On Al Jefferson and True Shooting Percentage

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

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

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

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

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

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

compositeMetrics

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

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

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

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

What To Do With Hendo, The Stats Edition

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

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

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

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

Henderson vs Stuckey

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

Stuckey Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Bradford Coombs
@bradford_NBA

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

What To Do With Hendo?

Gerald Henderson Illustration by Mike S
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The Charlotte Hornets made a major splash during July’s free agency sweepstakes, inking rising star Lance Stephenson to a three year, $27 million contract. Although there was a bit of drama leading up to the particulars (“who” and “how much“), the decision itself wasn’t a surprise. An upgrade at one of the wing positions had been anticipated since mid-season, when it became apparent that Charlotte’s potent inside-out attack led by Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker was hamstrung by perimeter guys who either couldn’t shoot (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) or who were hesitant to do so (Gerald Henderson).

Flash forward to the 2014 Playoffs: Charlotte’s post-season cameo versus the Miami Heat was brief but featured a few bright spots to build upon, notably:

MKG’s performance in Game Two was his best as a pro. At just twenty years of age, he pestered the league’s best player on defense and aggressively attacked the rim on offense. With Big Al hurting and the spotlight on, MKG stepped up and showed cynical fans and nervous Charlotte execs that the former number two overall pick might not be a bust after all. Kidd-Gilchrist’s all-world defensive abilities and untapped offense potential make him the odds on favorite to remain in teal in purple now that Lance is in the QC.

Three’s Company?

Some have assumed the Stephenson signing simply pushes Gerald down the depth chart a notch as the team’s third guard and sixth man. That’s an assumption I’m just not buying, mainly because:

A.) Third guards are rarely mid-range, grinder types. Outside of his excellent off the ball abilities, Hendo often takes forever manufacturing his offense and rarely do those posessions end in threes. Ideally, you want your bench guy to be a gunner – a Jamaal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas, J.R. Smith type who can generate points both in bunches and in a hurry.

B.) Charlotte has exactly two of those types of bench scorers already on the roster (Gary Neal, P.J. Hairston) whose games’ are much better suited for the role.

C.) Hendo can play some small forward in a pinch but at 6’4″, he’s a small-small forward. Coach Clifford prefers size and the team has MKG, Jeff Taylor and Marvin Williams logging minutes there already. Which brings me to…

D.) There simply aren’t enough minutes to go around. Hendo has averaged north of 32 minutes per game over the past three seasons. A team captain, I find it difficult to believe that Gerald will be ok with taking a DRASTICALLY reduced role in the prime of his career with a potential new contract (he has a player option for next season) on the horizon.
Have a look at this simple minutes chart:

BaselineSimpleMinsChart

Even if we assume that Hendo takes all of the Neal/Hairston minutes, that still leaves Gerald twelve minutes shy of his recent average. Sounds like a recipe for three unhappy guys to me. Besides…

E.) Hendo was actively shopped to at least two teams leading up to July’s Draft: Charlotte offered Henderson and the 24th overall pick to Orlando for Arron Afflalo. There was also an unreported, but since confirmed trade (by the Baseline’s own @benweinrib) proposal that would have sent Gerald to the Clippers for the 28th overall pick. Think of it this way, if Hendo was on the verge of being dealt BEFORE the Hornets secured a new starter at SG, then what’s stopping them from doing the same now that they have Lance?

The Fake Trades

This post may as well have been titled “Biyombo and Hendo Trade Scenarios”. I’ve written about What To Do with Biz extensively so go read that first if you feel that his inclusion is misplaced. Either way, Biz and Hendo represent a combination of redundency and value while their salaries combine to fit nicely into several two-for-one swaps.

Hornets trade Gerald Henderson, Bismack Biyombo to Cleveland for Anderson Varejao and Memphis’ First Round Pick

WHY CLEVELAND DOES IT: Once the Kevin Love trade goes down, Cleveland will be desperate for both a starting SG and a center who can play more than fifty games a season. Dion Waiters’ ideal role is as a meaty Jamaal Crawford bench scorer and Hendo slots in nicely as the starter and fourth option. Gerald pads Lebron & K-Love’s assist numbers with cuts to the rim on offense and gives the Cavs at least one guard who gives half a crap on defense. Meanwhile, Biz supplies the flammable Love/Kyrie combo with rim protection and won’t, I repeat, WILL NOT be required to touch the ball…EVER.

WHY CHARLOTTE DOES IT: Let’s face it, Varejao is going to get hurt at some point during the year. It’s inevitable. But during those 50-60 games he does play, Anderson will allow Charlotte to do some amazing things with their second string center…like catch the ball, run basic pick and rolls, etc. Beyond that, he’s an expiring contract, thus the Memphis late first rounder as a sweetener. It’s a little help now, a little help in the future for the Hornets – all for two guys who likely aren’t in the team’s long term plans anyway.

Hornets trade Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo to Brooklyn for Kevin Garnett

WHY BROOKLYN DOES IT: The Nets need a legit SG in the worst way. Now that Paul Pierce is gone, Joe Johnson will likely move to small forward full-time and Sergei Karasev isn’t going to cut it as the starter. Bismack gives Brooklyn a third rotation big to backup oft-injured Brook Lopez and even allows the Nets to trade either Lopez or Mason Plumlee for a legit piece at another position down the road.

WHY CHARLOTTE DOES IT: This is crazy, right? KG is old, on an expiring contract and has lost about ten steps. There’s also this caveat: Garnett has a no-trade clause and can shoot down any deal. So why would either side agree to this?
If you’ve made a major investment in VERY young players, why not give them a role model, a leader and a mentor? Say Lance or P.J. get out of line in practice, with Garnett around, they may think twice. If Kemba, Lance, MKG, Cody Zeller or Noah Vonleh become stars one day, they may look back at their season with KG as a lesson in leadership. This stuff matters. It’s one of the reason San Antonio has been able to build and maintain their culture for so long and one of the reasons Washington went after Pierce.
As for Garnett himself: D-Will and Joe Johnson are older, Pierce and Livingston are gone and Blatche is still unsigned. Do you bet the last season of an illustrious career on Brook Lopez’s feet or do you join the best young team in the Eastern Conference?

Hornets trade Gerald Henderson, Bismack Biyombo to OKC for Kendrick Perkins, Andre Roberson and a protected 1st Round Pick

WHY OKC DOES IT: The Thunder have some very young wing talent on the roster in Jeremy Lamb and they just signed Anthony Morrow as a floor spacing rotation guy. But do you really want either of those guys playing meaningful Playoff minutes? Defensively, Gerald is better than both of those guys and while he might lack the raw offensive upside as Lamb, his pro game is much further along. A Hendo/Reggie Jackson/Russell Westbrook three guard rotation with a little Morrow mixed in is solid. Also: we get to hear an exasperated Biyombo and Ibaka duo explain that there are “two Congos” for an entire season.

WHY CHARLOTTE DOES IT: Perk catches a ton of flack and he’s nearly the turnover machine that Biz has been over the past couple of seasons. But he’s a tough as nails veteran big who can neutralize opposing bigs. Kendrick may not be flashy but he knows NBA defense. Clifford will love having him back there. Roberson’s an intriguing combo forward who played well in the D-League last season. He’s on a cheap rookie deal and is some nice insurance should Jeff Taylor’s recovery stagnate or if Taylor bolts via free agency next summer. The pick would be a highly protected first.

Hornets trade Gerald Henderson to Miami for Josh McRoberts

NOTE: Free agents signed during the summer can’t be traded until December 15th, so this one would have to happen mid-season.
WHY MIAMI DOES IT: Unless they want to go VERY small with two PGs when Dwyane Wade misses time, the Heat will need to add some quality wing depth and who better than Wade-lite? An iso, post-up, volume-scoring mid-range doppelganger who could slide right into the starting five during Wade’s sabbaticals, Hendo is just what the doctor ordered for a Miami team that’s in no position to tank (they owe their first round pick to the Cavs).
Meanwhile, McRoberts and Chris Bosh are similar players who likely won’t play all that much together, especially with Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen back in the fold. And with Lebron’s July surprise, both Josh and the Heat may decide that this wasn’t a great idea for a variety of reasons.

WHY CHARLOTTE DOES IT: Uhh…like, duh…

-ASCHIN
@BaselineBuzz

Josh McRoberts vs Cody Zeller: An Exhaustive Study

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

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

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

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

Dissecting Josh’s Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Efficient Point Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Cody Keep Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cody Zeller: STRENGTHS

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

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

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

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

Cody Zeller: WEAKNESSES

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

mcrobertsZeller

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

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

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

-Bradford Coombs
@bradford_NBA

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

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

Charlotte Hornets Roundtable | Lance Edition

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QUESTION: In the span of just three weeks, Charlotte replaced McRoberts, Tolliver, Haywood, Ridnour and Rufus Lynx with Vonleh, Hairston, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Lance and Hugo. 


With a “1” being the Kool-Aid man busting through a teal colored wall and a “10” being an MDMA party at Bieber’s crib, where does this summer rank on the EUPHORIA SCALE?

DrE: I’m at a 7, which I believe equates to dropping acid with Bill Walton on a beach in Belize, which is pretty euphorigenic, until the trip goes bad and the ghost of Rick Majerus shows up. But seriously, I’m excited. Can we fast forward to October?

BradfordI’ll go with 7. Cho gets a -3 for losing McRoberts even though I fully understand it. Everything else is a clear upgrade. I’m a big fan of Brian Roberts. Marvin Williams is a good fit on a sensible contract. Vonleh could end up being a steal in the draft (crazy that Charlotte could be considered the “right” destination for a player, right?). Hairston clearly fits a need and I think his “character” issues are extremely overblown. Which brings us to the gem of the off-season, Crazy Eyes Stephenson. Cho clearly preferred Gordon Hayward and took a strategic gamble. I agree with his priorities. He would have been a good fit for the long haul. But Stephenson is the better player right now and fits very well on the court. I’m more worried about a 13.8 turnover ratio than I am blowing in someone’s ear. And can we stop pretending his breaking up the Heat huddle matters? Marcin Gortat does the same thing and it makes him quirky and funny. And as far as the locker room concerns… Paul George bought into his own hype over the off-season and Roy Hibbert is softer than a Drake song. The more I think about it, the less worried I am about Lance. He’s earned everything he’s gotten. New York phenom that goes under-recruited, is a 2nd round pick that barely plays, and builds himself into a potential all-star. I’ll take that on my team. I like his edge, even if it gets a little over the top at times. Until he marries himself and kicks a camera operator in the groin I trust him and the organization to keep it under control without taking away what’s made him successful. Everyone loves Hugo.

ASChin: Currently at a solid “8” but could rise to Bieber-on-goofballs status if the team lives up to its potential. In fact, I’m not even sure I enjoy feeling this way – being a Charlotte NBA fan over the past few seasons has been a bi-polar experience. You had the ultimate low of the seven win season followed by the slow to develop draft picks and the Mike Dunlap mini-era. Now Charlotte is suddenly the hottest team in the Conference – OKC EAST if you will. Got the old name and records back. Dope unis and the illest court in the league. The best offensive big man in the game. An exciting young point guard. Lockdown twenty-one year old wing. One of the NBA’s top coaches. A great GM. And now they add Lance, who’s probably the best two-way SG in basketball at twenty three years of age. Oh, and they got him at a discount. Did I mention the bonus Lottery pick?

QUESTION: Off the court stuff aside, is there any reason to worry about Lance’s fit ON THE COURT?

DrE: The ball handling, playmaking, respectable three-point shooting, and bulldog defense are all godsends. The only thing I’m worried about is the freelancing (pun totally intended) tendencies on offense. Hopefully Lance can direct most of that energy into the minutes when he’s leading the second unit, while keeping the offense running through Big Al when he’s out there with the starters.

BradfordNot as much as some would lead you to believe. Lance has a reputation for being selfish and a ball-stopper. That’s the biggest concern when adding him to the team and wouldn’t seem to mesh when Al Jefferson and Kemba are going to have the ball a lot. Comparing him to the guy he’ll (probably) be replacing in Gerald Henderson, you can see that Lance has a lower usage rate (19.5% vs 22.4%) and a higher assist ration (23.5 vs 14.4). Those numbers come in the context of basically the same number of touches per game (54-55), though Lance did play 3 more minutes per game. Lance also had the ball for 3 minutes each game versus 1.8 for Henderson. Adjusting for time played, Lance had the ball 5 seconds for every minute on the floor and Henderson had it for 3.4 seconds per minute. SportVU shows them having the same number of passes and secondary assists per game, but Lance having 2 more assists, .3 more passes leading to free throws, and 3.4 more assist opportunities (ignores the result of the shot after the pass). Overall, Stephenson added more than 5 points per 48 minutes via passing than Henderson. That’s the really long way of saying I think he fits perfectly.

ASChin: A few people have been tossing around the “ball stopper” label when it comes to Lance. I’m not buying it. Indy’s offense was a mess last season and Lance finally took it upon himself to create. One look at Big Al’s head-fake, up & under, spin around push-shot and Lance will realize he’s not alone anymore. The offense goes through Jefferson: Lance will facilitate, set up in the right corner for wide open threes. Penetrate and dish. Iso when needed. I am interested in how Clifford handles the rebounding chores. Lance loves hitting the offensive glass and Clifford wants his guys back on D pronto.

QUESTION: True or False: Kemba & Lance will lead the league in “And1 Mixtape” moments.

DrE: Ha, maybe. I’m more hopeful that the professionalism of Big Al, Kemba, Clifford, etc. rubs off on Lance and his game matures.

BradfordBackcourt only? True. Wall and Beal are nice, but Beal is mostly a shooter and straight line driver. Overall duo? Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook have that on lock. Melo and Derrick Rose would have been awesome but alas, money (and actress wives apparently) over everything.

ASChin: Given what we’ve seen of the Gersh Park highlights, I wouldn’t be surprised the TWC bring back “Tone X” to serve as hype-man…

QUESTION: The Hornets are currently carrying five SGs on the roster. Which one doesn’t make it to camp?

DrE: I think Gary Neal has to go — his playing time is going to drop off and he’s unlikely to deal with that well.  I’d love to keep Gerald Henderson around to be Lance’s primary backup.

Bradford: Assuming PJ is prevented from going for non-basketball related reasons, I’m saying all 5. Hairston appears to be a bigger, stronger, more versatile version of Neal so if I had a choice he’d be the one to go. If his ego can stomach it, I love Henderson off the bench. Jeff Taylor is super cheap and I like giving him a chance to re-establish himself, though let’s not indulge a certain local publication’s insinuation that he has a chance at a starting job. Right now he’s a fringe NBA player, but a nice cheap way to fill out the roster with some upside. And Lance is the starter.

ASChin: Still not convinced Henderson is a backup. Lance is playing at least 34-36 minutes a night – and even though he can play small forward, Clifford wants size out there and Charlotte has plenty of it at the three with MKG, Marvin and Jeff Taylor. That leaves around 16-20 minutes per game at SG – ideal for a bench gunner. Both Neal and Hairston fit that role perfectly while Hendo takes forever to get his offense going. Not gonna back off my stance: believe Gerald is on another roster by training camp. And with Vonleh looking good in Summer League, I wouldn’t be surprised if CLT packaged Hendo and Cody to make one more major move; a trade to bring back a legit starting power forward.

QUESTION: Clifford wants another big on the roster and Charlotte currently only goes two deep at Center. Who makes sense and how will they get him?

DrE: I’ve seen the same free agents kicked around Twitter as everyone else. Ekpe Udoh, Emeka Okafor (if he can even still play?). It’s a shame that Jeff Adrien got picked up already. Nazr Mohammed would be great if you’re just looking for a vet to be a good locker room guy.

BradfordNot a lot out there in free agency. I have no interest in Blatche. Elton Brand is a guy I thought would be worth targeting, but he would be pretty small in the middle. Nazr Mohammed could play a little here and there. I think you’re generally looking at replacement level guys.

ASChin: Mohammed makes a ton of sense. Former Bobcat who enjoyed his time in the QC. A vet who can keep the locker room sane. With Big Al and Biz ahead of him, he won’t be required to log crazy minutes. Could be everything the team wanted from Brendan Haywood last season.

QUESTION: Everything goes right for Charlotte next season – health, young guys develop and the new guys mesh – how high is the Hornets ceiling for ’14-’15?

DrE: Eastern Conference Finals.

BradfordThe east is going to be a dog-fight. So many questions exist. Can Bosh be a number 1 option still? Does Deng still have it? How bad can the scoring get in Indiana? Can Derrick Rose stay healthy? Is the Cleveland supporting cast worth anything, and are they willing to grab Love? Who are the Detroit Pistons? What are the Hawks? The Hornets are a good team. With growth from Zeller, contributions from Hairston, a coherent offense from the starters, a move around the deadline… they could be right there in it for a top 4 seed. The roster isn’t the most versatile with an offense built around Jefferson, so a lot of playoff success will depend on matchups. That being said, a lot of the east is pretty conventional outside of Atlanta. I hate predictions, even vague ones. Especially when it involves a team I’m passionate about. My mind can find a way to put the Hornets in the finals. So I’ll say the unlikely ceiling is the Eastern Conference finals. I guess.

ASChin: Someone asked me on twitter if Charlotte will make the EC Finals – my initial reaction, developed after ten years of watching the Bobcats – was a spit-take. Then I thought about it, looked at the roster, the coaching staff and the overall state of the East and, with a straight face mind you, typed “yes”. Guys could get injured, P.J. or Lance could cause problems, MJ could re-hire Higgins, etc. You can never be too sure. But if everything goes right – oh my. No Charlotte NBA has ever made it past the second round. That could very well change this season.

QUESTION: Bigger offseason acquisition: Lance Stephenson or Hugo the Hornet?

DrEI prefer to think that Hugo wasn’t acquired — he’s been waiting patiently for this moment for years, lounging by the Hornets-tiled pool at George Shinn’s old Tega Cay lake house.  So, Lance.

BradfordI’m rolling Hugo. Maybe I’m giving the name too much credit, but after last season and potentially another successful upcoming campaign I think the city has the fever again. While the name is pointless without wins, adding wins to the name will go much further than a successful Bobcats franchise would in my opinion. Lance could be in Charlotte as few as 2 years, Hugo is here to stay.

ASChin: Hugo is Charlotte’s answer to Lebron going back to Cleveland. The return of the Hornets name, history, records, mascot and colors is unprecedented in NBA history. But it happened anyway. Bee-lieve it.

Charlotte Hornets 2014 Offseason Tracker: UPDATED

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Last updated: 2:00pm, July 16th, 2014

NBA head coaches and general managers are on slightly different timelines. The coach’s job is to win on game nights and he can’t do that without NBA ready talent. A GM’s job is sustain said coach’s ability to win for as long as possible, over the course of many seasons, upgrading the roster along the way.

There can be special arrangements of course. Philly’s Brett Brown and Boston’s Brad Stevens were head coaches hired last summer by win-later teams more interested in building culture and developing young talent than adding W’s in the standings. But by and large, coaches want to compete now and they can’t showcase their stuff if they’re forced to rely on guys who are easily bested by their competition.

Which brings us to the first six weeks of Charlotte’s summer. The team built a tremendous amount of momentum last season by adding an All-NBA center and qualifying for the Playoffs. Steve Clifford proved to be the coaching world’s best kept secret – a defensive maestro who garners tremendous respect from his players and peers. The rebranded Hornets were set to enter the offseason with an immensely popular new coat of paint, two first round draft picks, massive cap space and subsequent expectations for improvement.

The franchise’s goals are two-fold: make the Playoffs in their rebrand year but don’t mortgage the farm to do so; the Hornets name change will bring a ton of new fans to the arena, sustained success will keep them there.
How have they done? Let’s take a look at the roster moves in chronological order:

ADDITION: Noah Vonleh, PF/C

First Round | 9th Overall Selection
Charlotte lucked into Detroit’s number nine pick after Cleveland miraculously won the Lottery and pushed the Pistons back a slot. The Hornets wound up taking Indiana PF/C Noah Vonleh, an 18 year old prospect with a tremendous amount of potential. The comps to previous CLT developmental bigs like Alexis Ajinca and Bismack Biyombo are way off, Vonleh enters the league with a much higher skill level and an actual feel for the game.

That’s not to say he’ll help Clifford’s cause immediately, he’s still an 18 (!) year old rookie with some raw mechanics and little knowledge of the NBA game. But if all goes well, the Hornets won’t be selecting this high again for a long while and bigs with Vonleh’s skills rarely escape the Lottery. Great long-term value play for Charlotte.
ROLE: 14-18 minute per game developmental power forward.
REPLACES: Anthony Tolliver, D.J. White

ADDITION: P.J. Hairston, SG

First Round | 26th Overall Selection
Rich Cho swapped late first rounders with Miami for some extra assets and wound up taking former UNC shooting guard P.J. Hairston with the 26th pick. From a skills standpoint, the pick makes a ton of sense. P.J. can stroke it from deep and Charlotte was desperate for three point shooting last season. But Hairston comes with character baggage that he didn’t take long to unpack. Punching a guy during a pickup game is hardly an earth-shattering offense but stringing together the subsequent Street Fighter combo of bone-headed decisions is. For a guy who will likely top out as an eighth or ninth man this season, he had better be worth the distraction.
ROLE: Either 20 minute per game bench shooter or end of bench distraction.
REPLACES: Chris Douglas-Roberts or Jeff Taylor.

SUBTRACTION: Brendan Haywood, C

Traded to Cleveland
He was due over two million in salary and didn’t play a minute last season due to a foot injury so Charlotte salary dumped him to the Cavs, using their 2nd Round pick as a sweetener. Interesting side note: as Mark Deeks reported, Haywood’s amnesty’d contract bumps up to an unguaranteed $10m again next season, giving the Cavs all sorts of interesting cap possibilities should they pursue another marquee free agent.
REPLACED BY: Charlotte still needs to add a third center, TBD.

SUBTRACTION: Josh McRoberts, PF

Unrestricted Free Agent | 4 years, $23 million
This one stung (pun intended). Making just $2.7m last season, McRoberts might’ve been the best value in the league. A smart, multi-talented glue guy, Josh is an elite passer and was often the team’s de facto point guard in the half court last season. As an added bonus, McRoberts hit over a hundred threes to keep the paint open for Big Al. His stats may have looked meager, but there are only a handful of bigs in the league who can do what Josh does and those things were all absolutely vital to Charlotte’s Playoff run.

For his efforts, Miami offered him a full four year midlevel deal at $5.75m per. The Hornets balked and instead committed $7m per over two years to the next guy on our list. Given Josh’s fit with his old team and the subsequent departure of Lebron James from the Heat, both sides may regret not meeting on some sort of 3 year, $21m compromise.
REPLACED BY: No one can replace The Basketball Jesus but his duties will be distributed to both Cody Zeller and…

ADDITION: Marvin Williams, SF/PF

Unrestricted Free Agent | 2 years, $14 million
Unlike McRoberts, who had no history of hitting threes on the reg until last season, Williams has been stretching the floor for years as a combo forward. He’s become a very good defender (though the on/off court numbers don’t scream “lock-down”) and has a rep as a solid lockeroom guy. Don’t surprised if he finishes games this season as Clifford’s lone veteran power forward, stretching the floor without giving up much at the other end.

His two year, $14m deal is certainly on the high side but the years are non-threatening and he gives the Hornets flexibility down the road once Zeller or Vonleh develop. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that McRoberts was a no-name veteran castoff who blossomed under Clifford. Cross your fingers that it happens a second time.
ROLE: 26-30 minute per game part-time starter and full-time finisher.
REPLACES: Josh McRoberts, Anthony Tolliver

ADDITION: Brian Roberts, PG

Unrestricted Free Agent | 2 years, $5.5 million
Here’s the deal: Kemba Walker plays a ton of minutes and rarely gets hurt. So if you’re going to spend a bunch of money on a backup point, it better be for a bigger guard who can suck up minutes playing alongside Walker in the backcourt. The Hornets reportedly went after two guys like that (Shaun Livingston and Kirk Hinrich) but couldn’t get a deal done so turned to Plan B: an inexpensive Kemba-clone.

That’s not a one hundred percent accurate comparison, Roberts is the purer shooter and Kemba is an ankle-breaking lightning bolt but you get the idea. Both are score-first lead guards with slight, frisky builds. At 6’1″, 173, Roberts isn’t going to over-power anyone in the paint and he has tendancy to get bullied fighting through screens but he can score and hit distance buckets, most importantly from the left side of the floor – and we all know who likes camping out down on the left block.

In fact both Roberts and Marvin Williams excel shooting from that side – ironically, the side of the three point line Charlotte struggled from last season considering Al Jefferson’s presence. As @DCWLN pointed out on Twitter, Clifford often cleared that side once the entry pass was made and Al would usually score through double teams anyway. Signing Roberts and Williams gives the Hornets another spacing wrinkle however; a way to punish the league’s better defenses who can diffuse Al & Kemba’s inside/out game.
ROLE: Backup PG, 18-20 minutes a game. Also an insurance policy in case Kemba misses any time.
REPLACES: Luke Ridnour’s corpse.

ADDITION: Lance Stephenson, SG

Unrestricted Free Agent | 3 years, $27 million (third year team option)
In June it was inevitable. By mid-July it was unlikely. CUT TO: LAS VEGAS, The Evening of July 15th. Michael Jordan, Rich Cho and Steve Clifford came to terms both financially and psychologically with Lance Stephenson as their new starting two guard. It was news Charlotte fans around the globe were waiting for (I had tweets from Hornets fan sites in Spain, Japan and Canada queued up in my mentions) and it was finally here. Born Ready is a Hornet.

This is a huge signing for Charlotte, yet another signal that Jordan, Cho and Clifford have finally turned Bob Johnson’s once sinking ship around. Lance is 23 and has played in two consecutive Conference Finals, the last of which he may have been his team’s best player. He led the league in triple doubles last season with five – which I believe surpasses the total number of triple doubles in the Bobcats ten year history – and, as ESPN pointed out, Lance was the youngest guard to average 7 RPG & 4 APG since Magic Johnson did it in ’83.

After McRoberts bolted for Miami, the Hornets were desperate for another playmaker to allow Kemba more off the ball opportunities and steady the second unit as a lead threat. Lance basically played that very role offensively last season for the one-seed Pacers. Unlike Josh, Stephenson is a reliable second or third scorer who can pick up the slack when Kemba has an off night or when opponents key in on Big Al. He’s turnover-prone (1.7 assist to turnover ratio, McRoberts notched a 4 by comparison) and Clifford isn’t going to enjoy watching Lance go off script at the wrong times but some of that may have been due to the Pacers’ moribund offense and personnel. We’ll have a full offensive breakdown of Lance in a future post but in the meantime, rest assured that this is likely a major upgrade from both a talent and fit perspective over Gerald Henderson.

And defensively? Let’s just say that an MKG/Lance/Marvin Williams/Jeff Taylor wing rotation has a chance to the best perimeter D in the league. Lance is strong, has good size and length and we know he won’t back down from any assignment. For better or worse, he basically demanded to guard Lebron in the EC Finals and held his own more often than not. Again, we’ll have the full scouting breakdown of Lance soon but rest assured, he should be great at both ends.

Finally, there’s the character concerns. Some say Lance’s antics cost him $6m per season. I say it saved the Hornets $6m per season. Charlotte’s getting a potential max-salary type player for a massive discount just because he’s an occasional idiot. Cho’s masterful manipulation of Stephenson’s market, combined with the organization’s cohesive recruiting effort led to the Hornets getting a similar and potentially superior player for around $36m less than they offered Gordon Hayward – who’s never even won a Playoff game mind you, much less sniffed a Conference Finals. Thank you Utah!

It’s that last point I find most important. You can argue teams and situations all you want, but if you want to build a winning culture, you gotta bring in guys who’ve won. Who have been there and performed. The advanced stat guys will hate that statement. You can’t boil it down into a metric. But hoops intuition is real. Kemba has the big game gene. MKG has the gene. Lance has the gene. Those guys are bulldogs who want the pressure; the high stakes. Michael Jordan knows a winner when he sees one. This one was Born Ready.

ROLE: Starter, 36-38 minute per game.
REPLACES: Gerald Henderson, Josh McRoberts’ playmaking.

WHAT’S NEXT

Gerald Henderson

With Stephenson’s signing, the Hornets co-captain and incumbent starter is suddenly the odd man out. The team now has four other guys under contract who play his position either most or part of the time. Some folks on twitter have imagined a move to sixth man for Hendo but I’m not buying it. His game doesn’t really translate to that role and it’s unlikely he’d take the demotion well given that he’s just entering his prime. Gerald’s $6m per year salary is a bargain compared to what the market’s been paying out this summer and he could very well opt out of his player option next July, making his contract an even more attractive expiring deal. Chances are that Henderson will be starting somewhere this coming season and it’s not going to be in Charlotte. Keep an eye on this situation, especially if the Hornets make a play for…

Carlos Boozer

Fellow Blue Devil and former Bull Carlos Boozer was officially amnestied just a few hours after the Lance signing and there have already been a few rumors linking him to Charlotte. If the Hornets hold off on signing Brian Roberts*, they should still have around $4m in cap space (counting Lance, Williams and rookie/roster cap holds) to place an amnesty bid. But I don’t think that will cut it. Atlanta and a few other teams with $8m+ cap space have been rumored as potential suitors. If Charlotte truly wants Carlos in teal next season, they’ll need to dump salary and they’ll need to decide fast. Teams have 48 hours to place a bid. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

*As pointed about by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, Brian Roberts’ contract fits nicely into the Hornets’ bi-annual exception should the team use the remainder of their cap space first. Rookies can and generally do sign for as much as 120% of the rookie scale but only count for 100% of the scale until then.

Josh McRoberts Sad Face

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McRoberts-Gone

Josh McRoberts has agreed to join the Miami Heat and a tear forms in the eye of every Hornets fan. After being misused at Duke (Coach K misusing a big? No way!) and wandering the league in various states of hair growth, Steve Clifford finally unlocked the McBeast that had been lurking all along. By moving him to the perimeter, Clifford allowed McRoberts to take advantage of his play-making skills, facilitating the offense and being just productive enough as a shooter to keep the defense honest. By almost every metric (plus/minus, RPM, WARP, EWA) McRoberts was one of the most productive and important players on the team. Losing him hurts. But there’s no value in dwelling on the past, so it’s worth looking at how this affects the team for the upcoming season. We’ll approach it on a mostly individual basis. It should be noted these are just my opinions and don’t reflect any sort of insider knowledge. For whatever reason Rich Cho and Steve Clifford won’t return my phone calls and I was recently delivered a strange piece of mail that says something about a restraining order and being within 100 yards of either of them. I need to figure that out… (none of that is true, except that these are just the opinions of an uniformed nobody).

Rich Cho

Cho is all in on the young players. He easily could have outspent Miami to retain McRoberts. This is pure speculation, but it seems a player option on the 4th year rather than something like a team option or a partial guarantee was the sticking point. Cody Zeller has 3 years left on his rookie contract after which he’ll be getting a raise on his salary. Kemba Walker has one more year and MKG has 2. Cho’s specialty is managing the cap and failing to meet Miami’s offer is, in all likelihood, a matter of doing that aand preparing for extensions to kick in. This is the first real gamble of Cho’s tenure. Betting on Biz, Kemba, MKG, and Zeller in the draft wasn’t making a bad team worse if they didn’t work out. Losing an essential member of a playoff team for the sake of future financial flexibility, just as the team is gaining momentum, is a bold and potentially dangerous move. If the young guys turn out to be what he hopes and the flexibility gives him a chance to make a move down the line he comes out looking great. If the picks are all busts and the team takes a massive step backwards his job might be on the line. Cho will also need to find a 5th big to go with Zeller, Vonleh, Jefferson, and Biyombo. Kris Humphries’s name has popped up and Jeff Adrien is always a welcome addition to the roster.

Steve Clifford

McRoberts was Coach Clifford’s safety blanket. He facilitated the offense, opened up the floor, and allowed Al Jefferson to operate on the block without clogging the lane. He made hustle plays and was always willing to do the dirty work, as LeBron’s throat can attest to. With him moving on, Clifford is going to have to find a way to craft a post heavy offense that lacks elite shooters. He’ll have to find ways to take the burden of creating off solely Kemba’s shoulders. Most importantly, he’s going to need to bring Cody and Noah Vonleh along and make them productive players on offense and defense sooner rather than later. This is an area where Gregg Popovich excels and is part of what sets him apart from other coaches. If Clifford wants to prove himself as one of the elite coaches, this is a time to do it.

Cody Zeller

Zeller will be affected more than anyone else on the team. He seemed to be in line for similar playing time to last year. Clifford started experimenting with playing him and McRoberts together towards the end of the season. He averaged 22.2 minutes per game in April and that looked like it would continue. He will now be forced into the starting lineup, most likely absorbing all of McRoberts’s 30 minutes per game. He should look to stretch himself as a shooter and as a playmaker. Clifford has been very deliberate about how he has brought Cody along, but there is no longer time for that. The first thing he will need to do is cut down on the turnovers. McRoberts turned the ball over 8 times for every 100 possessions. Cody turned it over 13 times per 100 possessions. That number needs to go down. A lot of those turnovers were on destination-less drives to the basket. Hopefully a strengthened core and more experience will help him keep his balance on such drives or he will look for an open teammate more often. The other are for improvement is his shooting. This is an area that almost assuredly will be better. In March and April he shot over 50% from the field as he got more comfortable in his role. The key is to add more range to his shot. With his smaller frame, he is going to have to develop a 3 point shot in order to be effective, especially with Al Jefferson on the team. That development may not come this season, but he does need to start shooting them. The only way to get comfortable in game situations is to do it in game situations. The coaching staff will need to be patient as he adapts to the longer shot and he will need to maintain his confidence even if he struggles some. He doesn’t need to go all Channing Frye this season, but he needs to let it fly when he is open to start the process. Zeller will have to take a step forward for this team to be effective again.

Noah Vonleh

The rumors surrounding Vonleh’s drop were centered mostly on the amount of development he required and his work ethic. The Hornets’ players are a hard working group without question, so they will be there to help him stay focused. The lack of NBA preparedness is going to be a much bigger problem, especially now. Steve Clifford is not Larry Brown. He sees the value in young guys and gives them appropriate time while not necessarily hurting the team. Vonleh probably wasn’t going to see a lot of time this year. Somewhere in the 5-10 minute range. That’s now going to be closer to 15-20 as the only legitimate power forward on the bench. Nobody knows what to expect from him. He was billed as a shooter, but his college sample size was tiny. He didn’t dominate at Indiana, but Tom Crean wasn’t doing a lot to help him out there. He can be inattentive and needs to develop a better feel and IQ for the game. For now Clifford will probably expect him to focus on rebounding, defending the basket, and stretching the floor. In all likelihood he won’t be asked to create or facilitate the offense. He probably won’t have any plays run for him outside of the pick and roll where he will be expected to roll hard to the basket. If he can focus on the basics he should be able to be a neutral presence on the floor. That sounds harsh, but for a project big man with limited experience not hurting the team would be a big win.

Bismack Biyombo

Biz looked dead in the water going into next season. He played only 14 minutes per game this past season. While he improved significantly overall, his development hasn’t been quite what the team had hoped and management seriously considered not picking up his option. Towards the end of the season Clifford started using Zeller as a center with McRoberts on the floor at the same time rather than going to Biz. Don’t plan on seeing a lot of Zeller and Vonleh on the floor together. Instead, Clifford may choose to do what he was doing with McRoberts, subbing him out relatively early and letting him stabilize the bench unit. Biz’s responsibilities won’t change. He will still expected to rebound and defend and to try to stay out of the way on offense. This may be his last chance. He needs to take advantage of it.

Gerald Henderson & Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

With McRoberts gone, the wings are going to have the ball in their hands more with an opportunity to create for themselves and others. For Henderson, this means a couple things. The first and most obvious is that he needs to unshackle himself and start shooting the 3 ball. No more taking one dribble in for a mid-range shot. There is a banner up in the Hornets’ practice facility that says, “Quick Decisions: Shoot It, Drive It, Move it.” If anyone needs to take this motto to heart, it’s Henderson. He has a tendency to catch, turn, face, and survey. Then look some more. Look a little more. Then drive to the right baseline and shoot a fade-away jumper. The surveying needs to be done before the ball comes. He should know where guys are on the floor and where the defense is and make a decision. This will keep the defense on their heels and all the team to generate offense out of more than just Jefferson post-ups and Kemba Walker dribble drives. Henderson is not a great passer, with an assist ratio lower than JR Smith and Caption Iso-Joe Johnson, and gets tunnel vision when he gets the ball, another reason he needs to be more decisive on the catch. If the jump shot isn’t there and the lane isn’t open, make the simple pass and get the offense going.

MKG’s approach shouldn’t change as much as Henderson’s. He will still be expected to score off cuts and offensive rebounds. His shooting can be addressed elsewhere. The change MKG will experience is tied to Gerald Henderson. Clifford could look to play more small-ball, moving Henderson to the small forward position and MKG to the power forward position with Jefferson or Zeller at center. Assuming Vonleh doesn’t have much to contribute as a rookie and Biz hasn’t magically replaced his hands with something other than stone cut-outs of hands, going small would be a way to get Jefferson and Zeller rest without a massive drop-off offensively. Clifford didn’t throw small-ball lineups out there at all last season according to 82games.com. He might have to out of necessity this year.

Kemba Walker

Kemba’s adjustment will be simple, but heavy. He will have to accept even more responsibility initiating the offense. Plays often began with Kemba bringing the ball up on the side of the court. McRoberts would cut to the top of the key to receive a pass, Kemba would cut through and get to his spot, and the offense would begin from there. Zeller will do this some, but he’s not nearly the passer McRoberts is yet. Clifford may choose to use more pick and roll to initiate the offense, taking advantage of Zeller’s speed and athleticism and Vonleh’s shooting ability. But it will likely be Kemba’s job to get the offense going more than he did last season. Ideally, Cho would be able to find a backup point guard with the size to play with Kemba to help alleviate some of that pressure but as presently constituted, it’s all Kemba.

Al Jefferson

Similar to other players, Jefferson will need to be more of a play-maker out of his spots. While his passing has improved over his career and his assist ratio was right in line with other back to the basket centers like Brooke Lopez and Dwight Howard, he still has a tendency to attack double and triple teams on the block. He’s successful far more than one would expect but without McRoberts’s shooting and passing Jefferson will have to assume some of those creator responsibilities by recognizing double teams quicker and moving the ball, even if it doesn’t immediately lead to a basket.

There’s no way around the fact that losing McRoberts is a major blow to the Hornets. He’s a rare player that combines shooting, passing, athleticism, and unselfishness into a productive and essential role player. He can’t be replaced but his responsibilities can be distributed across the remaining pieces. To keep the ball rolling as an organization everyone is going to have to step up and it begins with a clear vision from both Rich Cho and Steve Clifford. Expect a tough start to the season as the players and coach adjust, but with quality leadership from the organization and the players’ ability and willingness to do what is asked of them it should be another successful campaign in Charlotte.