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.

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.

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.

Charlotte Hornets Roundtable | 2014 Post-Draft Analysis

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Q: This was the first draft where Cho was the emperor of the war room. How would you say he did?

DrE: (@BaselineDrE) I think Cho has been running the draft for the past couple of years — I remember there was a quick peek in the Bobcats/Hornets draft “war room” in a documentary that Fox SportsSouth put together after the 2012/MKG draft, and Cho was pretty clearly running things then. But anyways, great job this year. The Vonleh pick was easy. But the machinations with picking Napier to extract some assets from the Heat, still getting PJ Hairston, then turning those second round picks into cap space — that was good stuff.

Bradford: (@bradford_NBA) It’s useless trying to look into the future to judge a draft. It’s more productive to judge the value of the asset relative to the lost opportunities of other assets. Business-y enough for you? That’s the boring way of saying Cho extracted maximum value out of the available picks. Noah Vonleh was in a different tier than the other prospects left on the board. I think that when a prospect falls, what often happens is teams that didn’t expect a player to be available are so locked in on their prep work with the players they expected to be available and they end up sticking with the original plan. Vonleh didn’t even work out in Charlotte. Cho has said they had him rated much higher than the 9th pick. And he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Charlotte was in the enviable position of being in the top 10 but not needing a player to make an immediate impact. You absolutely have to swing for the fences and work out the details later. Hairston was an obvious pick. Everyone says he has lottery talent and it’s the type of talent the Hornets were desperate for. It was the perfect match of talent and need. Grabbing some cash and freeing up some extra cap space is icing on the cake. The 55th pick is almost certainly not worth the $2 million on Haywood’s contract. Any time I feel dismissive about a seemingly minor deal, I remember Cho trading Hakim Warrick for Josh McRoberts.

ASChin: (@BaselineBuzz) Instant draft grades aren’t worth much since we have no idea how any of these prospects will develop over time BUT if we’re talking about managing Draft Night and getting as much perceived value out of those picks as possible, it’s difficult not to be impressed. Cho gets Vonleh, a guy who many thought would crack the Top 5, with a the free Lotto pick he finagled from Detroit two years prior. Then he picks Hairston, who has Lottery talent (and some character concerns) late in the first. Nabbing an extra future second rounder, dumping Brendan Haywood’s contract and netting some cash to pay off some of the T-Time amnesty was just gravy.

Q: What are your thoughts on Noah Vonleh? What type of role do you expect him to play this season and how does he fit in the Hornet’s long term plan?

DrE:I honestly hadn’t watched much Vonleh video in the weeks leading up to the draft, as I figured he was going somewhere between 5-7. The only unfortunate thing is that he overlaps quite a bit with Cody Zeller. Not totally, mind you — Vonleh’s a little tougher, a better rebounder and on-ball defender, while Zeller actually appears to be the more fluid athlete — but still there’s a lot of overlap. And I think that you’ll see Clifford bring Vonleh along much like he did with Zeller. I do wonder if one of them (Vonleh?) could guard some of the lighter centers in the league — which would be a path to more court time.

Long term, you hope that the LaMarcus Aldridge/Chris Bosh comps are true for Vonleh. The ninth pick, as we’ve seen, is often a good place to get a future star that slipped — generally because teams in the spots immediately preceding often start reaching to fit specific needs.

Bradford: I’m not a college guy, outside of NC State so the extent of my experience with Vonleh is on Draft Express. He has all the physical tools you want in a big and clearly has some skills. His footwork and feel for the game aren’t great. You know who has great footwork and an excellent feel for the game? Al Jefferson. Apparently there are questions about his work ethic, but he seems to work really hard on the court so we’ll see.

It can’t be said enough, but Vonleh is not ready to contribute. He’s not Bismack Biyombo, but he has a lot to learn to be a productive player. Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to be. I expect Zeller’s minutes to get bumped a little and Vonleh might see 15 minutes per game. Steve Clifford will bring him along slowly, something Biz could have benefitted from. He’ll need to work hard in practice and be a willing listener.

A lot of people think this pick means the end of McRoberts and Zeller. I think that’s way off. Vonleh isn’t ready to contribute and doesn’t fit what the Hornets need right now. And there’s no reason Zeller and Vonleh can’t play together. I think they can compliment each other really well in time.

ASChin: You never know with bigs. Especially ones as young as Vonleh is (18). He’s physically close to being ready. Wide base. Strong lower and upper body. Fantastic mobility. But it’s the mental part of the game I’m worried about. He played wing and some point guard in high school and the low post game looks raw on tape. The nba is so fast. Cody was further along coming out of Indiana last year and Clifford stripped down his offense to the bare minimum. For example, we saw Cody pull some nifty post stuff in Summer League last July and we haven’t seen it since. Clifford will likely do similar stuff with Vonleh. Keep it simple and bring him along gradually. He has tremendous upside for sure.

Q: PJ Hairston was clearly a target from day one. Same questions as with Vonleh. Do you have any reservations given his character concerns?

DrE: Sure, you have to have reservations with Hairston. Not many potential NBA players managed to get kicked off their college team like he did. But young, talented guys are always going to get second (and third, and fourth) chances, especially when their transgressions didn’t cross a certain line and they say the right things about having learned from their mistakes.

Bradford: Let’s quickly rehash why there are character concerns with Hairston. The concerns stem from his suspension at UNC. The infractions include borrowing someone’s rental car, speeding, and throwing weed and a gun out of a car at a checkpoint. The weed thing is whatever. Nobody is entirely sure about the gun situation and charges were dropped. So he essentially dropped out of the lottery, where his talent and production placed him, because of the NCAA’s draconian rules in an environment at UNC that hasn’t exactly been a harbour of compliance of late. We’re not talking throwing your girlfriend down the stairs types of concerns (yet Lance is still going to get PAID). No DUI. I have no reservations character wise. PJ can shoot, he’s built like an NBA player, and he’s done it at the college level and the D-League level. He’ll have to improve defensively to be a starter. He’ll need to work hard in practice. But so does every other rookie. He was a steal at 26 and exactly what the Hornets needed: a straight long range gunner with size.

ASChin: He’ll be a rook in a lockeroom full of good guy vets (unless they sign Lance) – maybe it’s just what he needs: to be surrounded by role models. On the court, he’s gonna have to get into top shape and I’d love for him to turn into at least an average defender. His stroke is insane and I’m excited to see what he’ll be able to do off the ball eventually as a cutter given his strength and size. Looks like he’ll rebound well for his position too. Lots to like…as long as he stays out of trouble. Seems much further along than Vonleh and I wouldn’t be shocked if he was playing 20mpg come PLYF time.

Q: With the draft now complete, it’s time for free agency, summer league, training camp, and preparation for the upcoming season. What do you expect out of the team over the next 4 months?

DrE: With the caveat that some free agency dominoes will likely fall by the time this is posted so this will probably sound idiotic in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that the Hornets will be looking for another wing player and a backup PG (or two) in free agency. Lance Stephenson, Gordon Hayward, Luol Deng and Chandler Parsons are probably the best wing players that the Hornets realistically have a shot at. Hayward is restricted, Stephenson and Parsons aren’t but seem highly likely to return to their teams, Deng is truly unrestricted but not as good of a spacer/shooter, and is also older and likely to start declining over the next few years. But it is safe to say that adding any of those guys would be a significant upgrade for the Hornets and cause for much celebration. It’s just hard to see it happening — surprise me Rich Cho!

At backup PG, Ramon Sessions’ return has always seemed likely. The Hornets have been specifically mentioned (along with numerous other teams) as potential Shaun Livingston suitors. Patty Mills might be an interesting option, too.

As far as any departures (in trades) I think we all know that Gerald Henderson is by far the most likely, followed by Gary Neal, who is on a really reasonable deal and may now be expendable with PJ Hairston on the roster. If there is a bigger sign-and-trade deal to be had, the inclusion of MKG or Zeller wouldn’t totally shock me either. I would say Bismack Biyombo, but I’m not sure what his value is around the league as he nears the end of his rookie scale contract.

Summer league wish list is pretty standard: hope that Hairston and Vonleh look good and ready to play some right away, and hope that Zeller has expanded his shooting range some. It will be interesting to see if Vonleh and Zeller can play together, too. And for training camp, my biggest wish is probably the same as everyone else’s: that MKG can improve that jump shot.

Bradford: Honestly, not too much. Cho doesn’t strike me as one to spend for the sake of spending. They’ll sign McRoberts to a new contract to bring the young guys along slowly. He’ll sign a cheap shooter like Anthony Morrow or Anthony Tolliver. They clearly need a back-up PG, probably a Sessions or Livingston type. McRoberts will get a mid-level type deal but I don’t expect more than a couple minimum – $3 million contracts. Keep the phone lines open through the trade deadline and go from there. Zeller and Vonleh will get a chance to get their legs under them in summer league (don’t expect them to play all the games though). Jeff Taylor is the biggest question mark. How healthy is he and what can he contribute. I’ve got something going up later this week on his shooting numbers. I don’t expect much from him but I’m hopeful he an get healthy physically and mentally.

ASChin: CLT has six guys 24 or younger on the roster and at least five of them will be in the rotation. Veteran mentors and backups at PG, C and a starter on the wings are all on the shopping list. See my full answer here.

Q: It’s been a whirlwind 2 months for the Charlotte franchise. From officially changing the name to Hugo, new jerseys, a new court design, and the draft. How excited are you about the future and why? Don’t forget MJ is the worst owner in sports, right national media?

DrE: I’m pretty excited, and it goes beyond last season’s playoff appearance and the flawlessly executed transition to the Hornets name. What is even more important to me is that it seems like Jordan has really settled in as an owner. From Rich Cho as GM, to Steve Clifford as coach, to the un-named Jordan Brand folks that have helped with the name/logo/uniform change, Jordan appears to be putting good people in the right spots and letting them do their thing. There are good reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of this franchise.

Bradford: I could not be more excited. The re-brand has been handled perfectly. The team is on the upswing with solid veterans, guys in their prime, and young, budding talent that has so much potential. It appears that MJ has learned the best way to build this team is to let someone else do it and he clearly has faith in Cho, as do I. The hope is that these guys can stay together for the long haul. If Cho and Clifford are still with the organization in 5 years what they build could be great for the city of Charlotte and the Carolinas in general.

ASChin: If they play free agency right, this is a Top 4 seed in the East with lots of room to grow. Clifford is a phenomenal coach and Cho has proven to be a top flight GM. MJ has turned the ship around 180 degrees from the Friends of Michael era and should be applauded for that. The city is excited, fans of the league in general are excited..the Bugs are Back and you can make a good argument that they’ve never been better.

Thank You, Mr. Dumars

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2014 Charlotte Hornets Draft Review

Two years ago, just before the 2012 NBA Draft, Charlotte Bobcats GM Rich Cho struck a deal with his Detroit counterpart Joe Dumars that sent the aging, soon-to-be retired & expired Corey Maggette to the Pistons for free agent bust Ben Gordon. Maggette’s contract had one year left, Gordon had two. Dumars – perhaps sensing his imminent demise — wanted to make a splash in free agency the following summer so bribed Cho with a lightly protected first round pick in order to take on Gordon’s extra money.

When teams make trades like this, the logic is that they’ll be good enough, soon enough that the chance of the pick coming back to haunt them will be next to nil. But this was Joe Dumars (again) over-estimating himself and instead of using the early cap space to bring in an All-Star that could push the team into the postseason promised-land, he ended up splurging (yet again) on a disgruntled, ill-fitting veteran (Josh Smith) who sunk the franchise further and further down into Lake Rebuild. Presto-change-o. The Hornets received a 2014 Lottery pick from Detroit.

Conversely, for the seemingly low price of two seasons and $25 million worth of Gordon’s bullshit, Cho netted the Hornets a bona-fide, super-intriguing Draft surprise in Noah Vonleh. A surprise in that I can’t recall a single mock that had the Indiana freshman falling so far. He’s skilled, has ridiculous length and size for his age (he won’t turn 19 until August) along with a non-stop motor. There were no character concerns or fatal flaws to his game. No nagging injury problems. No lack of scouting coverage. I have absolutely zero idea how any organization could come to the conclusion that Aaron Gordon (he of the 40% free throws and lack of position) was somehow a safer prospect than Vonleh but that’s exactly what Orlando – a team many had pegged as the Vonleh landing spot – did at pick number four.
Here’s another surprise: good teams usually don’t get a hold of prospects like Vonleh. Unless you’re one of the psychics who run the Spurs or Thunder, it’s rare for a franchise in win-now mode to ever get this sort of opportunity. Massive props to Cho by the way for not getting cold feet and wasting the gifted Detroit pick on a plug & play rotation player – basically what Washington did last year with Otto Porter. He took a homerun swing to find a star.

Expect Great Things…Eventually

Vonleh’s an interesting player. He has Emeka Okafor’s lower-body girth, strength and defensive aggression (along with some of his “mechanical” moves in the post). He also has Chris Bosh’s length, shooting range, and offensive versatility. Noah was projected as an NBA wing coming out of high school – one look at his handle will tell you that – but we still have no idea what his position will ultimately be. Like I said, Vonleh turns 19 in August – he’s currently 6’9″, 247 and could very well still be growing. Let’s say he tops out at a legit 6’10”, 265. That’s somewhere between Tiago Splitter and Nikola Pekovic – neither of whom have a 7’4″ wingspans. To me, that’s a future NBA center – one who can hit from the perimeter, bang with bigs inside for boards and protect the rim at an above average level.

BUT…it will take him a while to get there, it always does for big men and Hornets fans should be patient with Vonleh as he apprentices for a few seasons behind the most gifted post-scorer in the game, Al Jefferson. In the meantime, if you hear anyone talking about Noah starting for the Playoff-ready Hornets this upcoming season, do yourself a favor and MUTE, UNFOLLOW or turn off the radio. He’s gonna be good, just give him time.
GRADE: A+

An Unprecedented Risk

For better or for worse, the Charlotte Bobcats franchise never gambled on any Draft prospect with off-the-court character concerns during their entire ten year history. The team was conceived at the end of the polarizing Iverson-Era and the league’s first black majority owner (and founder of the hip-hop-centric BET network) was wise not to further cool lukewarm regional support for his eponymous expansion team by way of knuckleheads. Bobcats Draft picks might not make any headlines on the court, but at least they wouldn’t make any off of it.

That streak was broken last night when Jordan, Cho and the re-christened Hornets selected former UNC shooting guard P.J. Hairston with the 26th pick. Hairston was deemed so unprincipled as a collegiate player that he was kicked out of a school that makes up fake classes for its players to attend. Note to PJ: Drive the speed limit when you have green and guns in the car.

So why would the Hornets risk their lockerroom sanctity and the swell of re-brand fueled regional goodwill on a question mark like P.J.?
ANSWER: He has unlimited range on his shot and the Bobcats were a tremendously poor jump-shooting team last season. The Cats ranked 19th in 3PT shooting percentage and 24th in attempts. In other words, nobody could hit from deep and they knew as much not to even try.

Any team with Al Jefferson as its offensive centerpiece needs to spread the floor in order to punish double-teams and guys cheating off their assignments. Josh McRoberts and Kemba Walker did solid work keeping their defenders honest, shooting around 35-ish% from deep. We all know Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can’t shoot (yet, fingers-crossed) but you need him out there guarding on the perimeter to make up for Al’s lack of rim-protection. That brings us to Hairston’s position, Shooting Guard:

Have a look at the following two shot charts.
GH_14

PJH_14
Hint: The top chart is of a guy whose name rhymes with “Gerald Henderson”. To be fair, Hairston accomplished his in the D-League – the level of competition isn’t remotely the same but you get the idea: P.J. loves to launch it from way out and he’s likely better at it than anyone currently on Charlotte’s roster. Hairston also has the size and skill level to play right away. He shouldn’t be anywhere near the Opening Night starting lineup but as a change-of-pace bench weapon, P.J. could be a key cog of the Hornets Playoff rotation next Spring. And who knows, if Charlotte strikes out in its pursuit of an All-Star caliber starting wing in free agency or via trade (Lance Stephenson, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng), Hairston could be playing big minutes by the All-Star break.
GRADE: A-

Trader Cho*

The Hornets used Miami’s 26th overall pick to take Hairston, a selection they received as part of the Shabazz Napier trade minutes earlier. Once the dust was settled, Cho ended up turning the 24th and 45th picks into PJ, a future 2nd Rounder from Miami, cash and cap relief. I haven’t seen the specifics of the money but believe the league limits “cash considerations” at around $3.2m per transaction. Judging from Pat Riley’s “extortion” claims, Miami may have paid that amount (along with two second rounders) in order jump up two spots and get Napier.

Cho then traded the Hornets own 2nd Rounder (Dwight Powell) to Cleveland for the rights to dump the final year of Brendan Haywood’s $2.2 million salary**. Getting rid of both the pick and Haywood trims an additional $3 million from the Hornets cap number – more on this in a bit. Finally, Cho sent this year’s 2nd Round pick from Miami (Semaj Christon) to OKC for yet more cash considerations.

Twitter was going a little berserk over such minor moves – but like most of the decisions Cho has made since arriving in Charlotte, they were savvy and could lead to bigger and better things down the road. Such as…

Free Agent Players

Perhaps most impressively, Charlotte ended Draft night both more talented AND more cap-flush. Check out the updated salary chart:
Baseline_Salaries_PostDraft14
The Hornets now enter July with over $14 million to spend on a free agent, more than enough to add, say, Luol Deng or Lance Stephenson, and that’s BEFORE renouncing Josh McRoberts’ rights or shipping Gerald Henderson or Bismack Biyombo off in a salary dump. Make any combination of those moves and that number jumps to $20 million plus – otherwise known as Lebron/Carmelo territory. Will either of those guys sign with Charlotte? Doubtful. But Cho’s ability to improve both the team’s present and future on the same night speaks volumes of this franchise’s growth from the top down. Retire the jokes along with the Bobcats name. This organization is legit.
OVERALL GRADE: A++

*Whoever came up with that nickname is a genius by the way
**Cleveland also sent forward Alonzo Gee to Charlotte but his 2014-2015 unguaranteed salary is guaranteed to be declined.

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