Four and Eleven

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It’s November 25th and Charlotte’s NBA team is a disastrous 4-11. The rebranded Hornets were supposed to erase the fanbase’s memories of the Bobcats yet the slow, sloppy start has only brought back memories of that franchise’s blunders.

Steve Clifford’s squad has played unfocused, disjointed and undisciplined basketball; last season’s chemistry a distant memory. Can this ship be turned around before it’s too late? Bradford Coombs and I answers some tough questions:

1. The Hornets’ struggles are mostly a result of A.) roster makeup, B.) coaching philosophy, C.) injuries.

Bradford (@bradford_NBA): A fair amount of A and a little bit of B. For a team whose identity is supposed to be defense, the pieces aren’t a perfect fit. A single rim protector can cover up a lot of mistakes. MKG is the best defender on the team and missing him hurts. He can cover up some mistakes, but a wing defender’s impact isn’t nearly on the level an individual rim protector. McRoberts was a solid team defender that was willing to mix it up. The Hornets are 7 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Williams on the court. By comparison, McBobs was a -3. That’s a pretty big difference. The real problem is that Williams also has a negative impact on the offense while McRoberts had a decidedly positive impact. Clifford is being patient with moving Cody into the starting lineup, but the numbers and the tape speak for themselves. It shouldn’t be too much longer.

ASChin (@BaselineBuzz): I’ll cut Clifford some slack and say it’s 70% A and 30% B. MKG’s the team’s best defender by a mile and his absence has turned a once proud Charlotte defense into one of the league’s bottom third. Opponents are shooting nearly 47% against the Hornets and the team’s 18th overall ranking in points against belies Charlotte’s slow pace. Yet MKG’s absence wouldn’t hurt nearly as much on another team. Big Al and Marvin might be the worst defending 4/5 combination in the league which is why we’ve seen so much Cody over the past week and a half. If you’re going to build a team around Big Al – who, make no mistake, is excellent at what he does – you need to surround him with rim protectors and shooters. Period. The Hornets haven’t done that.

2. If the struggles continue, who is most likely to be shipped out of town during the season: A.) Steve Clifford, B.) Lance Stephenson?

Bradford: I would bet my life savings on neither. But I’m a good sport. You don’t need to look any further than his contract to see that the organization is being cautious about Lance as a Hornet. They were willing to break the bank for Gordon Hayward in the offseason, and really for Al Jefferson the year before. Lance got much less than many expected with a team option to boot. The facts speak for themselves I think.

ASChin: The organization can’t afford another coaching carousel. If one of them gets shipped out of town, it’ll be Lance – who is a much easier scapegoat. Kemba and Lance are a terrible backcourt pairing due to their overlapping strengths and weaknesses. Either their minutes need to be staggered or one will have to go. Walker’s cap number isn’t getting any smaller so I’m betting it would be Lance.

3. Has the rest of the league figured out Clifford’s defensive scheme OR is MKG’s absence to blame?

Bradford: Clifford’s defensive scheme isn’t unique in the NBA. To say the league has figured it out would be to condemn everyone else running the Van Gundy/Thibbadeau principles. I spent some time looking at opponent scoring numbers after the Miami game. The biggest discrepencies from last season to this season are in opponent FT% and opponent 2 point %. It will be interesting to see how the defense performs when MKG and Cody are in the lineup. MKG’s defensive numbers aren’t great this season, but he’s only played 6 games. If Lance can clean up some mental errors, the MKG/Cody/Lance trio should be able to do some really nice work on that side of the ball.

ASChin: I’m with Bradford on this one. Clifford’s system is fine – injuries have forced him to play some hyper-flammable lineups. We’ve seen way too much of Marvin/Al, Neal/Kemba or Roberts/Kemba. Very much looking forward to the following lineups once everyone’s healthy: Al/Cody/MKG/PJ/Kemba and Biz/Marvin/JT/Lance/Neal (or Roberts) – those groups have balance at both ends, especially on D.

4. Is MKG the next Gerald Wallace in a bad way? (i.e. misses 15-20 games a year due to reckless playing style)

Bradford: I’m not going to pretend to know anything about an individual’s health, but it’s certainly a concern. I’m not sure MKG is capable of dialing it back. It’s really disappointing as he has looked like a most improved player candidate early.

ASChin: He missed 4 games his rookie season, 20 games as a soph and 9 thus far this season. The guy plays full-on and refuses to turn it down a notch – which is admirable. He dives into the paint like it was a mid-90’s mosh pit and takes risks in transition. We watched Crash do similar things for nearly a decade. Let’s hope the sequel has a better ending.

5. Are Kemba’s struggles a result of plateaued development or is Lance just a poor backcourt mate with his overlapping strengths/weaknesses?

Bradford: Save the 2012-2013 season, Kemba’s shooting has been consistently below average. That has nothing to do with Lance and everything to do with Kemba. If he can’t be a consistent 3 point shooter and can’t finish in the paint….

ASChin: Then he’s a lesser version of Isaiah Thomas and significantly overpaid. I’m holding out hope but he turns 25 in May and is on the books for $12 million per for the next four seasons. All those step-back, fade-away J’s look great when they go in but I’ve yet to see Kemba develop a reliable spot up shot ala Tony Parker. Walker’s leadership qualities are solid and he’s become a better distributor in some ways but his inability to consistently finish in close or knock down shots should keep Rich Cho up at night.

6. Do the Hornets build around Big Al by finding or developing a high post PF who can protect the rim or do they let him walk and build around Cody and Vonleh?

Bradford: This is the million dollar question. Al is such a unique player in the league and really has to have an entire roster designed to maximize his skills. And even if you were to do that, would it be the type of team that could compete at the highest level? I honestly don’t know. I was pretty vocally against his signing for this very reason. I feel comfortable saying I was wrong in the short term, but that decision will have to be made again when he opts out after this season. If I’m being honest, Cho has to hope the answer is a Zeller/Vonleh front court, but it’s impossible to know if that’s realistic.

ASChin: In an ideal world, Cody develops into a borderline All-Star big this season with Vonleh turning into an everyday contributor next season. Big Al plays out his option and Charlotte either re-signs him at a similar number until Noah is ready to start or let’s Jefferson walk for bigger money. I LOVE Big Al and everything he’s done for the team in his short time here but if the organization can’t find the perfect pieces to surround him with, their ceiling will remain low. Either way, the team needs to keep their long-term strategy the same: build around the Cody/Vonleh/MKG core.

7. What’s a realistic trade scenario the Hornets could make between now and the Deadline?

Bradford: It’s way too soon for me to have an answer to that. It will be at the deadline if at all.

ASChin: They need three and D guys on the perimeter and an upgrade over Marvin at the four. I could see McRoberts coming back for the right price (Riley will ransom him). If the poop really hits the fan, I could see Big Al being traded to a contending team out West. Can you imagine a Davis/Big Al/Asik/Anderson rotation in New Orleans? Too bad the Pellies don’t have any picks to send back.

8. Will the Hornets make the Playoffs?

Bradford: Look, this has sucked. But it’s the east. The schedule will let up at some point, the 76ers and Pistons will come to town, and Charlotte is as viable a candidate as there is to do what Brooklyn did last year. The track record is there. And I’m an optimist. There’s a good team in those jerseys. We’ve seen it for stretches. Go home, eat some turkey, and things will get better. Right?

ASChin: Given the pressures of the rebrand, the assets available for trade and the veteran leadership within the lockerroom…I’m going to say yes. Barely.

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.

“Never Turn Your Back On The Grind”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz 

Steve Clifford is Coach of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

The Runners Up:

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

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

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

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

The Biggest Franchise Turnarounds of the Past 26 Years

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

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

Tremendous Challenge, Tremendous Results

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

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

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

 -ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

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

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 8 Review

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The Charlotte Bobcats finish a tremendously disappointing week 1-3, a span that saw the team:

  • Barely eke out an overtime win at home against the miserable Bucks, 111-110.
  • Lose a nailbiter to an elite OKC Thunder team at the TWC, 85-89.
  • Have their hopes massacred by a Macedonian in an overtime loss in Atlanta, 116-118.
  • Show up in Salt Lake with minimal effort and urgency in a loss to the Western Conference doormat Jazz, 80-83.

Who Are These Guys?

The Bobcats’ last four games have been decided by a combined ten points. Two of those games were against the worst teams in their respective Conferences (Milwaukee, Utah), one to an above average team on the road (Atlanta) and one against the second best team in the league (OKC). In fact, Charlotte played three elite teams in December (Thunder, Heat, Pacers), losing by a total of ten points – which would be promising if not for the fact that they also dropped two games to the terrible Jazz in the same month.

As it stands today, the Cats are four games under .500 with back to back road dates against the Clips and Blazers on the horizon (a combined 25-6 at home). There’s a great chance Charlotte enters the weekend a depressing 14-20 and out of the Eastern Conference’s top eight. While the Cats’ point differential is a semi-decent -1.3 (6th in the East), the NBA doesn’t hand out Playoff spots to teams who lose lots of games respectably.

With just nine games to go before the half-season mark, the Bobcats must figure out which direction this ship is heading soon or risk both missing the Playoffs AND losing their Top 10 protected pick to the Bulls. Ugh.

Antic Happens

Pero Antic is a 31 year old rookie center from Macedonia who plainly has a thing for Carlos Boozer’s style. That much we know. We also know that he’s taken a total of 68 shots in his short NBA career, one of which was a fallaway three pointer at the buzzer to send his Hawks into overtime against the instantly despondent Bobcats. It was one of the crazier buzzer beaters you’ll ever have the pleasure of witnessing: 6’10” Al Jefferson has a long arm in Antic’s face, Pero’s shooting foot is facing the opposite basket on launch, he falls away into the Bobcats’ bench and… he NAILS IT from perhaps the toughest spot on the floor – between the corner and extended elbow. Just unbelievable.

It was the sort of WTF-once-in-a-season shot that can suck the energy right out of a franchise. While it’s impossible to pin the loss two nights later on a Macedonian center playing thousands of miles away, you have to believe Antic’s dagger wound was at the heart of Charlotte’s lackluster effort in Utah. Let’s hope that the Bobcats can recover soon.

The Upper Limits

Allow me to go Oprah for a moment.

After the Cats two point loss against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder, Steve Clifford ripped into the team for not executing when it mattered. He singled out individual defense and rebounding in particular and then went on to drop this bomb: “We have to get past the point where everybody is happy the Bobcats don’t get beaten every night. We’re better than that.”

In “The Big Leap” author Gay Hendricks defines a phenomenon he calls the “upper limit” – the highest point on our personal thermostats that we believe we can achieve. Hendrick writes:

“Unfortunately, our thermostat setting usually gets programmed in early childhood, before we can think for ourselves. Once programmed, our Upper Limit thermostat setting holds us back from enjoying all the love, financial abundance, and creativity that’s rightfully ours.”

As evidence, he cites that within two years of winning the lottery, more than 60 percent return to the same net worth prior to their win.

Part of what Coach Clifford is trying to do, perhaps the most difficult challenge he faces, is to transform a perpetually moribound organization’s expectations of itself; to change its identity. One major hurdle in getting to that point is convincing young NBA players who’ve only known losing that their internal thermostats are off. Although long a league-wide punchline, the “Charlotte Bobcats” are not inherently dismal. Just because a player might’ve been involved in a seven win season, does not mean they cannot be a part of a contender in the future…but you must raise the limit. To further Clifford’s point, if being better than terrible is the team’s upper limit, it is not enough. 14-18 is “not bad for the Bobcats” but it’s not good enough.

The reprogramming will take time and will likely need an infusion of sucessful veterans in or around their primes to help break through the glass ceiling. In the meantime, let’s celebrate Steve Clifford’s buzzworthy desire and ambition beacause it’s the only way to truly leave the “Bobcats” legacy behind.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 3 Review

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Another week, another .500 split for the league’s (fourth) best Defensive team. A heckuva stretch that saw the Bobcats:

  • Storm back for a win in Cleveland after scoring just 12 points in the first quarter, 86-80.
  • Play three solid quarters against the world champion Miami Heat at home, only to fold in the 4th, 81-97.
  • Battle the title contending Bulls down to the final buzzer in Chi-town, 81-86.
  • Beat up Brooklyn’s aging All-Stars in a big win at the TWC, 95-91.

Defense is Forever

You have to hand it to Steve Clifford. In the past week, his Bobcats have played full-throttle, basketballs to the wall defense for nearly every possession. At 92.8 points allowed on the season, Charlotte has entered an elite group that includes Indiana, Chicago and San Antonio. Remember that last year’s squad averaged a whopping 102.7ppg against – good for 29th overall. That’s a ten point swing that’s been accomplished with a nearly identical roster.

Clifford’s secret sauce isn’t much of a secret strategy-wise. You can see it just by watching the games: sacrifice the offensive rebound to prevent easy transition buckets, protect the paint area in the half court (even if it frees up a three point shooter) and swallow up as many defensive boards as possible. Meanwhile, let your team’s defensive position of strength (hyper-athletic wings) pester opposing perimeter players for 48 minutes a night.

The Bobcats are communicating, hustling and executing on D like they were the Chicago Bulls – which shouldn’t be that big of surprise considering Clifford and Tom Thibodeau’s shared coaching history. It’s only been twelve games, but if Charlotte can continue as a top 5 defensive team and get their best offensive player (Al Jefferson) healthy for good, we might be looking at a 40+ win squad. As last year’s Derrick Rose-less Bulls proved: You can live by the jumper and die by the jumper but defense is forever.

Kemba Breaks Out

Last week we fretted over Kemba Walker’s post-shoulder contusion shooting slump. The fretting was soon upgraded to full-on Regression Alert after Kemba dropped a 14 for 51 stretch over the next three games, dragging his FG% dangerously close to sub-30% levels. Mercifully, a 12 for 20, 31 point performance against the Nets has us hoping again that the slump was an anomaly brought on by Metta World Peace’s thigh.

To Walker’s credit, he never once lost a gear defensively during the slump – highlighted by an amazing 5 steal performance in the Cleveland comeback. Kemba might not be the prototypical NBA point guard but he’s certainly in possession of a prototypical NBA mentality.

High Ceilings?

At least a few times a week, I get a snark-flavored tweet about how the Bobcats are playing their way out of a superstar in next June’s Draft. I understand the fear. I mean, even if Charlotte surprises everyone and makes the Playoffs, just how high is the team’s ceiling? Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson will both likely make the All-Star team at least once in their careers. MKG is a jump-shot away from being a multiple time All-Star (but that jumper may never come). Jeff Taylor and Cody Zeller are both likely to become very good NBA starters at some point, at least on the level of their teammate Gerald Henderson. That’s it. That’s the “core”. It’s not very sexy but it’s solid, with room to grow.

And next summer, regardless of how the Lottery shakes out, the team will have around $19 million in cap space to bring in another difference maker. Gordon Haywood and Lance Stephenson are game-ready, under-24 restricted free agents who could immediately upgrade the team’s long distance shooting. The mid-first round picks owed by Detroit and Portland could produce a Dario Saric or Andrew Harrison off the bench. That’s a very good NBA team. One that can win a lot of games for quite a while. And winning for a while breeds a winning culture. That’s called Stage One.

The Miami Heat organization experienced this Stage during the Alonzo Mourning/Tim Hardaway/Eddie Jones era of the late ’90s. Were they good enough to win a title? Nope. Not even on paper. But the culture they created eventually led to the franchise drafting Dwayne Wade and knowing HOW to build around him for their first title in 2006. Not a single NBA champion since 1980 has gone directly from perennial doormat to Larry O’Brien in one Stage.

The Charlotte Bobcats are transitioning from terrible to not bad. The Charlotte Hornets will go from not bad to very good soon after. Let them build a winning culture that knows what to do with talent first, then we can talk about tanking for Lottery saviors later.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 2 Review

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Charlotte finishes a strange week 2-2, a span that saw the team:

  • Successfully complete the second half of a back to back with a victory against the Raptors at TWC, 92-90.
  • Waste a near sell out home crowd in a (surprisingly) uninspired loss against the Knicks, 97-102.
  • Play exactly one great half and one terrible half against a mediocre Hawks squad in an unnecessary loss at home, 94-103.
  • Regroup to outlast the upstart Celtics in Boston for a Conference road win, 89-83.

A Week of Disruption

Just a day after presiding over Charlotte’s back to back wins against New York and Toronto, head coach Steve Clifford checked himself into the hospital, returning to the bench a few days later with two stents inserted into his heart. With former Panthers and current Broncos head man John Fox and Texans skipper Gary Kubiak missing time with similar ailments, it was a tough week for pro coaches.
Associate head coach Patrick Ewing stepped in as Clifford’s replacement, ironically coaching his first game against the team he starred for fifteen years. The New York media had a field day with the storyline but the ensuing results were less than newsworthy. Ewing’s rotations were off all game and his team lacked any sort of emotion. Ewing’s demeanor on the sidelines is reminiscent of Jeremy Lamb’s perpetual sleepy-time expression. While I think the Bill Self-style histrionics are out of place in the NBA, your head coach needs to at least give the impression that he’s engaged. Fortunately, Clifford missed very little time and all things seem to be business as usual just a week later.

Hello: My Name is Big Al

The Bobcats encountered another form of disruption on Monday night in the form of Al Jefferson. The team’s offense was clearly off balance in the second half against the Hawks, which incidentally was the part of the game that Al’s shots started to fall. In fact, the Atlanta loss felt like a microcosm of this team’s greatest challenge going forward: How to integrate the screen ‘n roll heavy free-wheeling style that the team has had a little success with the more traditional, more mature – and I’d argue – more sustainable inside-out offense Jefferson allows for.
The formula worked a little better in Wednesday night’s road win in Boston but that had more to do with Jefferson’s dominance inside (22 points, 11 rebounds) than an efficient team effort. We’ll surely be keeping an eye on this transition in the weeks ahead.

Kemba’s Struggles

When the Bobcats signed Jefferson during the offseason, they likely fantasized at the pairing of he and the quick penetrating AND suddenly sweet shooting Kemba Walker. While Kemba got off to a fantastic start over the team’s first four games, his shooting has taken a nosedive (29% over the last 5 games) since running shoulder first into Metta World Peace’s thigh last week. And it’s not just the jumper. Kemba has morphed into DJ Augustin around the rim, a spot he excelled in last season. In the Boston win, Kemba finished a disastrous 1-13 (including four misses in the paint) that would have sunk the team pre-Jefferson.
Let’s hope that this is just a temporary setback due to the shoulder contusion and not a full on regression.

Missing Shooters

Talk about clairvoyance. Clifford and the front office should be patting themselves on the back for having the foresight to sign Anthony Tolliver in what was then seen as an offseason afterthought. A 5 year veteran “stretch four”, Tolliver (44% 3PFG) and has been the team’s only consistent spot-up shooter in lieu of Jeffery Taylor’s long distance struggles and Ben Gordon’s demotion to 15th man. Barring a mid-season trade or an off the radar free agent signing, Tolliver is the team’s only consistent long-ball threat – a fact that could undermine the team’s offense for the remainder of the season.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz