2014 Charlotte Hornets Offseason Preview

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The Bobcats-era wrapped up with an emphatic BANG of a season that saw the team improve by more wins (22) than it won in total the season prior (21). Instead of trotting out a bunch of could-be’s and haven’t-beens to theoretically improve their draft position, Charlotte’s NBA franchise bucked the NBA’s current trend of tanking and revitalized a downtrodden fan-base in turn. Basketball is again something worth talking about in the QC and thanks to Coach Clifford & Company, the excitement won’t just be about a new coat of teal & purple paint.

Still, as fantastic of a season as it was for Charlotte, the first round sweep against the two time defending champs Miami Heat exposed some well-known flaws within the roster. Addressing those flaws while simultaneously building upon the Bobcats’ success will be the front office’s assignment as we head into the inaugural Hornets offseason. Wait, did I just type “building upon success” and “Bobcats” in the same sentence? #NEWWORLDORDER

STEP ONE: A Shooting Guard who can Shoot

I often found myself in the role of Lone Hendo Defender throughout much of the season. Having watched his development over the past five years – from a quarantined rook at the end of Larry Brown’s bench to a quality two-way NBA starting two guard – I was excited to see what Gerald could become on a good team. The answer was a resounding “passable“, a sometimes scoring, sometimes attacking, sometimes lockdown defensive shooting guard whose poor man’s D-Wade game just doesn’t work all that well on a team desperate for long range shooting. Like most of the Bobcats’ opponents this season, Miami smartly packed the paint and crowded Kemba Walker at the point of attack – knowing that the inevitable ball swing to the open shooter wouldn’t hurt them. That’s a problem.

Henderson doesn’t want to shoot off the catch at all – he’ll be wide open and hesitate before taking a bounce or faking a pass only to throw up a clanker out of necessity. His mid-post and iso games were made redundant once Jefferson was added to the mix and Hendo wasn’t able to transition his game over the course of the season to compensate. I like Gerald and think he gets an unnecessary bad rap from the fans but it’s obvious that he’s a bad fit on a Kemba/Big Al centered offense.

The good news for Charlotte is that there are a few options to remedy the issue either in the draft, free agency or via trade. With Portland’s 24th overall selection, the Hornets will likely have a shot at former Tar Heel P.J. Hairston (controversial, high upside), Duke’s Rodney Hood (safe, lower upside) or the UCLA SG prospects Jordan Adams (good mechanics, iffy results) and Zach LaVine (skinny and raw). None of these guys will step in and be instant All-Stars but could provide a nice boost in the limited role of floor-spacer.

Free Agency offers a couple of high priced young vets in Lance Stephenson (combustible, questionable fit) and Gordon Hayward. Hayward is probably the team’s ideal target as a sweet shooting, shot-creating big wing but he’s a restricted free agent that Utah says they want to keep and there’s rumored to be a long line of suitors should the Jazz change their minds.

One cheaper, under the radar alternative might be OKC’s Thabo Sefolosha. While Thabo’s not a shot creator like Lance or Hayward, he’s been a fantastic “three and D” knockdown guy for many years and shouldn’t cost the team more than $4 million or so per season. Although Sefolosha struggled with his stroke this season, he shot 40%+ from downtown in the previous two. Perhaps most importantly, Thabo won’t kill Clifford’s defense while he’s out there.

On the trade front, Charlotte’s has already been linked to Orlando’s Arron Afflalo (42% 3PTFG) via ESPN’s Mark Stein. Afflalo’s nearly thirty and only has one more guaranteed season on his deal – so don’t expect GM Rich Cho to give up much (maybe a couple of 2nd Round Picks) for Arron’s services – but putting Afflalo in teal & purple could provide an immediate upgrade for Charlotte’s distance shooting without having to break the bank short-term.

STEP TWO: #BringBackMcBob, Part II

In an unexpected karmic re-balancing, Josh McRoberts has provided the answer to a long asked QC Hoops question: “What if Boris Diaw gave a damn? Unlike the bovine Segway Surfer, Josh brings maximum effort every game and is beloved by both teammates and fans alike for his abilities as a floor-spacer and distributor. One of the most unique players in the league, McRoberts functions often as the team’s spot-up shooting point guard in the half court, rarely creating for himself. Outside of Kevin Love, there probably isn’t a better fit for Charlotte’s offense with Kemba Walker still progressing as a traditional point and Al Jefferson desperate for floor spacing.

Retaining McRoberts, who will likely opt out of his two-year deal he signed last summer, is of tremendous importance. With an expected cap increase coming for all teams, expect Josh to command around $5-$6 million per season on the open market.

STEP THREE: Backup Point Guard

Ramon Sessions had his flaws: He was guilty of tunnel vision, he wasn’t a reliable three point shooter and he was a less than stellar perimeter defender. But he was light years less destructive for Charlotte than his trade deadline replacement, Luke Ridnour.

While Luke’s abilities as a traditional floor leader came in handy, he proved to a be a fantastically bad shooter (39%FG, 30%3PTFG) who couldn’t draw fouls and was a gi-normous liability on defense. Fans complained when Ramon’s second unit minutes became a constant barrage of head down drives. But at least “Sesh” turned those drives into trips to the line, easy layups or – at worst – short rebounds. Luke’s second units often devolved into hot potato on the perimeter until the shot clock forced a bad three or a Luke giveaway.

Fortunately, both Ridnour’s and Sessions’ deals expire this summer and Ramon has let it be known that he’d like to be back. That would be a-ok with me and it’s likely that some of his former detractors would welcome Sessions back with open arms after having been subjected to Ridnour for a few months.

Charlotte could also hit the trade or free agent markets looking for a fit. If Jameer Nelson gets bought out by Orlando (likely), Clifford would surely love to have him backing up and mentoring his height-challenged PG of the future. Philly’s Tony Wroten has his warts but offers an intriguing combination of size and potential – he likely doesn’t fit into the Sixers’ future plans with Michael Carter-Williams on the roster so could be made available for the right price.

Unrestricted free agent options includes guys like Greivis Vaquez, Rodney Stuckey and Mario Chalmers. Chalmers in particular would be an interesting signing as a spot up shooting, high-end backup whose acquisition would simultaneously weaken a division opponent.

STEP FOUR: Give Big Al a Break

The Bobcats have $6 million committed to the Bismack Biyombo and Brendan Haywood combo next season and neither is an ideal backup for Big Al. Biz is a complete non-factor on offense as well as a turnover machine and Haywood can’t even get on the court, having missed the entire ’13-’14 season with a foot injury.

In an ideal world, the Hornets could find a rebuilding team to take on Biz’s upcoming $3.8 million salary in a straight dump and use the space created either via free agency or trade to bring in a veteran two-way replacement.

One outside-the-box free agent pick is PHX’s Channing Frye – a legit “stretch five” 6’11” guy who can nail threes (37% 3PTFG on 5.3 attempts per game). Bringing Frye in with the second unit could open up the paint for more drive opportunities for guys like Gary Neal and allow MKG an opportunity to work in the post.

Regardless of who they end up with, Charlotte will need to figure out how to get Big Al some rest – he played 35 minutes a night for Clifford this season and is nursing a ruptured plantar fasciitis. Given his age (29) and body type, Jefferson would be better off decreasing his minutes down closer to the 30 per game mark. For that to happen, Cho will need to find a capable backup.

STEP FIVE: Young Guys Doin’ Work

The Hornets can’t solely depend on outside help if they want to get better, their recent Draft picks have to grow as well.

Kemba Walker should spend the entire offseason working on his shot. As much as we love Kemba, 39% from the field just isn’t going to cut it. There were many nights this season where Walker’s 6-18 or 4-16 shooting actively hurt the team.

Conversely, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might want to shy away from rebuilding a fundamentally broken shot and spend more time on developing a post-up game and maybe even add a floater or hook to his repertoire. Those skills could pay instant dividends, especially if the front office can add shooting around him.

Cody Zeller has voiced his concern about adding bulk, saying that it might hamper his speed and leaping ability. Fortunately, it’s 2014 and there are ways to add core, functional strength without bulking up too much. Cody needs to divide his time between strength training and the mid-range jumper all summer.

Jeff Taylor is a complete unknown at this point. He’s nearing 25 years of age and rehabbing a torn achilles. His shot was ok in theory pre-injury but produced horrific results in practice. He seems like a great young guy and we’re hoping for a full recovery for JT down the road but expectations should be kept at a minimum.

STEP SIX: Keep On Keepin’ On

Coach Clifford somehow turned Charlotte into a Top 10 defense in his first season and has said on multiple occasions that he’s just getting started implementing his advanced scheme. Since you can’t add systematic nuance with a complete roster overhaul, expect much of the Hornets core roster to remain the same. Upgrading the shooting guard position, retaining McRoberts, finding suitable backups for Big Al & Kemba and continuing the youngsters’ development internally will only vault the Hornets higher into the Eastern Conference.

Speaking of which, some have questioned if Charlotte has enough core talent on hand to compete for anything beyond a Playoff seed and those people are sort of missing the point. In the modern history of the NBA, no franchise has ever gone from perpetual doormat to champ and perpetual doormat is exactly what the Bobcats were for nearly all of their ten year history.

Michael Jordan, Cho and Clifford are building a culture of competent, competitive basketball. It may lead to legitimate title contention and it may not but for the first time in forever, Charlotte’s hoops franchise is worth the blood, sweat and tears of a fan’s investment. They will play hard, they will play smart and, for the first time in ages, they will make you proud to let the world know where your allegiance lies.

Go Hornets.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

 

“Never Turn Your Back On The Grind”

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The Baseline reached out to trainer and video coordinator Raphael Barlowe, creator of Chris Douglas-Roberts’ web-series “I Am Not a Star”, to uncover more details about CDR’s hard-fought return to the NBA:

BB: The documentary project takes place over a span of years, offering an intimate portrait of CDR’s personal journey back to the NBA. How long have you known CDR and what was your ultimate goal in producing the videos?

RB: I met Chris in November 2012 when he first signed with the Texas Legends of the D-League, so I’ve only been part of his journey back to the NBA for the past 14 months. I’ve always had an interest in the behind the scenes aspect of the lives of NBA players and Chris was the first person I approached about creating a web series. At first he seemed hesitant because he really did not know me and he was not where he wanted to be in his career. A few weeks later he had a 49 point game in his D-League debut and since I was video coordinator for the team, I was the only one who had footage of that game. I edited the video and sent to him and posted the link on Twitter. A few hours later it had around 5,000 views. To my surprise, after he was released by the Mavericks he sent me a text and agreed to shoot the web series. The ultimate goal was to tell his story and also show that he was high character guy off the court. Often people may see pro athletes and tattoos and it gives off a negative stereotype.

BB: In many ways watching a player like CDR’s journey to the league is much more dramatically interesting than, say, an annointed Lottery pick – those stories are rather straight lines, Chris’s path is filled with lots of twists and turns. Did you have any idea that Chris’s story would play out like it did?

RB: Yes. I knew he’d get back to the NBA and I felt like if given the right opportunity he would succeed. The whole web series might have a total different feel to it if he never made it back. I have nothing against playing overseas, but the series was all about his journey back to the NBA.

BB: CDR has been praised by the Bobcats for his maturity. Part of that you illustrate through his humbling experiences on the league’s periphery. The doc also introduces us to a young a family man. How much of CDR’s success do you think is owed to his personal responsibilities as a father?

RB: I think his responsibilities as a father play a huge role in his recent success. Last summer when things were not looking so good he posted a picture of him working out on his Instagram with the caption “If I quit what is Corleone (his son Vito’s nickname) gonna think of me? Anyone who knows Chris knows his kids are his everything. We’d workout until 3am and he’d still get up around 7am to feed his daughter breakfast. 20 years from now, he’ll be able to tell his kids his story about how dedicated he was to his craft and how they benefitted from his hours in the gym.

BB: Bobcats fans and the local media keep asking about Chris’s hair but he explicitly answers the question in episode three: “The universe just took me to this”. (Great quote btw) I feel like this could be an alternate title for the series or maybe the name of the sequel. Do you feel CDR’s quest to be different, to be an individual, has translated to his game in any way?

RB: I think his game has always been different. Even when I did not know him personally and just watched him at Memphis, I noticed he had an unorthodox game w/ the high dribble, floaters from odd angles and he played like a lefty. He was never considered a ‘shooter’ or a great athlete, but he was known as a scorer because he was so crafty. So the hair just fits into his unique individual style that matches his game and how he dresses off the court.

BB: My favorite thing about the series is that it shows us yet again that most non-star pro athletes are just regular dudes with mostly regular lives. Sure, CDR rolls up to a fast food drive thru in an Italian sports car but he also has to take care of crying babies, go buy diapers, take his girl to The Cheesecake Factory, etc. Was this an explicit intention of yours, to show the everyday, banal side of a pro ballers’ life?

RB: Yes. I wanted to show a side of players that nobody sees. Maybe things would be different if he was a mega star like Lebron or Durant and had a max contract with commercials airing all day long. He probably would not be able to go to the store and buy diapers as often as he does. Even to my surprise he lives a very, very normal lifestyle. After games he can be seen loading the kids in the car, going to birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese and watching Yo Gabba Gabba and other kiddie shows on Nickelodeon.

BB: As his trainer, how do you feel about CDR’s vegan diet? He looks noticeably leaner now than a few years ago. Do you think it has helped his game?

I personally so not know much about the vegan diet, but he says he can feel the difference and he’s never tired. He looks as if he can play 48 minutes per night at a high level. I do not know if its the diet or what, but it is working and paying off.

BB: “Never turn your back on the grind” – basically sums up the theme of the entire series. We see Chris struggling to find his way back to the league early on but his faith in “the grind” – it’s like a mantra – eventually manifests it’s way into Chris’s reality with the Bobcats. Is this common philosophy amongst guys trying to get into the league or is this trait special to CDR?

RB: That’s a tough question. I think everyone who’s trying to get in the NBA feels they are grinding and working hard. However, I think what Chris calls “the grind” may be insanity to others. We worked out twice per day for 5 days per week from February through the NBA Summer League. My brother and I kept track of his makes and misses and he’d easily make 200- 250 shots per workout. He’d go home and sit in an ice bucket to prepare for the next midnight session. I’m sure experiencing the NBA lifestyle then going to Europe and D-League added some fuel to his fire, but I do not think you just pick up that type of work ethic along the way. I believe he’s always had a work ethic, he just took it to a totally different level. Even now that he’s back in the league and playing good minutes, he brought me out to Charlotte so we could work on his off days.

BB: My fave moment comes in episode 4 where CDR is watching the insane McRoberts behind the back pass and can’t believe a 6’11 guy could make that play, calling it “magical” – hilarious because it was Chris himself who had to finish the play on the other end. What is your favorite moment in the series?

RB: I would have to say going to Memphis with him was my favorite moment. I knew he was a big deal in Memphis, but I did not know he could run for mayor. LOL. The minute he walked from the hotel to the FedEx forum the fans were all over him. He probably signed a few hundred autographs and took even more pictures. What I did not capture on the episode was we ran into his old AAU coach from Detroit. He gave me insight on Chris’ background and mentioned how proud he was to see Chris where he is today as person, father and basketball player.

BB: It’s been reported that Coach Clifford’s familiarity with CDR is what ultimately landed him in CLT. How did Chris make such an impression on Clifford during last year’s Lakers camp?

RB: I did not know Chris at the time, but I’m assuming Coach Clifford saw the same things Kobe Bryant saw during camp. I remember reading reports about Kobe being impressed with his game. Chris has mentioned he felt he was one of the best players in that camp, but for whatever reasons the Lakers chose to go in a different direction. Fortunately for Chris, Coach Clifford took notice.

BB: CDR has never shot over 32% from three in an NBA season. He’s flirting with 40% with CLT. Three and D guys are valuable in the league. Can he keep this up?

RB: I believe he can stay around the 40% mark. He set a goal to shoot 40% from 3 last summer and he’s very close to achieving it. Lately teams have been closing out hard on him and he’s shooting a lot more contested threes. We go to the gym and put up a couple hundreds 3’s on his off days, so I’d like to think the percentage will increase next season. He made 25 3’s in March compared to only 32 in his previous 4 seasons combined.

BB: Bonus Question. How did you become involved with the Texas Legends? I find it an interesting coincidence that CDR arrived via a team now operated by former Bobcat Eduardo Najera. Also, I have to ask, as a Legends guy what are your thoughts on PJ Hairston’s NBA future?

RB: I joined the Legends in 2010 as an intern. I had to do a lot of the grunt work and odd jobs like drive the team van and wash laundry to earn respect and trust of the staff. I eventually worked my way up to video coordinator and a basketball operations title. I was not as involved this season as I had been in years past, but I’m still involved in a small capacity and the team has given me the freedom to spend time here in Charlotte.

I think PJ has a shot to be a first round pick. He put up good numbers in the D-League and even had some 40 point games. The talent is there and I think where he ends up in the draft will depend how well he handles the interview questions from his Carolina days.

Special thanks to @Barlowe500 for the interview. Watch the entire four part series “I Am Not A Star” here.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz 

Steve Clifford is Coach of the Year

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Greg Popovic is an all-time great. Tom Thibodeau is a genius. Jeff Hornacek has done a masterful job. But Steve Clifford is NBA Coach of the Year.

I went back the 1988-89 Season – the first year of the NBA’s late-century expansion boom (Hornets, Heat, T-Wolves, Magic, Raps, Grizz) – looking for a very simple set of criteria:

  1. LONG TERM TURRIBLE-NESS.  A team that had won less than 25 games for at least two consecutive seasons…
  2. REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Then finished .500 or better in the following season.

The ’95-’96 Spurs won 59 games, bottomed out for a year, won the Duncan Lottery and won 56 games in ’97-’98. Not exactly a lame duck franchise. The ’05-’06 Celtics won 33 games, 24 games in ’06-’07 then traded for Hall of Famer Garnett and won the title a year later. Big turnaround but 57 wins over the previous two seasons hardly made them a bottom feeder. My goal was to find a putrid, stinking embarrassment of a team – that somehow managed to make the leap to respectability overnight.

Short answer: Outside of Steve Clifford’s Bobcats, it’s only happened one other time in the past 26 NBA seasons. A few others have come close.

The Runners Up:

’93-’96 Washington Bullets
Three Season Win Totals:
24, 21, 39
Notes: Webber, ‘Sheed and Juwan made them respectable but couldn’t quite get the Washington Professional Basketball Franchise over the .500 hump.

’97-’00 Toronto Raptors
Three Season Win Totals: 16, 23*, 45
Notes: Nearly had it but the Vinsanity-led squad are disqualified due to the 50-game strike shortened ’98-’99 season. Raps went 23-27 in Year Two, nearly .500. Hardly a bad team.

’00-’03 Golden State Warriors
Three Season Win Totals: 
17, 21, 38
Notes: Much like the ’95-’96 Bullets, the Jamison, J-RICH and Arenas led Dubs couldn’t quite get Golden State above .500.

’10-’13 New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets
Three Season Win Totals: 24, 22*, 49
Three Season SRS: -6.28, -6.37, +1.25
Notes: I’m including the Simple Rating System (point differential) here because of how close the Nets came to qualifying. While a 7.62 SRS swing is a hell of an improvement year on year, the strike shortened 66 game season in Year Two has the Nets 22 win total equivalent to a little over 27 wins in a normal season. The Nets were bad but not quite bad enough.

The Biggest Franchise Turnarounds of the Past 26 Years

’07-’10 Seattle Supersonics/OKC Thunder
Three Season Win Totals: 20, 23, 50
Three Season SRS: -8.04, -6.03, +3.55 SRS
Notes: Doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out. Thunder management went on a Draft frenzy that nabbed the franchise Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. By the time Serge and The Beard arrived, the other two were ready to win. The organization saw a 27 game improvement in the standings and a 9.58 swing in SRS. And you wonder why “the Thunder model” has taken the league by storm.

’11-’14 Charlotte Bobcats
Three Season Win Totals: 7, 21, 41**?
Three Season SRS: -13.96, -9.29, -.3**
Notes:  The Bobcats improved 20+ games in the standings and achieved a near nine point SRS swing (9.02 as of today). Oddly enough they achieved this with much the same roster that finished the previous 21 win season and with not a single superstar or even All-Star on the roster.

Tremendous Challenge, Tremendous Results

Yes, the bottom of the East has been weak. And yes, Al Jefferson was a key difference maker and should’ve been an All-Star but the team’s other four starters, Kemba Walker, MKG, Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts, were starting for Mike Dunlap’s 21 win team a season ago. Gary Neal certainly isn’t adding double digit wins on his own. And while the youngsters have improved, you’d be hard-pressed to find those improvements reflected in places like individual PER or old-school stat columns.

The key difference here is Steve Clifford. His defensive strategy has been fantastic. His professionalism and attention to detail has been fantastic. Given where this team has been for most of their ten years of existence – an absolute laughingstock – Clifford had the steepest mountain to climb, the league’s most difficult challenge. Not only did he succeed, his success produced one of the greatest NBA turnarounds of the past quarter century.

If you have a Coach of the Year ballot, vote Steve Clifford.

 -ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

**Charlotte has three games remaining and we’ll continue to update the team’s win/SRS numbers until the end of the season. 

Bargain Bin Ballers

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Common knowledge says that NBA teams, especially small market teams, must build through the Draft if they have any hope at achieving relevance. While it is true that the Lottery offers organizations the best chance at finding impact players, it’s also true – as Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony have recently discovered – that it takes more than a single impact player to win in the NBA.

The Bobcats are on the verge of both a .500 season and a Playoff berth with a hefty chunk of their rotation made up of guys from the opposite end of Draft Day’s glitz and glamour. Castoffs. Street free agents and end of the bench veterans left for dead by their former clubs. Ironically, this dynamic makes Charlotte less Oklahoma City – a team which the Bobcats have explicitly said they’re emulating – and more San Antonio. The Spurs decade and a half dominance of the league has just as much to do with finding guys off the league value rack and plugging them into a system as it does with winning the Tim Duncan Lottery.

Spurs Bargain Bin Hall of Famers: Bruce Bowen, Mario Elie, Danny Green, Malik Rose, Francisco Elson, Marco Bellinelli, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw…

The confidence gained from consistently uncovering low-cost, hidden gems has emboldened the Spurs front office to gamble on uncertain talent in the Draft: Tiago Splitter was stuck in Europe for a few seasons. Kawhi Leonard couldn’t shoot. Tony Parker was a long term project and it was no sure thing Manu Ginobili’s game would translate to the NBA. None of this stuff mattered to San Antonio’s immediate future. They knew high level temps were just around the corner.

Bargain Bin Ballers aren’t going to be the centerpiece of any contender but they do fill in the gaps and give a team’s stars occasional breaks during the regular season. And if enough of a team’s periphery catch fire at the right time – as Dallas fans witnessed in 2011 – they could swing a title. Best of all, these types of players provide tremendous value in terms of contract/performance and most importantly don’t require a franchise to waste precious first round picks on filling out a roster. The Draft is where you go to find stars (which is why drafting for need in the NBA should be considered a cardinal sin) - the bargain bin is where you go to fill in the gaps.

Charlotte’s Bargain Ballers

Josh McRoberts
Salary: $2,652,000
Acquired: via Trade, February ’13.

“Don’t Call Me McBob” arrived via trade last February for virtually no cost and just a year later is beloved by both teammates and fans as a key facilitator on offense and a hustler on D. Josh’s unique skill-set (his 4.2 assists per game are second most amongst power forwards) allows Kemba Walker to play off the ball as a scorer and McRoberts is just good enough from three (36%) to open a little more breathing room for Al Jefferson to operate down low.

Future: McRoberts has a player option next season at $2.7 million which he’ll opt out of. If Charlotte offers him a fair deal, he could likely return next season. Two years, $10m or three years $15m, sounds about right. Cody Zeller may take over the starting job eventually but McRoberts is still a fine rotation big at that number.

Anthony Tolliver
Salary: $884,293
Acquired: Street Free Agent, August ’13.

Tolliver’s shot has been missing in action for most of the last month but there was a stretch from December thru February where AT was absolute money from downtown (44%+ 3PT), at one point ranking in the league’s Top 5 3PT shooters. His defensive shortcomings are well known but he’s played ok as a system defender in Charlotte – Tolliver’s on/off court defensive numbers are basically dead even.

Future: The front office brought Tolliver in before camp at Steve Clifford’s request for more floor spacers. Since then the Cats have added a couple guys who can do that and more. AT’s deal expires in July and it’s a tossup on whether he returns next season as a Hornet.

Chris Douglas-Roberts
Salary: $535,288
Acquired: Street Free Agent, December ’13.

CDR is this season’s McRoberts. A slashing, tough defending and surprisingly sweet shooting (40% 3PT) wing, Douglas-Roberts has revitalized his NBA career on a team that didn’t have a reliable two-way SF before he arrived. And really, could the Cats have asked for a better intermediate sub/mentor for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Not only are they somewhat similar players, but the two actually have long history going back to MKG’s middle school days in Jersey. CDR’s work ethic and humble demeanor (he’d been struggling just to get back into the league) fit right in the with the team’s “Grit and Grind East” ethos.

Future: The big question is if CDR’s three point shooting will hold up. From 2008-2010, Douglas-Roberts had never shot higher than 32% from downtown – and rarely even attempted them. The Cats could offer him a “show-me” contract similar to the one signed by McRoberts last summer – something like 2yrs, $4m with a player option for year two. If CDR proves the stroke to be no fluke, Charlotte may have found itself their own Bruce Bowen.

Gary Neal
Salary: $3,250,000
Acquired: via Trade, February ’14.

Neal is a classic all or nothing guy. If he gets hot, Gary can single-handily swing a game your way – just as he did for the Spurs in the NBA Finals last year. He’s both a solid deep shooter (39% 3PT) and a creative off the dribble player. He gets lost on screens a lot and is an overall liability on D but there’s a reason San Antonio had him on the roster for three seasons. On a team that often finds itself desperate for points, Neal’s scoring is a major plus.

Future: Gary signed a two year contract with Milwaukee last summer before being traded. He’s on the books next year for the same salary – a relative bargain. Unless he gets dealt again, Neal will rock the teal and purple next season.

Ultimately, the success of Bargain Bin Ballers can be traced to the Bobcats’ new found culture and coaching system. Put this same group of guys on the Kings or Pistons and it’s unlikely that they’d replicate their success - highlighting yet another hidden bonus of finding the right coach and a key reason why I think we’ll see coaching take a higher priority over the next few seasons in the league. A trend the Hornets are thankfully already out in front of.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

What To Do With Biz?

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Picked seventh overall in the 2011 Draft, Bismack Biyombo entered the league with high expectations. As the championed prospect of former OKC exec and current Cats GM Rich Cho, “Biz” (founder of #biznation, brother to Billy) was immediately compared to another shot-swatter from the Congo, Serge Ibaka.

Three years later, Biyombo has certainly lived up to the comparison from a shot-blocking standpoint. His per 48 block numbers trail just behind Serge and he’s the only player in the league to average at least a swat per game while playing less than 15 minutes a night. It’s a near guarantee Biz would rank amongst the league’s Top 5 shot-blockers if he were playing starters minutes.

More impressive is Biyombo’s rebounding. In just 14.3 minutes per game, Biz is averaging 4.9 boards. That’s Kenneth Faried-level insane. Biyombo’s rebound rate of 19.3 blows away anything Ibaka’s ever posted. Again, if Biz were starting, he’d likely be averaging double figure rebounds and crack the league’s Top 10.

The problem, of course, is at the other end. While Serge has moved his gorgeous jumper further and further out to the three point line, Biz still has trouble finishing anything outside of a dunkthat is if he hasn’t fumbled the ball first. Despite extremely limited touches on offense, Biyombo’s turnover rate is twice as high as Ibaka’s and nearly three times the rate of Josh McRoberts – a guy who’s constantly handling the rock. When it comes to protecting the basketball, Biz is less Ibaka and more Kendrick Perkins.

Turnovers are a major no-no for coach Steve Clifford so it’s no wonder the staff was looking forward to Brendan Haywood’s eventual return. While Haywood isn’t nearly the shot swatter Biyombo is, he’s also not going to give the ball away immediately after touching it and offers just enough post scoring so that the team doesn’t have to entirely change the way it plays when Big Al goes to the bench. He’s also a better system defender than Biz – just check out last years defensive on/off court numbers – Mike Dunlap’s Bobcats gave up ten points per game less when Haywood subbed in for Biyombo.

The size of the gap is probably an aberration given the coaching misadventures and Biz’s youth but there is a very real story buried in those numbers. Clifford’s gushing comments about Haywood’s past exploits last summer weren’t lip service. Had he been healthy this season, it’s likely Brendan would’ve taken Biz’s spot in the rotation.

Points at a Premium

If you haven’t heard, the Bobcats have a hard time scoring. They’ve played better at that end since the All-Star break but against a good D, the late game offense generally devolves into a triple teamed Al Jefferson with Kemba Walker left to improvise. In order to stay in close games, Clifford relegates Biz’s fellow one-dimensional phenom, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to the bench in favor of a good to league average three point shooter (Anthony Tolliver, Gary Neal or Chris Douglas-Roberts) just to keep the opposing wing defenders honest. MKG can at least catch a ball and do a few things with it once he has it – so if he’s sitting, you know Biyombo’s not sniffing crunch time.

All of which brings us to the premise of the post. Despite the strides Biyombo has made over the last few seasons, there’s essentially zero chance that he’s in their long term plans for the following three reasons:

1. Al Jefferson. Big Al’s the most talented player in franchise history and has at least 4-5 solid seasons left in him. Thus, the starting center spot is occupied for the foreseeable future and you can’t play Al & Biz together. Next.

2. MKG. Unless you like watching 3 on 5 hoops or want to lose a ton of games on purpose, you absolutely can’t play MKG and Biz together in the same lineup. Since Big Al’s return from an early season ankle injury, MKG and Biz have barely logged any minutes together. Clifford’s no fool. If the Cats keep either long term, it’ll be MKG.

3. Money. Two off-the-court comps for Biz: Derrick Williams and Evan Turner. As a high Lottery pick, Biz is due $3.8 million next season and after that, the team would have to extend a $5.2 million qualifying offer as the first step towards restricted free agency. So yeah, it’s not gonna happen. Just as Williams’ and Turner’s contracts spooked their respective teams into abandoning them this season, Biyombo’s looming free agency and disproportionate cap hold will likely jettison him to another team as soon as a decent opportunity presents itself.

Open for Biz-ness

So where exactly would that opportunity be? The team acquiring Biz would ideally be both offensively advanced and in desperate need of a rim protector who doesn’t have to score. Dallas, Portland and Golden State immediately come to mind as potential candidates. Unfortunately the Warriors have serious cap issues and another raw center (Festus Ezeli) returning from injury next season. The Blazers practically have a stable of developing young could-be bigs at the end of their bench. But Dallas…oh yes, Dallas. I think we might have a match!

Consider first Mark Cuban’s penchant for aggressively raw big men with over-sized contracts (Erik Dampier, Gana Diop, Haywood, Tyson Chandler). Now combine that with an offense practically tailored for Biz: the league’s all-time greatest stretch four and a couple of pick and roll instigators in the backcourt:

“Nah Biz, just set this pick and get the hell out of the way. We’ll take care of the rest.”

The Mavs are practically starting Old Biz now, with veteran Sam Dalembert occupying much the same role. Biyombo’s directive would be clear and simple: Get rebounds, dunk putbacks and block shots. Sure, he’ll still have to improve his hands and figure out how to not foul out of games before halftime but once he does, Big D could be Biz’s ticket to a big payday.

So what would Charlotte receive in a Biyombo to Dallas trade? The Mavs don’t have a first round pick to trade until after the Draft (when they’ll likely send it to OKC) – and no one in their right mind would pay that high a price anyways. What Dallas does have is Boston’s 2014 2nd Round pick. As of today, that’s the 34th overall selection in the Draft and with a deep class on the way, Charlotte could find an intriguing guy who slips (Isaiah Austin, James Young, Mitch McGary) or a Euro “draft & stash” prospect for the future. Best of all, the Hornets would save around $3.2 million in the deal – giving them the ability to find a two-way veteran backup on the cheap (ala Golden State with Jermaine O’Neal).

And really, from an “asset” perspective the trade would basically be a wash. Remember that Cho originally traded up from 19th in order to pick Biyombo at seven for basically no cost (unless you count an angry Stephen Jackson as an asset). Swapping a late first for the 34th pick in a deeper draft a few years later is hardly the worst thing that’s ever happened to the franchise – and the real mistake of course was passing on Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Nic Vucevic on Draft night back in 2011.

In the meantime, let us enjoy our remaining time with Biz, soaking in his incomparable likability, his endlessly entertaining tweets and his tenacious effort each and every time he steps on the court. After all…

ALL YOUR BLOCKS BELONG TO BIZ!

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

 

The Mastermind

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How Rich Cho Rescued the Bobcats from Salary Cap Hell

The Carolina Panthers’ offseason of pain – fueled by a half decade’s worth of cap mis-management – reminded me of just how great a job Bobcats general manager Rich Cho has done in cleaning up the Bobcats’ books. Though Cho has struggled somewhat in the Draft, the guy is an undeniable Salary Cap Genius. And when I say undeniable, I mean UNDENIABLE. Have a look at the Bobcats salary chart as of July of 2010, the summer before Cho arrived (click for a larger image):

Bobcats Salary Cap Chart 1

The miserable story behind these numbers is another post for another day. For now let’s just fast forward to July 2014:

Look at those gorgeous books! It took the team four long and mostly gruesome seasons but they finally did it. Gone are the days of the Gana Diop mid-level monstrosities and the Eduardo Najera “14th Men for $5 million” deals. Gone are the five year, $40 million contracts for perpetually enigmatic weirdos (T-Time). Outside of maybe the relatively minuscule miscues of Brendan Haywood and Bismack Biyombo (slightly overpaid $3.8 million), there isn’t a bad contract on the roster.

Whereas Larry Brown and Rod Higgins would’ve traded for over-priced role players in years past, Cho instead scoops up under-valued guys on the NBA’s fringe. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Anthony Tolliver were barely in the league last season and Charlotte’s paying them a combined $1.4 million to be key rotation players on a Playoff team. I’ll take that over $18 million of Gana Diop any day.

Check out these cap beauties:

  • The team’s three key upcoming free agents, Kemba Walker (2015), MKG (2016) and Cody Zeller (2017) are all on restricted rookie scale deals so they won’t be going anywhere unless the team wants them to. Added bonus: Unlike many past Cats’ draft picks, all three are solid prospects worth re-signing.
  • The team’s highest paid guys, Henderson and Big Al, are playing above their salary numbers.
  • The team’s 6th man, Gary Neal, makes just north of $3 million – or about a million less than the Cats were paying Matt Carroll to guard the Gatorade just four years ago.
  • In 2010, Charlotte paid Tyrus Thomas, Diop and Nazr Mohammed a combined $20 million to do whatever it was that they did. Next season the Hornets will pay the same amount for the collective services of Henderson, Kemba, MKG, Cody and Neal.

The team’s strategy has been simple: 1.) invest in cheap rookie contracts, 2.) dump attractive assets on long-term deals for picks and expirings, 3.) don’t sign free agents above market value (especially your own) and, finally, 4.) let father time take care of the rest.

Breaking the third rule is what got the Panthers into their current mess and what ultimately led to the Bobcats cap problems back in 2010. Charlotte bid against itself when the Cats re-signed Emeka Okafor in ’08 and the enormous contract ultimately led to them dumping Tyson Chandler for nothing two seasons later. By contrast, Cho strong-armed Henderson’s agent last summer – fully aware that as a restricted free agent, Gerald had little leverage in the negotiations. Presto! Hendo signed to a very reasonable three year deal.

Cho’s management of the cap has given Charlotte a tremendous amount of flexibility going forward. If Josh McRoberts opts out of his player option this summer (basically a given) and the Cats renounce his rights, they’ll be able to throw up to $12 million at a key free agent or absorb one via trade. If, for instance, the Wolves make Kevin Love available, Charlotte has the juice to trade Minnesota a prospect (Cody), a lottery pick (Detroit’s) AND cap space. That’s a Godfather offer difficult to trump.

Of course, there’s probably a better chance that neither K-Love, Luol Deng, Gordon Hayward or any other marquee free agent or disgrunteld vet make their way to the QC. In that case, Charlotte’s still fine. They can #BringBackMcBob on a front-loaded deal and save a little cash once Kemba’s extension kicks in the following summer. They could use the rest of their cap space to sign a decent backup PG to a short-term contract (the return of Ramon Sessions?) and bring back at least one of the Tolliver/CDR duo for wing/frontcourt depth.

Should that scenario play out, the Hornets could enter into next season as a Playoff team with upside AND tidy books:

A few notes on the chart:

  • I’m budgeting a three year, $15 million deal for McRoberts. He’ll turn just 29 during the contract’s final year, the timing of which coincides with Cody’s eventual extension.
  • Ramon would probably like a little more long-term security but it’s reasonable to think he’d take $4 million to play close to home with his old pals.
  • For Kemba’s extension, I just copied and pasted Ty Lawson’s contract – though I think there’s a chance Walker doesn’t get quite that much cash. Maybe 90%-95% of what Ty got. Still, it’s a decent comp going forward.
  • It’ll be very interesting to see what Cho does with his three first round picks over the next two Drafts. Should the team uncover a diamond in the mid to late round – say a TJ Warren or a Kyle Anderson – it would only improve their rosy cap situation going forward.

In summary: We may question the selection of Biz in the Lottery. We may ponder what Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard or Andre Drummond would’ve looked like in teal & purple. But when it comes to mastering the salary cap and wrangling the teams’ once wild books, Rich Cho has proven infallible.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, MKG. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT

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MKG sketch by Mike S.

Whenever Michael Kidd-Gilchrist launches one his patented twenty-foot airballs, I’m confronted with three stages of conflicting emotion:

  1. Laughter – as in, “OMFG what did I just see“.
  2. Anger – as in, “This is unacceptable, he’s killing us“.
  3. Sadness – as in, “I feel really bad for this kid“.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that MKG and his selection as the number two overall pick in the 2012 Draft is to me what the James Harden trade is to Bill Simmons. I wrote before the Draft that MKG was a questionable fit on a team both bereft of scoring and saddled with an ugly history of developing projects. Charlotte had just used the seventh overall pick a year before on the one-way, uber-raw defensive prospect Bismack Biyombo. The chances of Charlotte successfully developing and playing them together for any long stretches were next to nil, especially if they were actually trying to win games.

The Bobcats weren’t trying to win at all during their infamous 2011-2012 campaign, a strike-shortened season that led to the league’s all-time worst record. To call it miserable would be an affront to misery. The roster was made so purposefully threadbare that they succeeded in losing their final 23 games – the business end of a 3-34 run.

This was all part of general manager Rich Cho’s plan. You see, the league incentivizes rebuilding teams to be as bad as possible in order to secure the highest draft picks. That’s where all the stars are, if you haven’t heard – at the top of the Draft.

The 2012 Draft had one guaranteed franchise player in Anthony Davis and Cho reasoned that subjecting an already fragile, tortured fan-base to another major dose of embarrassment was worth a 25% shot at getting him.

To the surprise of exactly no one, Charlotte didn’t win that May’s Lottery and instead wound up picking second overall. In fact, the league’s worst team had won the Lottery just three times in 22 years. The look on Cho’s face during the broadcast had me worried: “a guy with both an engineering and law degree, who prioritizes advanced stats above all else — THAT GUY was suprised that his 75% chance of NOT WINNING THE LOTTERY happened?

Instead of rewarding a desperate fanbase with a ready-made star in Davis, the front office settled for his Kentucky teammate MKG instead. HE would be the franchise’s reward for the epic losing. HE would be the future star to push this team into the stratosphere. HE would shoulder the massive expectations…

MKG is by EVERY ACCOUNT an awesome, likable young man. His work ethic and attitude are off the charts and he NEVER takes plays off. Every team needs a guy like that. From the portion of his bio that has been made public, MKG has courageously overcome many obstacles in order to become an NBA player. Notably, he’s struggled with a speech impediment which can be petrifying to those who do not live their lives in the public eye. On the court, MKG is a long, rangy defender who occasionally flashes his potential as a top-tier permiter defender – a valuable skill.

MKG is also an absolute disaster on offense. His shot requires a page one rewrite (if that’s even possible) and he doesn’t have an explosive first step or a refined post-up game – so there’s nothing he can consistently resort to while he’s reworking the jumper. While his on-ball defense can sometimes be superb, he fouls early and often and gets lost on screens like he was Gary Neal, not Tony Allen. And because of his offensive liabilities, MKG is unplayable at the end of games especially when the team is down.

Wanna guess how many times he’s played over 35 minutes in a game this season? Once. One time. Turns out that you can’t lock guys down when you’re sitting on the pine. In other words, MKG is a long-term project. An intriguing one that any team would love to have sitting at the end of its bench or hustling in the D-League, honing his craft.

MKG is also a world-class, terrible Number Two Overall pick – especially given the Bobcats’ circumstances at the time. Leading up to the Draft, Cho didn’t go a day without bringing up his Durant/Westbrook/Harden days in OKC: ready-made Lottery saviors with telegenic personalities who revitalized a fanbase and set fire to the league. MKG, with his raw blue-collar game and camera-shy ways couldn’t have been any different.

Leading up to the 2012 Draft, there were whispers that MKG’s people were hoping he would not go to Charlotte at number two. They knew how much work his game would require and how patient a franchise would need to be. They knew he’d need to be surrounded by big time scorers who could carry the offensive load while MKG did all the dirty work and learned on the job via a strong internal development staff. Basically, the opposite of the team he ended up going to.

Some fans have suggested that we “forget where MKG was picked and evaluate him with fresh eyes“. While a noble gesture, it’s not exactly practical. MKG’s $4.8 million salary this season is nearly as much as Josh McRoberts and Kemba Walker combined. He’s owed $5 million next season and $6.3 million the following. His cap hold will be somewhere north of $9 million once his rookie contract ends in July of 2016. In other words, MKG is making real NBA money. His 26 minutes of play every night are minutes that the team cannot dedicate to other, more polished and productive two-way NBA players.

My biggest concern is with MKG himself. Again, he comes off as a forthright and genuine young man. Heck, he even called up his college coach before the Draft and asked him if he was truly ready for the NBA. It’s a near certainty that he feels bad for not being able to help his team more as they push for a Playoff spot. So if I may, allow me to channel my inner Frank Underwood, turn towards the camera and address MKG directly:

MY PERSONAL MESSAGE TO MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST

It’s not your fault, MKG. It’s not your fault.

Bobcats management put you in a position that did you no favors. Any resentment or impatience that you receive from the fans (this writer included) is aimed squarely at them, not at you. Imagine if Gerald Wallace had been drafted as a Top 3 overall pick? The words “failure” and “bust” would’ve haunted that guy until he was scared out of the league. Don’t let that happen to you. Realize what is really going on and rise above it.

If guys like Crash and Lance Stephenson can do it, so can you. It will take time and it might take a change of scenery but you are a legitimate NBA player who will one day excel despite the challenging circumstances in which you’ve arrived. I’m certain of it. From the little I’ve read about how you got here, overcoming obstacles is without doubt one of your skills that is NBA-ready.

- ASChin
@BaselineBuzz