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Charlotte's Chances Of A Deep Playoff Run

The group of contenders in the Eastern Conference likely lost a member in the Indiana Pacers when Paul George suffered a severe leg injury in a USA basketball intrasquad scrimmage on August 1st. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls are undoubtedly the teams to beat in the East. The potential of the next tier of teams, however, is much more uncertain. The Charlotte Hornets are one such team, who find themselves with the best opportunity to make a deep playoff run in franchise history. 

*** I will refer to Charlotte as the Bobcats for the 2013-14 season and as the Hornets for the most recent offseason and beyond.

Revisiting The 2013-14 Season 

The Bobcats came into 2013-14 having won 28 of their last 148 games. The front office selected longtime NBA assistant Steve Clifford to become the franchise’s third head coach in three years. They followed that up by giving Al Jefferson $41 million to be the team’s offensive centerpiece. Many derided the Jefferson signing as one that would only improve the Bobcats enough to bump them further down in the lottery. But the organization got a lot more out of their new head coach/star player duo thanks to a top-notch defense. 

Defense

Clifford established several core defensive principles early in the season. He harped on the importance of securing the defensive glass, preventing easy transition opportunities, and contesting at the rim without fouling. His players bought into what he was preaching right from the outset. In a Grantland article from December, Zach Lowe expertly described how the Bobcats’ skillful execution of Clifford’s defensive scheme led to the formation of a top-10 defense.

Allowing Jefferson to stay anchored in the paint was a crucial aspect of the Bobcats' successful defense because it mitigated the negative effect of having a notoriously slow-footed big man defender as a constant fixture in the rotation. Having Jefferson remain close to the basket had the effect of ensuring that the team’s best rebounder was close to the rim to gobble up rebounds. Jefferson, the team’s leading rebounder by a substantial amount, is the main reason why the Bobcats finished as the best defensive rebounding team in the league. When Jefferson was not on the floor, the Bobcats rebounded at the rate of the 10th best defensive rebounding team, which is solid, but not elite like when Jefferson was on the court. 

While Jefferson had the best defensive season of his career, the Bobcats true strength on defense was on the wing. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick from the 2012 draft, has rapidly developed as one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders. He possesses a combination of size, length, and athleticism that allows him to credibly defend the best wing scorers in the league. Kidd-Gilchrist is renowned for his ability to consistently contest jump shots without fouling. His impact on Charlotte’s team defense is significant.

MKG On/Off

Minutes

DRTG

ON

1502

98.8

OFF

2479

102.6

The Bobcats' 98.8 defensive rating with Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor would rate as third in the league behind the Pacers and Bulls. On the other hand, the 102.6 defensive rating without Kidd-Gilchrist would rate 11th in the league, not bad, but certainly not elite. Kidd-Gilchrist’s contributions were felt most dramatically when he broke his left hand and was forced to miss 19 games, a period that saw the Bobcats post a record of 7-12.

Despite his clear value on defense, Kidd-Gilchrist only played 24 minutes a game. His playing time was limited because he didn’t offer much to help the offense, which was where the team struggled most.

Offense 

Before the season began, Al Jefferson was the only player on the Bobcats roster to score more than 18 points per game and shoot better than 43 percent from the field at the same time. Because of the dearth of offensive talent, the Bobcats offense depended heavily on Jefferson’s ability to score from the low post. Throughout his career, Jefferson has proved to be a dependable high-volume scoring option. But the struggles of the Bobcats offense illustrated the difficulties of building a modern NBA offense based on low-post scoring when there are no consistent long-range shooters to spread the floor.

The Bobcats posted the 24th best offense in the league primarily because of their inability to shoot the ball from distance. Opposing defenses were able to focus all of their attention on preventing scores in the paint because the Bobcats rarely attempted 3-pointers. As a result, the Bobcats struggled to score inside and regularly settled for inefficient long 2-point jumpers, which they did not make at a high percentage.

The Bobcats' lack of shooting was exploited in the playoffs when they faced off against the 2-time defending champion Miami Heat. Kidd-Gilchrist’s inability to make an outside shot was particularly damaging, as Lebron James ignored him to prevent Jefferson from getting the ball in the post. The Bobcats were forced to work around their lack of shooting and come up with creative ways to score all season. The result was the emergence of one of the most unlikeliest sources of offensive creation.

The Missed Opportunity of Losing Josh McRoberts

Josh McRoberts assumed a unique role in the Charlotte offense because he served as a perimeter-oriented stretch-4 despite not being a particularly dangerous 3-point shooter. Instead, he helped by facilitating from the high post, providing solid entry passes to Jefferson, and keeping the offense moving in general. His played an essential role because of “how well he can connect the dots,” according to the owner of the team, Michael Jordan. The statistics back up that claim, at least on the offensive end, because of how well he meshed with the two cornerstones of the franchise. 

Lineup

Minutes

ORTG

DRTG

NetRTG

Jefferson, MKG, McBob

856

109.6

101.7

+7.9

Jefferson, MKG (No McBob)

375

99.0

103.2

-4.2

The offensive output of the trio improved even further during the Bobcats’ 20-9 stretch after they acquired and gave more minutes to floor spacers like Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour. McRoberts’ positive effect on offense makes it hard to understand why the front office let him get away so easily this offseason. I am operating under the assumption that McRoberts left strictly do to financial reasons, which may not be the case, but is the only way to examine this particular situation. 

McRoberts signed with the Heat for $22.6 million over four years. The Hornets had enough cap room to sign him for same per-year averages and still retain enough flexibility to sign Lance Stephenson, who they acquired later in the summer. Instead of going hard after McRoberts, they signed Gordon Hayward to a max-offer sheet, which tied up their cap space while McRoberts was negotiating with other teams. Losing McRoberts highlighted the way in which pursuing another team’s restricted free agent can mess up an organization’s offseason plans. As a result, many teams avoid pursuing restricted free agents from other teams, which leads to talented players like Nikola Pekovic in 2013 and Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe this year remaining unsigned into August. 

The Hornets instead decided to commit $14 million to Marvin Williams, who may offer more in terms of pure shooting accuracy than McRoberts, but who does not possess nearly the same ability in terms of playmaking and creating for others.

Perhaps Stephenson, who is a dynamic playmaker and scorer off-the-dribble, will be able to fully assume McRoberts’ offensive responsibilities. However, it is hard to find players who are able to “connect the dots” as well as McRoberts did for Charlotte. Those players become even more important on teams like Charlotte, that do not have the same star power as the perennial contenders. Failing to keep McRoberts in the mix with a core of Stephenson, Kidd-Gilchrist and Jefferson might ultimately wind up preventing Charlotte from legitimately contending in the Eastern Conference.

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