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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.

RealGM Interview: Goran Dragic Of The Suns

After twisting his left ankle six times last season and making the Phoenix Suns nervous, Goran Dragic is still not going to have a break this summer and disappoint his people in Slovenia as he prepares for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, the third in his career.

Dragic, a national hero of Slovenia, will be the face and the leader of a younger national team, which will compete in group D with Angola, Australia, Lithuania, Mexico and South Korea. The 28-year-old point guard is coming to the World Cup after having a career season as he averaged 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.

RealGM caught up with Dragic in Europe to talk about the Suns’ offseason, Slovenian basketball, what is it like to play with his brother and much more.

RealGM: First of all, have you been following Suns’ offseason moves closely? How do you like your new assets?

Dragic: Of course. It is going to be a different team than last year. We lost Channing Frye, who was a big piece of our starting lineup. But they brought in new players, Isiah Thomas at the point guard, Anthony Tolliver who will play at four. I believe we will have the same structure as the last year. It is going to be an exciting season. Jeff [Hornacek] is a great coach and it is going to be his second year as a head coach. I think we will grow, we will be better and hopefully we will make the playoffs.

RealGM: What is your regular routine when you find out about new players coming to the Suns?

Dragic: All the players in the NBA, we know each other. If they play a lot, every time you have a game against them you have to prepare yourself, how you are going to defend. Basically, you know them well. But I do check rookies who come from college. I do not watch college games, therefore I have to check them out, go to YouTube and see some highlights. But of course, sometimes highlights might be tricky. At the same time, we have a great group of new guys and every new addition is welcome and hopefully we will be a better team.

RealGM: Do you stay in touch with Eric Bledsoe? Do you receive information about his situation and do you pay attention to it?

Dragic: I follow him on Twitter. I talked with Jeff couple of weeks ago and they still didn’t know if they are going to offer him a contract. We are waiting for his decision. But I think he is a big part of this team. He was great last year and we played together well. I hope he will sign for the next year.

RealGM: After you saw the Suns' moves this offseason, do you feel your team has potential to win more than 48 games next season?

Dragic: Yeah, why not? I’m always very optimistic. It is going to be hard, of course. But playing in the West is so tough. Last season we won 48 games and if we were in the East, we had been the third seed. That’s basketball. I would take fewer minutes if we make it to the playoffs. Minutes don’t matter for me as long as team is playing well. The main goal is to make it to the playoffs because two seasons ago we were losing a lot, last year we won 48 games and now we are in the different situation.

RealGM: I heard about the restrictions from the Suns for you to play five international friendly games under 25 minutes in each. What is your opinion about some of NBA GMs intentions to prohibit their players to play for their national teams?

Dragic: I understand them. They pay me a lot of money and they are scared. Last year I had many troubles with my ankles. I twisted my left ankle six times. They are a little bit nervous but at the end, it is always nice to play for the national team. Every organization has a different opinion. Me and the Suns, we made an agreement and that was great.

RealGM: Is it difficult to negotiate with an NBA team on the terms of playing for the national team?

Dragic: It is difficult because on one side you have an organization that is paying you and on the other side, you have your people. I always like to play for my people, the national team and it is tough. But I think if you sit down and you talk with them, you can make an agreement. That’s why I’m really happy and grateful for the Phoenix Suns. They allowed me to play and I think I can gain more experience here. Also I can get in better shape for the next year. 

RealGM: What is it like to play with your brother on the same team? Do you spend much time together?

Dragic: He plays in Malaga [Unicaja] and I play in the NBA, therefore I do not see him a lot. It is very nice when you play together for the same country. When we were kids, we were always close, always together. It is a special moment when we are together on the court. I wish that he could be even in the NBA if that’s possible. He is improving, he had a great year in Malaga and I’m waiting for him in the NBA.

RealGM: Last season you won the NBA Most Improved Player Award. In your opinion, what was more influential for your game, your improvement physically or mentally?

Dragic: I think I just got more chances. I was always like that. It was hard for me in Phoenix because I was behind Steve [Nash]. He’s the best point guard in the league, all the expectations and everything… Usually I got 15 minutes in the game and it is very difficult to do something in that time. I think trading me to Houston was a very good thing for me because I got more playing time. It is difficult to explain, but in those 15 minutes you usually rush to do something good because you want to prove that you can do good. But when you get more minutes, you are relaxed, you are not rushing and you’re waiting for game to come to you. I think that was the main difference.

RealGM: Talking about the Slovenian national team, how does the preparation go so far?

Dragic: So far it has been awesome. We have a very young team, a lot of young guys. It is different from the last year. Our two important players have retired, Jaka Lakovic and Bostjan Nachbar. But at the same time, I feel we have young legs. We can run, we can defend. Hopefully we will build that chemistry that we need and we will get good result at the world championship.

RealGM: It seems that Slovenia always struggles to have the best possible players on their roster. Have you ever thought what if Slovenia would have avoided all the drama?

Dragic: All the time. All the time. You’re dreaming someday to win a medal, doesn’t matter what kind, bronze, gold or silver. I think we had a great team for that but we always had some other issues. Every time we try do bring all the players, we fail. That was our biggest problem. However, every player is the owner of his body, therefore it’s up to him to decide whether he wants to play or not.

RealGM: Do you see yourself finishing career in Europe? Do you miss European basketball?

Dragic: Yeah, why not? For the second part, I wouldn’t say I miss European basketball. I’m not that kind of player anymore. This will be my seventh year in the NBA and I’m really enjoying every moment. It’s players’ league, you have one practice everyday and a lot of games. I don’t want to say that I will never comeback to Europe but probably if I have a chance, I will retire in the NBA.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

Seven years after trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to press the reset button again, sending Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade for Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and a future No. 1. Even though it’s as good of a deal as could reasonably be expected for a team in their position, they are still almost certain to extend their playoff drought to 11 seasons, the longest streak in the NBA. 

It’s a stunning record of futility, especially when you consider they had either Garnett or Love on their roster for the vast majority of that span. Players of that caliber don’t grow on trees, especially when you are a small-market franchise. Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in one of the strongest drafts in recent memory and there’s no guarantee he ever becomes as good as Minnesota’s last two franchise players. The good news is he shouldn’t have to be.

The Wolves situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was seven years ago. The franchise had to start from scratch following Garnett’s departure - they won only 32 games in his final season and they didn’t retain any of the top-5 scorers from that team. Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the deal with the Celtics, was the only real building block on hand. They would have needed to bat 1.000 on their next few lottery picks in order to avoid a long journey in the wilderness.

Love came the following season, but it was all downhill from there. They had four first-round picks in 2009, but only one - Ricky Rubio - ended up sticking and he didn’t come over from Spain for another two seasons. They drafted Wesley Johnson in 2010 and Derrick Williams in 2011 and they traded their first-round pick in 2012 for Chase Budinger. With so many misses at the top of the draft, it’s no surprise they weren’t able to build a playoff team around Love.

The Wolves won only 40 games last season, but they had a lot more talent on their roster than most below-.500 teams. They had a point differential of +2.7, better than both the 49-win Dallas Mavericks (+2.4) and 48-win Phoenix Suns (+2.6). The four remaining starters in Minnesota - Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nik Pekovic - are hardly perfect, but they all are proven NBA veterans capable of contributing to a winning team.

Young can’t fill Love’s shoes, but he’s a good player who gives the Wolves a starting unit that can keep them competitive on a nightly basis. While that may not translate into many wins in a Western Conference that is as stacked as ever, it means Wiggins won’t be asked to do too much too soon, as opposed to Jefferson in 2008. With Martin and Brewer entrenched on the wings, Wiggins could start his career as a reserve, where he would be groomed into a bigger role.

Nor would he be the only high-upside young player coming off Minnesota’s bench next season. In his second stint with the franchise, Flip Saunders has already proven to be a better judge of talent than David Kahn and Kevin McHale. Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III have a chance to stick in the NBA while Gorgui Dieng, the No. 21 pick in 2013, and Zach LaVine, the No. 13 pick in 2014, could end up as the biggest steals in their respective drafts.

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Dieng came on strong in the final month, posting multiple games with 17+ rebounds. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has prototype size and athleticism for an interior defender as well as the ability to contribute in multiple ways on the offensive end of the floor. His per-36 minute averages last season - 13 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal on 50% shooting - mark him as a comer.

LaVine was one of the most polarizing players in this year’s draft, a walking embodiment of the “stats vs. scouts” debate made famous in Moneyball. He has about as thin a resume as any lottery pick in recent memory - in his only season at UCLA, he averaged 9 points and played only 24 minutes a game. Nevertheless, while he didn’t get many opportunities in college, he’s an electrifying athlete who doubles as a high-level shooter, passer and ball-handler.

Even as rookies, the combination of LaVine and Wiggins should form one of the most exciting second-unit duos in the league. They are both only 19, so there will be plenty of growing pains, but you could not ask for two better athletes to run the break and catch lobs from Rubio. Minnesota will have two different identities next season - a halfcourt team built around Pekovic and an uptempo team with Dieng protecting the rim and helping to trigger the break.

It’s a best of both worlds scenario for the Wolves, as they can grow a group of promising young players for the future without sacrificing wins in the present. LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng can all start their careers in small roles on a team full of veterans, instead of being forced to carry heavy loads on one of the worst teams in the NBA. And with those three on the roster, Minnesota is the rare rebuilding team that won’t have to sweat the results of the lottery too hard.

In a best-case scenario, Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng form the core of a playoff team in a few years time, with Saunders filling the PF spot either though the draft or dealing one of the remaining vets. If he can land someone like Kentucky freshman Karl Towns, a two-way 7’0 who can protect the rim on defense and play on the perimeter on offense, the Wolves could have a future starting five of under-26 players who can excel on both sides of the ball. 

Of course, there will be plenty of bumps and bruises along the way and there are no certainties when it comes to projecting young players. Rubio has to become a better shooter, Dieng only has a month’s worth of good games under his belt and Wiggins and LaVine have proven nothing at the NBA level. There’s a lot we don’t know about each of them and the Wolves don’t exactly have a great track record of developing prospects over the last decade.

However, after years of failed lottery picks, they finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA. If a lost decade in Minnesota has proven anything, it’s that no player, no matter how talented, can single-handedly carry a franchise into the playoffs out West. Andrew Wiggins is a good start to a rebuild, but he’s far from the only thing Wolves fans have to be excited about.

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