Are the Bobcats a Playoff Team?

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Bobcats Illustration by Mike S.

Last season we saw an aging and aching Boston squad hobble into the post-season as a 41-win seventh seed while the oddball mix of young talent in Milwaukee did just enough things right to default into the eight spot. With both of these franchises taking a clear step back this summer, which 2013 Lotto teams will rise up to take their place in the Eastern Conference Playoffs?

SEEDS 1-4 | The Locks – Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Nets

Miami are the champs and didn’t get appreciably worse. Indy pushed the Heat to seven games and that was before massively upgrading their bench. Chicago gets their former MVP back. Brooklyn added two Hall of Famers to a roster that already looked like the Casual Fan All-Star team. Chisel these four into your 2014 Eastern Conference bracket.

SEEDS 5-6 | One Catastrophe Away – Knicks, Hawks

If Carmelo Anthony or Tyson Chandler miss any major amount of time, the Knicks are toast. Same goes for Atlanta if either Al Horford or Jeff Teague go down. Barring disaster however, both of these rosters are strong enough to secure a playoff spot in the East.

SEEDS 7-8 | The Best of the Rest – Pistons, Wiz

The last two Eastern Conference Playoff Spots are theirs to lose: Detroit just dropped all that Corey Maggette cap money on Josh Smith, then upgraded Brandons (Knight to Jennings) – they seem hell-bent on forcing that Top 8 protected pick they owe Charlotte out of the Lottery. The Wizards were 24-25 when John Wall played last year and are banking on their max-man to finally stay healthy (though he’s never played more than 69 games in a season).

THE ALTERNATES | If Everything Goes Right – Cavs, Raptors, Bobcats

I’m assuming the Celtics are all in on The Wiggins Lottery and that Milwaukee’s ever increasing oddball roster won’t have enough offensive firepower to stay in close games (although the young defenders along the frontline are very intriguing). That leaves us with…

Toronto. Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan are talented, high-usage scorers but will need to establish a pecking order and get others involved. Summer League MVP Jonas Valanciunas could be a beast in the middle and last year’s Lotto Pick Terrence Ross could morph into Klay Thompson East. The Raps notched 34 victories last season despite having to incorporate Gay on the fly. They’re the most likely candidate to jump into the eight seed should one of the above franchises stumble.

Cleveland wants to put the post-Lebron Lottery days behind them but the Cavs only won three more games than the Bobcats last season – astounding when you factor in Charlotte’s paper-thin front court and coaching problems – and the jump from 24 to 40 wins is rarely made without adding a superstar. If the ramshackle center duo of Anderson Varajao and Andrew Bynum can’t synchronize their annual injured reserve stints, Cleveland will struggle to reach the post-season

Finally, we have our beloved Proto-Hornets in Charlotte. Coming off a tremendous offseason that saw the team massively upgrade their coaching staff and front-court, Kemba & The Gang will likely surprise many by actually competing on a nightly basis. The addition of Al Jefferson will aid in Walker’s transition from dynamic scorer to dynamic point guard. Jefferson and Cody Zeller’s inside/out abilities will free up driving lanes for the still 19-year old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Both the coaches and reserves on the Bobcat bench are the strongest in franchise history. These are all signs for optimism should everything come together.

Unfortunately, the interior defense is a major question mark and the Cats’ two strongest defenders (MKG, Bismack Biyombo) are liabilities on the other side of the ball. Also, the bulk of the team’s core is still incredibly young and inexperienced.

Given the talent parity in the East’s muddy middle, it’s unlikely Charlotte will make the post-season jump this season – but that’s probably not the team’s plan anyway. A successful 30-34 win campaign combined with at least two (potentially three) 2014 first round picks, $10-$12 million in cap space and another year of growth under a legit coaching staff should be more than enough fuel to launch the ’14-’15 Charlotte Hornets into the Playoffs and keep them there for a while. UNLESS…

A ‘James Harden Scenario’ Appears

If Charlotte shocks everyone by playing .500 or so ball by the All-Star break and a disgruntled All-Star becomes available (Lamarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, ???), the Cats have enough in the war chest to out-bid anyone. Large expiring contract? Check. Enticing 2014 First Round Picks? Check. Young prospects on cheap rookie deals with some upside? Check. In this kind of James Harden scenario, Charlotte could certainly separate themselves from the middle of the pack ahead of schedule and find themselves playing meaningful games next April.

-ASChin
@BobcatsBaseline

 


POLL : Will The Bobcats Make The Playoffs?

  • Yes, Easily (14%, 37 Votes)
  • Just Barely Get In (29%, 78 Votes)
  • Close, But No Cigar (29%, 79 Votes)
  • No Way (16%, 42 Votes)
  • Hope Not (12%, 32 Votes)

Total Voters: 268

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The Demarcus Debate

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Demarcus Cousins Illustration by Mike S

Baseliners A.S. Chin and Ben Weinrib discuss the PROS and CONS of betting the franchise on Boogie Cousins.

BEN: It’s that time of the year again. We’re approaching the NBA Draft, which means rumors are starting to fly about which troubled young stars might be on the move. Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins’ name has been popping up a lot lately, although there have been just as many reports saying the Kings don’t want to move him. But trade talk is fun, so let’s continue with the hypotheticals!

The Bobcats’ package for Boogie (wow, what a nickname) would certainly be centered around the #4 pick in the draft. With four first-round picks in the next two years, Charlotte has the chips to get a trade done, but the Kings’ asking price is surely going to be steep. At what point is GM Rich Cho giving up too much for the moody free agent-to-be?

ASCHIN: Don’t believe the reverse-hype. If there’s an offer out there good enough, Sacramento will make the move. The Kings organization is starting over from the top down (owner, GM, coach) and would certainly welcome the opportunity to shed Boogie and his antics for the right price. I’m guessing a combination of this year’s #4 pick, Bismack Biyombo and the future Top 14 protected Portland pick is the MINIMUM it will take to get the deal done pre-Draft.

BEN: I’ll start by saying this: I am a HUGE DeMarcus Cousins fan. It’s almost creepy how much I like him. But the money is a bit concerning. He has one year left before he will assuredly get a max contract, which means he will cost $63.3 million over five years. That’s pretty fair value for a guy who averages 18 and 10, but the #4 pick gives tremendous value. Drafting a big man (Anthony Bennett or Alex Len) will only cost $16.8 million over four years. That comes down to $4.2 million for the draft pick and about $12.6 million for Cousins. Bennett or Len may eventually put up similar numbers and they’ll cost one third as much. Using some advanced math–bare with me here–that gives Charlotte $8.4 million extra to spend. There’s a lot a team can do with that extra money. They could sign a Charlie Villanueva, their own John Salmons, or even a Metta World Peace! That’s not even considering they’d be giving up essentially two more first-rounders. Isn’t there something to be said about financial flexibility?

ASCHIN: First off, how dare you neglect to mention everyone’s favorite $8 million man, Tyrus Thomas. Second, I’m having an extremely difficult time recalling anybody in that “above-mid-level-sub-max” range worth the money. Thanks to the past couple of CBAs, the league has been further stratified into the haves and have-nots. Today’s ideal cap situation consists of two to three “stars” making near max money, a couple of mid-level guys and a bunch of rookies and veterans on minimum deals. Demarcus has a chance to blossom into an elite center thanks to his ability to operate in the high and low post (see Duncan, the Gasols, Bosh) and as of right now, he’s probably the best chance Charlotte has at acquiring a star because A.) the team’s hasn’t exactly perfected the art of Drafting and B.) Free Agent stars won’t come to Charlotte without other stars or potential stars on the roster (see David West in Indy). So in my mind, you have to make the bold trade and hope Cousins’ mental problems don’t get in the way of him reaching his potential – price be damned!

BEN: I think you’re starting to convince me, but I still think there’s an issue about the value of the assets. Let’s assume the trade would be Boogie for the #4 pick, Biyombo, and the Portland pick. Houston is rumored to be looking to auction off Thomas Robinson for a future first round pick, so they can fit Dwight Howard under the cap. Charlotte could land a player they nearly took last year on the cheap for that very same Portland pick they would be using to land Cousins. Isn’t the #4 pick, Biyombo, Robinson, and financial flexibility more valuable than Cousins? I understand the need for a star, but just because landing Cousins might be a sound trade doesn’t mean there aren’t better moves out there.

ASCHIN: I don’t think these options are mutually exclusive. It took Houston a couple of years to accumulate its chest of assets – expiring contracts, draft picks and prospects – in order to cash out when a big time prospect became available. Now that the Rockets have James Harden secured as a major building block, they’ll need to reconfigure their cap in order to sign their second star, Dwight Howard (or Chris Paul), this summer. I’m sure that Daryl Morey would love a mid to late round first round pick for Robinson but I think he realizes that in today’s NBA, having a team both absorb $4m+ in annual payroll AND give up a precious first rounder might be asking a little much. I’d bet that T-Rob could be had for as little as a high second rounder – but only for a team under the cap.

Meanwhile, by trading for Boogie this summer, Charlotte basically Xeroxes the Morey playbook, cashing in their assets for a young star (Harden/Cousins), using their cap space to bring in another young frontcourt prospect (Asik/Robinson) and then go into next summer with enough financial flexibility and picks to lure another star should one become available.

Also, thanks again for pitching me all these softballs. I mean, you haven’t even brought up the fact that I’m having Cho spend half his war chest on a (potentially) insane person.

BEN: That’s the thing: I still really really like Cousins. And as crazy as he may be, we’ve seen that crazy can be channeled into results by looking 600 miles west to Memphis and Zach Randolph. But is Cousins really the franchise player Harden is? I think he’d be a great second banana, but they still need a number one type player, and he’s much more volatile than The Beard. Kemba has the ceiling of a number three or two player, and MKG could end up being a number two as well. Could they get that top guy through the draft still? I don’t think they’d still be in the running for Wiggins et all if they have Boogie, Kemba, and MKG. I somehow doubt players will want to come play for the Hornets in free agency, since this city doesn’t have the tax-free allure of Houston, and there wouldn’t be many trade assets left after this deal. Like you said a GM’s job is extremely tough, but do you really want to build your team around a taller Zach Randolph?

ASCHIN: Just for the record, Ben was supposed to be taking the “CON” position on Boogie. Hell, maybe Cousins is such a great prospect that the immaturity and high cost of acquisition can be overlooked. To further your points: I agree that Boogie is probably a second banana. Kemba looks like a solid number three. MKG’s a good glue guy and potentially much more. This is approximately the type of nucleus Indiana had going into the ’11-’12 season. If the Horncats can use some of their cap space and remaining Lottery picks over the next two summers to add an All-Star type ala David West, they could seriously make some Playoff noise. We’re talking about an inside/out offense with some very effective transition guys and coach who’s made his name on getting the very best out of his bigs. Add a veteran free agent big like Paul Millsap to a Walker/Henderson/MKG/Cousins lineup and suddenly you a very intriguing starting five.

ASChin on Twitter: @bobcatsbaseline

Ben Weinrib on Twitter: @benweinrib

Max Players Vs. Max Contracts

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Where Have All the Superstars Gone?

James Harden, a 23 year old wing player with zero All-Star appearances, who was the third best player on his team last season, fought for and will receive the NBA’s maximum salary. And he deserves it. Here’s why:
The league’s current CBA contains a structural curiousity at the top; one that brings to mind European-style social policy more so than “Gots ta get mine” good-ol’-American capitalism: The five to ten best basketball players on planet earth are capped at how much they can earn.

Cut to Fox News: “That’s why they call it a ‘collective’ bargaining agreement! I wanna see Hasheem Thabeet’s birth certificate!”

In a world without maximum contracts, Lebron James would earn more than half his team’s payroll. Same goes for CP3, D12, D-Rose, Durant or any other transcendental, once in a generation talent. Not so under the current CBA, where a max player like Rose commands an average of $18 million a season, around one quarter of his team’s pre-tax payroll.
This is why “true max” superstars are the absolute best value in the NBA. They’re playing far below what they’re worth. Second best market value? Rookie scale contracts. Which is why any GM worth their salt is actively trying to build the bulk of his roster around 1-3 true max/superstar players and a bunch of rookies (sound familiar? *cough* OKC *cough*)
The problem is that at any given time, the league only has eight to ten guys who are bonafide supes.

Let’s do some simple math:

  • 30 NBA Teams x $56 million (salary cap) = $1.68 billion in available salaries.
  • 10 Superstars (generous) x $18 million (average max salary) = $180 million.

This leaves a whopping $1.5 BILLION to pay out to Non-Superstars and that’s before we add any cap exceptions or tax penalties.
The money has to go somewhere, right?

Cue Jim Ross voice: “OHMYGAWD, that’s Joe Johnson’s music!!!”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly why guys like James Harden, Eric Gordon and Brook Lopez get offered max deals. At least 20 of the league’s 30 franchises will not have access to a true max superstar but are still obligated to field a competitive team while hitting the league mandated salary floor. Under these circumstances, it is without doubt that Harden is a max guy. Whether or not he is a superstar is a mutually exclusive argument.
-ASChin