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Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA concludes with a look at the Southeast Division, which features a number of young teams on the rise. While the Miami Heat have run roughshod over the division for the last four seasons, the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks have been patiently growing rosters who could now be in a position to take advantage of the departure of LeBron James.

It wasn’t a pretty process, particularly for Washington and Charlotte, which featured some of the worst teams in the NBA for years. After swinging and missing on several lottery picks, they didn’t have the talent base to attract many free agents and they had to spent a lot of time chewing their medicine, bleeding fans as they racked up huge loss totals. The Wizards eventually lucked out in the lottery while the Hornets made a few shrewd free agent moves.

They both appear on the right track, but the leap from good to great is the hardest one to make in the NBA, as the Atlanta Hawks can attest. They have made seven consecutive trips to the playoffs without cracking the Conference Finals and they don’t appear any closer to getting there, beyond hand-waving about cap space and flexibility. Just because a team is on an upward track doesn’t mean someone else can’t come in behind them and jump them in line.

Atlanta was forever haunted by passing up Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 and a lot of the upside in Washington and Charlotte will depend on what happens to the final lottery picks they made before becoming playoff teams - Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh. Unless you have a transcendent superstar like LeBron, you need to have everything else in place and all the pieces have to be lined up in order to be an elite team in the NBA.

- Miami Heat: Norris Cole

If you want to know why LeBron James is back in Cleveland, you can start with the dearth of young talent in Miami. After years of ignoring the draft, there were not many young players on the Heat roster that LeBron could look at with confidence as he tried to figure out where the team would be in 2-3 seasons. The only real candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is a guy who is going to have to fight to earn a contract extension.

Cole has played a valuable role as a backup PG on two championship teams, but he’s still an inconsistent offensive player whose never had a PER above 9 playing at one of the most fungible positions in the league. For all that he does as a defensive spark-plug and energy guy off the bench, a 6’2 guard who can’t create a lot of offense is only so valuable in the NBA. Once Miami drafted Shabazz Napier in the first round, the clock started ticking for Cole.

- Washington Wizards: Otto Porter

Porter’s rookie season didn’t go exactly as planned, as an early injury and the Wizards emergence in the playoff picture relegated him to the end of the bench. Nevertheless, he’s still only 21 years old and he still has a very intriguing skill-set for a 6’9 forward. The key for Porter is developing his jumper, as the threat of the three-pointer should open up the rest of his game and allow him to thrive on offense without spending too much time in the paint.

With Trevor Ariza in Houston, there should be more minutes for him this season, especially since Washington is going to want to carefully monitor Paul Pierce’s playing time. The Wizards' second-unit is still in flux and Porter could carve out a nice role for himself as a secondary playmaker and versatile defender. If all goes according to plan, a strong sophomore campaign could propel him towards a spot in the starting line-up in 2015.

- Charlotte Hornets: Cozy Zeller

The transition to the NBA wasn’t easy for Zeller, who went from being one of the biggest players on the floor in college to average-sized for his position. After spending most of his life playing inside-out, he had to learn to play outside-in. He started to pick up steam as the season progressed and he became more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, taking on a bigger role in the rotation and averaging much better numbers after the All-Star break.

Still only 22, Zeller should have a much bigger role for Charlotte this season and he could really benefit from playing with Lance Stephenson. His NBA ceiling will still depend on his perimeter jumper, but his ability to run the floor, crash the glass and play with the ball in his hands at 7’0 240 will make him an effective weapon against second-unit big men. Going forward, the Indiana big man combination of Zeller and Noah Vonleh should be fun to watch.

- Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroeder

After dazzling observers at Summer League, Schroeder came back to Earth as his rookie season progressed and NBA teams began daring him to shoot from the perimeter. Hawks fans can only hope that Schroeder spent most of the summer in the gym working on his jumper, because that’s the main thing holding back from being an excellent NBA player. For the most part, a player who plays a lot with the ball in his hands has to be a threat to score it.

While only 6’1 170, Schroeder is an excellent athlete with long arms which allow him to play bigger than his size. If he could handle a bigger role on offense, it would allow Atlanta to play more two-PG line-ups and free up Jeff Teague to hunt for his own shot, ala Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. With Al Horford and Paul Millsap opening up the lane, there should be plenty of driving lanes on the floor for explosive guards like Teague and Schroeder.

- Orlando Magic: Tobias Harris

You could put a number of different guys in Orlando in this spot, as the Magic have young players trying to establish themselves in the NBA at almost every position on the floor. The three lottery picks taken by the new regime - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon - will be given every chance to show what they can do, but everyone else on the roster is fighting for a spot in the pecking order and a place in the long-term plans of the franchise.

Harris is a prime example of that, as minutes at the two forward spots in Orlando are suddenly in short supply. Like most combo forwards, he is probably most effective as a small-ball PF, but you could say the same thing about Gordon and the Magic didn’t give Channing Frye $32 million to ride the bench. Harris can score and rebound the ball, but he will have to expand his game to hold down a starting job and secure a contract extension in Orlando.

How Lance Stephenson Left Behind Pacers For Hornets

Part of the allure that the Charlotte Hornets presented inside a deluxe Las Vegas hotel captured the mind of Lance Stephenson. Patrick Ewing patted a son of Brooklyn on the shoulder and shared with him stories of Michael Jordan, shared endless possibilities with an old rival in Kemba Walker and a connection only these New York stars can produce.

Ewing, Jordan, Walker and a stable coaching staff formed a major draw and ideas for a new future for Stephenson, but over and over, he mostly kept coming back to what failed to happen with his old franchise.

Before Stephenson had committed to Charlotte, his representatives had recognized his successful growth with the Indiana Pacers and a desire to stay. Move a salary off the books, move a player here or there and keep your homegrown talent, Stephenson’s management team urged the Pacers’ front office. With the ability to shed part or all of Luis Scola’s and Donald Sloan’s contracts, people involved in negotiations brought up scenarios to remove those deals to create an increased Year 1 and Year 2 salary for Stephenson in a deal with Indiana. Suggestions went unanswered, without execution.

Under the direction of Larry Bird and Herb Simon, the Pacers remained resistant in their contract offer to Stephenson, and lost him. Bird had called Stephenson’s behaviors “disappointing” late in last season’s playoffs, had failed to convince ownership enough of his former second round pick to spike into a luxury tax area, but Stephenson was his guy. He always shielded Stephenson privately and publicly. Away from this partnership, Stephenson understands there’s no turning back now, no grudge to keep.

“I never noticed anything change between us, nah,” Stephenson told RealGM. “Me and Larry were always cool.”

Cool, but how was the conversation with Bird? How was the explanation to his face -- or into his cell phone -- about why he found it unacceptable to be the lowest paid starter for two more seasons in the Pacers’ proposal? In the corner of a locker room recently, Stephenson shook his head.

“We didn’t have a conversation,” Stephenson said. “Haven’t talked. I’m focused on winning here now. This group of guys is good, hungry, and we want to win. This team is young and hungry to get far.”

For Stephenson, the plane flight to North Carolina in July washed over him that he’d need to leave behind Bird and Donnie Walsh, Frank Vogel and Paul George. For all of Bird’s imprints on Stephenson, Walsh sat courtside late in the Eastern Conference finals in the spring -- pointing toward George and Stephenson shooting pregame, admiring Stephenson and vowing he was emerging behind George’s stardom.

Stephenson had people in his ear a lot there, but he had the same people in his corner too.

“I’m sure part of him, part of his heart stayed for a little while,” Steve Clifford told RealGM. “When you’re in one place for four years, playing with primarily the same guys, it’s a significant change. But change is part of this league, and he’s fit in well with our guys.”

The maturation process continues for Stephenson under Clifford, one of the NBA’s best system coaches. Even given a depleted roster at times or a difficult stretch in the schedule a season ago, Clifford prevailed with foundation, structured schemes and harmony with his players so their efforts never wane. The Hornets brought four gritty players into training camp, and so far Jason Maxiell is the leading candidate to be retained for the 15th regular season roster spot, a source said.

Before the Hornets could grant Stephenson a Las Vegas meeting, before they could ever give him a contract, Clifford needed to see something for himself.

“Before we talked to Lance about coming here, I watched a lot of film on him,” Clifford told RealGM. “That stuff in the playoffs, that’s one or two plays. The bottom line is, if you watched him last season and through the playoffs, he had a tremendous season. He’s a great pick and roll player and a great defender and rebounder.

“The two things that stand out about him are: he’s worked hard since he’s been in the league, and his competitiveness. [Jordan] spoke to Lance about the fact that it’s one of the ways he can get better. People view Lance’s competitiveness sometimes as a weakness, and sometimes he has to channel that energy in the right way.”

Hornets' officials around him, and Jordan showered a free agent target with as much praise as constructive criticism: How we’ll continue to mold you into one of the NBA’s best two-way players. How that edge in the playoffs could work on LeBron James next time around. How you need the Hornets as much as we need you.

Everyone will wait for the next outburst, Jordan told Stephenson, but controlled emotion is key to competition. Now, Stephenson knows cameras will heighten on him for soundbites and endless highlight scrolls come postseason in Charlotte. This is why he spent part of the summer receiving training and guidance from his representatives on ways to handle being the player sent to the press conference room after a playoff game, ways to win over an interview in victory or defeat.

Already, Stephenson’s had interest off the court in local endorsement deals, but he has made clear to hold off on any commitments until the season starts. His deal with AND1 runs for two more seasons, so any discussion of a shoe partnership with Jordan is simply speculation for now. Whatever, because Stephenson is still configuring his knowledge of Clifford’s play sets.

“I’m trying to learn the offense still,” Stephenson said.

Before Stephenson attended the Hornets' meeting and was handed team material on that July night in Las Vegas, pleas were made to find salary space and a shorter-term deal with the Pacers. No one would be released or traded by the Pacers for this; negotiations held firm. “No regrets. I just want to win games,” Stephenson says, and so he bet on himself and took a deal to enter free agency again for the NBA’s cap spike.

No forever bond with Larry Bird and the Pacers. No turning back now for Lance Stephenson.

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets, a number that was closer to Jodie Meeks (3-years, $19 million) than Chandler Parsons (3-years, $45 million). Nevertheless, he was one of the best all-around players available in free agency. The Indiana Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Over the last four seasons, Stephenson went from second-round draft pick to integral part of the Pacers core. As he has gotten better, so has Indiana. He was a benchwarmer on a 37-win team, a fringe player on a 42-win team, a starter on a 49-win team and a featured player on a 56-win team. His emergence allowed them to survive the loss of Danny Granger, the best player on their team four years ago. This time around, they don't have anyone in the pipeline who can replace Stephenson.

The Pacers built an elite team through the draft - three of their starters (Stephenson, Paul George and Roy Hibbert) were draft picks and the fourth (George Hill) was traded for one. However, as they have dropped lower in the first round, the pipeline has dried up. They have almost nothing to show for the last three drafts - they dealt their first-round picks in 2012 and 2014 for Luis Scola. Solomon Hill, their first-round pick into 2013, was a senior without a high ceiling who didn't get a lot of minutes as a rookie.

It's tough to sustain a run at the very top of the conference without a transcendent player like LeBron James. A team like the Pacers needs all five starters pulling in the right direction, which is hard to maintain over 4+ seasons - someone gets hurt, someone gets a bigger contract with a new team, someone gets old. Paul George is on the upswing, but Roy Hibbert and George Hill seem to have peaked and David West is 34 next season. They are going to need more from the SG position next season, not less.

Stephenson only had a 19.4 usage rating last season, but his departure leaves a giant hole in their offense. Despite being tagged as a selfish player, he was their best playmaker, averaging 4.7 assists on 2.7 turnovers a game. Without him, they will have a much harder time moving the ball and creating open shots, especially when you consider how poorly they space the floor. Stephenson is one of the only SG's in the league who can shoot 3's, create his own shot off the dribble and run point.

Going forward, he was also one of their only areas for internal improvement. With West aging, Stephenson could have picked up a much larger share in the offense over the next few seasons. Instead, they will have to depend on Hill and Hibbert, neither of whom has shown much of an ability to assume a bigger role. George is only 23, but the team is getting older around him, is in a market that has never attracted free agents and doesn't have many assets they can turn into another elite player.

The Hornets, after making the playoffs for the first time in four years, now look like a perennial playoff team in the East, for whatever that's worth. With Stephenson and Al Jefferson in place, they have two foundational pieces to build around as well as wealth of young talent that can develop in small roles on a good team, much like Stephenson did in Indiana. They won't win the Eastern Conference overnight, but they have a good young core that should grow and improve together over the next few seasons.

Stephenson takes the spot of Gerald Henderson, a solid player who was probably stretched in the role of a starter on a good team. Henderson has the size and athleticism of a starting SG, but he's a limited offensive player who doesn’t shoot 3's or create shots for anyone else. Replacing him with a player who can shoot, create and pass like Stephenson has a domino effect on the rest of the line-up - there is more space on the floor for everyone else to attack and more opportunities for them to get open shots.

He will make everyone in Charlotte better. His presence will relieve some of the ball-handling and playmaking pressure from Kemba Walker, who shot 39% from the field and was stretched as a primary option. It will create more opportunities for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to get out and run, as he and Stephenson should form one of the most athletic wing duos in the NBA. Stephenson can run pick-and-pop plays with Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson and get them easy shots, just as he did with West in Indiana.

Charlotte is a great situation for him, on and off the court. It's a fresh start where he can play unencumbered from some of the baggage he picked up in Indiana and they play a four-out system which better suits his talents. Williams, after shooting 36% from 3 on 3.5 attempts a game in a similar role in Utah, should be able to step in and fill Josh McRoberts role as the stretch 4. Instead of playing in a two-post system without any driving lanes to the rim, Stephenson will be able to play in space.

And rather than everyone around him getting worse, Stephenson will be on a team where everyone is getting better. Jefferson is one of the only Hornets players in his prime - Kemba is 23, Cody Zeller is 21, MKG is 20 and Noah Vonleh is 18. It's unclear exactly what any of those four will end up being in the NBA, but they've all shown flashes of high-level talent and they all still have a lot of room to grow. Unlike many lottery picks, they won't be asked to do too much too soon in Charlotte 

Stephenson is only signed to a three year contract, but three years can be a really long time in the NBA. Three years ago, Indiana looked like they would be permanently in the shadow of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. In three years time, they are likely to be worse than they are now and there's a good chance the Hornets will be one of the teams they are looking up at. At some point in that process, they might face Lance Stephenson in a seven-game series and wouldn't that be something.

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Leroux's 2014 NBA Draft Review

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2014 First Round Picks (Which Teams Own The Picks?)

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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has evident traits to translate into an elite player. Heís lengthy, relentless in drives to the basket, and displays a visible passion in both high and low moments in a game. His first season didnít match the expectations of the Bobcatsí No. 2 pick, and yet MKG remains a willing learner at just 20.

The NBA's Mediocrity Treadmill Since 84-85

The treadmill is somehow both more and less common than some might think. While teams tend to fall within the 30-49 win range, as would be expected in such a competitive league, the dreaded never-ending stream of late lottery picks is uncommon.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Final Edition)

Draft day has finally arrived and while everyone pines for the 2014 class already, this one has the chance to be sneaky good in the 'many quality starters' variety.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Wednesday/Quality Of Opp. Edition)

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The Eliminated (Eastern Conference Teams)

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