornets’ offense fell apart. (*credit Pat Riley for completely disrupting an up and coming division rival for the low cost of the mid-level exception. Riles proves once again that he is as ruthless and brilliant as his old pal Gordon Gecko.)

Here’s the issue going forward: Outside of McRoberts, Hayward, Boris Diaw, James Harden and a few others, there simply aren’t many other non-point guards who can run a team. Cody Zeller may eventually develop into a lite-version of that player in time with any luck but the Hornets need more than hope and they need it soon. Finding the perfect roster mate who can compensate for Kemba’s weaknesses will be difficult AND - here’s the big AND – even if Charlotte does find that guy, they have to make certain that peak-Kemba is worth constructing your entire roster around. If the answer to that mega-question is “no” then the team will need to explore other options:

Option 1: Crawford, Jamal Crawford.

When the cap rises to $80 million plus, Kemba’s $12m per deal could be palatable for a sixth man. The team could then limit Walker to a single developmental objective going forward: take better shots and make them, forgoing all other point guard related tasks. Sixth Man Kemba does one thing and one thing only, put the ball in the basket when the rest of the team can’t. The entire second unit is his to dominate (Hey, it’ll be like old times in 2011!) and Walker finishes games next to a bigger point guard in crunch time (#Pray4Mudiay or #Don’tHustle4Russell).

Option 2: Trader Cho.

The team packages Kemba with an asset in order to both A.) clear $48m from the payroll and B.) upgrade the position. Ty Lawson is the obvious candidate du jour. Given Cho’s modus operandi when it comes to asset management, I’d put the chances of this sort of deal at less than 25%. That said, the team should at least consider it because a point guard who can’t get other guys involved risks DEVALUING all of your assets. Bismack Biyombo may be the next Tyson Chandler for all we know. Noah Vonleh could be Kawhi meets Bosh. Doesn’t matter if Starbury 2.0 is playing solo in the halfcourt.

Up Next
Of course, the Kemba Conundrum isn’t the only major issue facing the Hornets this offseason. There’s the matter of Big Al’s waistline, Hendo’s player option, Biyombo’s restricted free agency and Lance – Lance is always a major issue. Those issues and more coming up in Part II.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Jump Shot Ratings

g-neal
Standard

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

Forecasting The Hornets 2015 Offseason

NextOff
Standard

 

If all goes moderately well this season, the Charlotte Hornets will enter the summer of 2015 with Playoff momentum, a huge boost in fans (and associated revenue) and a decent amount of maneuverability to further improve the team towards contention.

CBA guru Larry Coon has predicted the league salary cap will rise from a little over $63m to $66.5m next July – a full $3m plus more than the current mark. If $66.5m is indeed the number, GM Rich Cho could have a some extra cash to play with should a few key scenarios play out:

Kemba Walker’s Free Agency

The Bobcats drafted two Lottery picks back in 2011 and four years later at least one is worth re-signing. Depending on Kemba’s development and performance this season, he could command a salary starting at Isaiah Thomas’ 4yr/$27m deal and go all the way up to Ty Lawson’s 4yr/$48m contract. Cho could also choose to sign & trade Kemba for another PG – Rajon Rondo for example. Either way, due to his Lottery pick status, Walker will count as an $8.1m cap hold until his situation is resolved.

Biz and JT’s Free Agency

The other Bobcats 2011 Lottery Pick, Bismack Biyombo, counts a whopping $9.6m towards the cap until he’s either re-signed or renounced thanks to his seventh overall selection status. As I’ve written at length before, this is just one of the reasons why Biz is likely gone sooner than later. Fellow restricted free agent and 2012 Second Round pick Jeff Taylor has a cap hold of around $1.2m, the same as his qualifying offer – given the small number and the team’s investment in JT, it’s likely they’d bring him back.

Gerald Henderson’s Future

Hendo has a player option next season at $6m. He’ll be 27 and will have played the first six years of his career in relative obscurity for mostly bad Bobcats teams. That’s a prime age for athletic two-way wings so I’d be willing to bet that he exercises the option in favor of a nice new longterm deal. And with P.J. Hairston, Taylor and Lance Stephenson already under contract, I’m sure the Hornets wouldn’t mind that decision at all.

The Big Al Situation

Jefferson also has a player option for next season at $13.5m and should he have anything close to the year he had in ’13-’14 (All-NBA Third Team), look for Big Al to exercise the option and get a nice raise. Jefferson loves Charlotte and they love him. He’ll be 30 at the time of signing, so I could see both sides settling on a 3yr,$45m “extension” after the opt-out.

Cody VS Vonleh

In the chance that Noah has stopped growing vertically, the Hornets will find themselves with some serious Lottery redundancy. Both Cody and Vonleh currently project as PFs and Charlotte may find that it’s sunk too many resources into one position. A big trade featuring one of the young big prospects could be on the horizon.

2015 Draft Picks

After years on the extremes (either no picks or multiple ones), the Hornets are finally first rounder neutral going forward. They are neither owed an extra first round pick nor are they owing. Look for the selection to fall in the late teens or early twenties depending on how just successful the season goes; generally a good place to pickup cheap rotation depth with upside.

Hitting the Market

If all of the above goes down (Kemba and Al sign reasonable extensions, Hendo opts out and Biz is renounced) Cho will have somewhere around $6m to spend under the cap on free agents and could clear up more room by sending back an enticing young player (Cody/Noah) via sign & trade. The recent regime has been crafty with their cap room; expect them to do something of note with it.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

The Hornet with the Highest Upside

Upside
Standard

 

Three offseasons ago, if you would have asked me to write a piece ranking the Charlotte Bobcats’ top under-25 prospects I would’ve immediately laughed at the notion and then retreated to the fetal position to sob once I gave the topic a few seconds of serious thought.

In their ten year existence, the Bobcats never really had any young players with star potential. Even the most optimistic of early Cats fans (this author included) had 2005 Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor’s career topping out as a “solid” NBA center. Gerald Wallace was the closest thing to a breakout star the franchise ever produced but his ascendance was gradual, under-the-radar with a peak ever so brief.

Yet here we are today, just two months before the ’14-’15 NBA season begins and Charlotte’s NBA franchise – the same one that had drafted and developed talent so poorly for so long – has over half of its roster made up of 25 and under players; all of whom offer intriguing upsides to various degrees. Yes, it is indeed a NEW HORNETS WORLD ORDER.

Ranking the Hornets Top Prospects

8. Jeff Taylor. Age: 25 – Third Season.

THE GOOD: Taylor’s size and athleticism make him a prototypical defensive wing. His shooting form is sound and he isn’t afraid to launch it from deep; also a very sneaky baseline cutter who can get you easy baskets.
THE BAD: A Moneyball diplomat – both traditional and advanced stats hate him. Taylor is billed as a “shooter” but hasn’t shown anything approaching it over his brief career. He’s very old for a third year player at 25 and is coming off a ruptured Achilles – not great news for a wing who relies on tremendous athleticism.
THE UPSIDE: Solid Rotation Player. It seems inevitable that Taylor ends up on the Spurs someday – where he’ll blossom into a more athletic, dynamic Danny Green.

7. P.J. Hairston. Age: 21 – Rookie.

THE GOOD: Has the size, stroke and confidence to be a formidable bench weapon. Limitless range. Physical attributes suggest he could improve defensively.
THE BAD: Poor defensive habits and effort. Gets tunnel-vision on offense. BIG questions surrounding his commitment to fitness and his off the court decision-making.
THE UPSIDE: Sixth Man. There are very few shooter/scorers with P.J.’s size at the two guard. While you don’t want a gunner like Hairston near the starting lineup, for 18-20 minutes a night while your scorers are resting, P.J. could really help a team flourish.

6. Bismack Biyombo. Age: 22* – Fourth Season.

THE GOOD: Initially billed as a one-trick pony shot-swatter heading into the 2011 Draft, Biz has also developed into a quality rebounder and system defender. His shot blocking numbers have gone down but there are some metrics that rank Biz as an elite rim protector. Occasionally surprises with a 10-15 foot jumper. A better free throw shooter than you’d think. Superhuman 7’6″ wingspan; a physical specimen.
THE BAD: Zero hands; can’t catch a basketball cleanly and has an overall poor feel for the game on offense – which makes him a turnover machine. The Bobcats’ success last season had much to do with minimizing turnovers, thus Biyombo didn’t play much and touch/feel is very difficult to coach up. Also for a “defensive anchor”, Biz isn’t all that vocal on D. Considering his offensive limitations, you’d like for him to become more of a floor general at the other end.
THE UPSIDE: Potential Starter. On the right team/situation, Biyombo could be a Top 15 rebounder and Top 5 shot-blocker. He’s probably older than his listed age of 22 but I doubt it’s by that much. Even if he’s 25, Biz still has room to grow both in technique and knowledge of the game. His attitude and work ethic have never been in question. Those early comparisons to Ben Wallace seem attainable given the right circumstances.

5. Cody Zeller. Age: 21 – Second Season.

THE GOOD: Tremendous athleticism. High hoops IQ. Very skilled. Underrated chase-down shotblocker. Very good contested rebounder. Potentially excellent facilitator out of the post. Improved his perimeter shot after the All-Star break.
THE BAD: Has a tendency to “shrink” with the ball in the paint – combined with short arms, gets his shot blocked often. Can rush things; hasn’t caught up to NBA speed quite yet. Must add lower body strength; gets pushed around by full grown men. Needs to become a consistent perimeter threat.
THE UPSIDE: Starter. Cody not only had to transition to the NBA game last season, he had to do it while learning a new position. Cody played out of the post at center near exclusively for Indiana and rarely operated there as a Bobcat. Wingspan aside, he’s a legit seven footer who moves like a gazelle. He’s smart, skilled, works hard and has a great attitude. Could eventually become a better version of Josh McRoberts (high praise coming from a McBob-junkie).

4. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Age: 20 – Third Season.

THE GOOD: Has the potential to become the league’s best perimeter defender. Blocks shots in half-court and transition. Long arms to pester ball-handlers. One of the best rebounding wings in the game already. Aggressive driver on offense.
THE BAD: Undergoing a full-on shot reconstruction; had the worst perimeter shot of any wing in the NBA last season and teams lay off him. Can throw down an occasional spectacular dunk but lacks an explosive first step. Hesitates in transition opportunities and doesn’t finish as well as you’d think. Gets in foul trouble often.
THE UPSIDE: ??? The narrative hasn’t changed. It all hinges on the jumpshot. If he can sort the perimeter game out, he could be Charlotte’s answer to Paul George and a potential All-Star. If not, he’s a specialist and role player.

3. Kemba Walker. Age: 24 – Fourth Season.

THE GOOD: Elite speed and quickness. Barely six feet tall but can get his shot off against anyone AND (most importantly for a small guard) can finish in the paint. Improved passer. A good defender for his size. Intangibles galore. Fantastic leader and clutch player.
THE BAD: Field goal percentage a major concern; needs to become a more efficient shooter from the perimeter. Now that he’s surrounded with offensive talent, will need to become more of a traditional PG and lower the turnover rate.
THE UPSIDE: All-Star. Given the crowd of fantastic PGs in today’s game, actually making an All-Star team will be a challenge but Kemba should at least be in the conversation. If Walker can transition his game away from Monta Ellis and more towards Tony Parker, he could become a multiple selection.

2. Lance Stephenson. Age: 23 – Fifth Season.

THE GOOD: Offensive versatility; can score in a variety of ways – off the dribble, spot-up, transition, etc. Recorded more triple doubles last season than the Bobcats had in their entire ten year history. Very good facilitator; especially for a SG. A bulldog on defense. Was the second best player on a 50+ win team last season and should have made All-Star at just 22 years of age. Confidence never a problem; loves the big games.
THE BAD: Big questions surrounding his personality. Outsized confidence blurs into arrogance at times. Has the reputation of being disruptive to both opponents and his own team. “Steals” rebounds on defense and can stop the ball on offense. Lacks explosiveness. A middling three point shooter. Can take bad shots. Not a universally great defender; Bradley Beal abused him at times during last year’s Conference Semis.
THE UPSIDE: All-Star. Lance’s trajectory has him in the league’s Top 3-4 SGs by this time next season. He’s controversial and by all accounts an eccentric but he’s a virtuoso on the court and, at just 23, has already played a major role in dozens of meaningful Playoff games. If all goes reasonably well, Lance and Big Al Jefferson will represent the Hornets in Stephenson’s home town Madison Square Garden come February.

1. Noah Vonleh. Age: 19 – Rookie.

THE GOOD: Solid jump shot out to the three point line. Surprising handle for a player his size. Was a fantastic rebounder in college due to some ridiculous attributes: a Biyombo-esque wingspan and Kawhi Leonard-sized hands. Very intriguing pick & pop/roll player due to mobility, size and skill level. Already very physically mature; a proto-beast.
THE BAD: A mechanical, grounded player. Post moves are raw. Spent much of his high school career at the wing; still learning the 4/5 spot. Vonleh turned 19 in August and while that’s a major plus for his upside, he’ll struggle learning the game in the meantime. In Summer League Noah was the king of hundred dollar moves with ten cent finishes – and that was going against sub-par competition. Set expectations accordingly for Vonleh this season and next.
THE UPSIDE: Perennial All-Star. Given all the intriguing talent on the Hornets roster and how good they should end up being this season, it’s somewhat ironic that the closest thing the franchise has to a superstar might not even make an impact this season.
Is Vonleh a center? A stretch power forward? He measured 6’9″ 247lbs at the Draft Combine (when he was still 18) and there’s a reasonable chance that he’s still growing. We know he’ll end up putting on more weight – all young players eventually go through a mansformation – but how tall will he end up being? 6’10″? 6’11″? 7ft? A six-eleven guy at 265-275 can play center in this league; especially one with that type of wingspan and posterior.

The big backside is key point, if Anthony Davis is the second coming of Kevin Garnett, Vonleh has the Kevin Love/Lamarcus Aldridge lower body leverage and strength that will allow him to create space on the block. Combine this physical advantage with Noah’s handle and shooting ability and we’re looking at a player who could be both genuinely disruptive on the perimeter AND in the paint. Opposing bigs will have to guard him all the way out to the three point line. Very few, if any NBA big men have that sort of potential.

Given the Bobcats’ decade long struggle developing young prospects, it’s a little strange to write the following statement: Vonleh was extremely fortunate to have been drafted by Charlotte. The team is already good and the fans are too focused on the addition of Stephenson and the rebrand to pay much attention to the uber-raw Lottery prospect taking mental notes at the end of the bench. Noah will apprentice under one of the league’s best post-scorers (Jefferson) and a coaching staff perfectly tailored to develop him. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when Steve Clifford and Patrick Ewing helped develop a raw Atlanta high schooler into a perennial All-NBA center.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Eastern Conference Power Rankings: Offseason Edition

Hornets-Offseason
Standard

1. Cleveland

Last Year: 33-49
Prediction: 54-28

I struggled hard with this one. On one hand, the Cavs just added the greatest player in the game at the peak of his prime AND a Top 10 player (Kevin Love) who fits perfectly opposite Lebron at the other forward spot. On the other hand, aside from King James, the Cavs don’t have a single player under thirty who has any Playoff experience. Also, they have an NBA newbie for a head coach and exactly two players who have positive reputations on defense – one of whom misses 30 games every season (Anderson Varejao).
But I’m gonna go with the Cavs as Beasts of the East mainly because:
A. Offense wins in the regular season – Cleveland will be an absolute FORCE at that end AND…
B. Lebron is the league’s best player and he never gets hurt. Unlike…

2. Chicago

Last Year: 48-34
Prediction: 53-29

The Bulls have the league’s best defensive coach and the best three-man big rotation in the league now with Pau Gasol joining Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. If 23-year old Nik Mirotic lives up to the euro-hype, you can make that the league’s best four man big rotation.
The questions start at the wings. Jimmy Butler has developed into Kawhi-East and should only get better – he’s still just 24 – but the Bulls are banking on unproven youngsters Tony Snell and Doug McDermott being ready to play meaningful minutes.
Then there’s the Derrick Rose question. Rose hasn’t played 80 games in a season since Obama’s first term. Amazingly, he’s still just 25 – but the last dynamic young guy to miss this much time was Brandon Roy. Hopefully, Rose can avoid that type of future and come back one hundred percent. If not, Bulls’ fans will be getting a steady diet of Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks.

3. Charlotte

Last Year: 43-39
Prediction: 47-35

This is where the East gets interesting. Washington, Brooklyn and Charlotte finished within a game of each other last season. Two of those teams improved during the offseason, while the Nets took a step back. I have Charlotte over Washington simply because:
A. The Hornets significantly upgraded their weakest position from last season (Shooting Guard). The Wiz’s biggest move was replacing contract-year Trevor Ariza with 36-year old Paul Pierce.
B. The Hornets have a significant amount of 23 and younger players (Cody Zeller, MKG, Lance, Kemba) who should improve to varying degrees. The Wiz duo of Wall and Beal will get better as well but the jury’s still WAY OUT on guys like Otto Porter and Glen Rice, Jr. who’ve never logged a meaningful minute of NBA action.
C. The Hornets have a significant coaching/GM advantage. Steve Clifford’s defensive system will only get more advanced and more precise. Rich Cho is crafty enough to pull off a midseason deal to improve the team for both the long and short term. Wiz fans are and should be afraid that both Randy Whittman and Ernie Grunfeld signed extensions in during the offseason.
D. The Hornets have the best player on either team. Big Al was All-NBA. John Wall is a fantastic young player but isn’t there yet.
E. The newly rebranded Hornets are going to have a tremendous homecourt advantage. Long time Charlotte NBA fans and old-school Hornets holdouts will be rocking the Hive for all 41 games.

4. Washington

Last Year: 44-38
Prediction: 45-37

The middle of the East is going to beat up on each other. Don’t expect nearly as many gimmes as there were last season. In fact, the entire SE Divison should be a bloodbath. The Hawks, Heat, Hornets and Wiz will all likely top .500. I like the Wizards chances as a Top 4 seed. They are built to win now and adding Paul Pierce was the right move for a franchise trying to build a winning culture. In fact, if it weren’t for the coaching imbalance and the relatively thin bench behind the starters, I’d have Washington closer to 50 wins in a tougher conference.

5. Miami

Last Year: 54-28
Prediction: 44-38

Yes they lost the best player in the game and are left with a ton of guys on the down swing of their careers. But they also still have Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Luol Deng on the roster, a fantastic young coach and a ton of super-savvy veteran role players not to mention pride. This team is no lay down Sally. As long as Wade can stay upright, consider the Heat – at minimum – a middle of the pack Eastern Conference contender.

6. Toronto

Last Year: 48-34
Prediction: 43-39

The Raps did a great job of beating up on their weak home division (11-5) and the bottom feeders of the Conference (32-20 overall). They should be able to win their the Atlantic again this season with the Nets regressing, the Knicks standing pat and the Celtics and Sixers rebuilding. But Toronto is gambling that a combination of continuity and internal growth is enough to keep them in the East’s Top Four. With the middle of the Conference getting crowded, that bet may very well backfire.

7. Atlanta

Last Year: 38-44
Prediction: 43-39

The Hawks confuse me. In theory, a Horford/Millsap/Teague combo should be very good. And they have a tremendous amount of outside shooting and a very good coach and general manager. But Atlanta is also an under-the-radar “old” team. Aside from raw German phenom Dennis Schroeder and 23-year old rookie Adrien Payne, the Hawks don’t have much in terms of young guys who could break out. Also, you have to imagine the best coaches in the East like Clifford, Van Gundy, Spoelstra, etc – spent the offseason figuring out how to neutralize the Hawks gimmicky three point barrage. They’ll be good but don’t expect the Hawks to run away with the Conference even if they manage to stay healthy.

8. Brooklyn

Last Year: 44-38
Prediction: 40-42

Getting Lopez back will help as will upgrading from Jason Kidd to Lionel Hollins. But they lost Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston – who were both key starters on last year’s 44 win team. Hell, they might’ve been the Nets BEST starters for much of the season. Kevin Garnett is another year older and can only be counted on for spot minutes. Joe Johnson is a 33-year old wing. The team’s “leader” is Deron Williams and whenever you’re counting on D-Will to lead your team out of adversity, you’re in trouble. Also: 7ft+ guys with foot problems scare me. A lot.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN:

Indiana. This team struggled to score with Lance Stephenson and Paul George on the floor. Now they’ll replace them with Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles. This is an ’96-’97 Spurs tank year for Indy – the roster is a Hibbert trade away from being garbage.

New York. They’ll threaten .500 but it’s fairly obvious that the Knicks are more concerned about the next season, not the coming one – once Amare’s contract comes off the books, and Fisher/P-Jax figure out what they’re trying to build, the Knicks will likely be back on the road to relevance.

Detroit. SVG was a great coaching hire. Great GM hire? We’ll have to see about that. Some odd personnel moves were made this summer and the Pistons still haven’t resolved either the Josh Smith or Greg Monroe situations.

NOT WORTH TALKING ABOUT (YET):
Boston, Milwaukee, Orlando, Philly.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

On Al Jefferson and True Shooting Percentage

Al Jefferson illustration by Mike S
Standard

 

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.