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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.

Grading The Deal: Lance Stephenson Leaves Pacers For Hornets

The Indiana Pacers must find a way to replace Lance Stephenson midway through the offseason. Stephenson has agreed to a three-year, $27.5 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. The third season is a team option.

As my RealGM colleague Shams Charania reported, Stephenson met with Michael Jordan and other team officials in Las Vegas on Tuesday night when the offer was presented. The Pacers offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal shortly after free agency opened on July 1, but the two sides were not on the same page as time progressed. The Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks all had varying degrees of interest in Stephenson as well.

Stephenson’s agent, Al Ebanks, told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star that his client was seeking a short-term deal, which explains why he wasn’t quick to take more guaranteed money from the Pacers with an additional two years of security. Stephenson will make $1.5 million more in Charlotte this coming season than he would have under the reported Indiana offer. The total value of the Pacers’ offer was $16.5 million greater.

Four years after Larry Bird gambled on Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft, Stephenson is gambling on himself. Even if the Hornets exercise the third-year option on his contract, Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent once again at just 26 years old.

Grade for Stephenson: B-

There are two reasons why Stephenson is taking a calculated risk. There will be a larger offensive role for Stephenson in Charlotte, which could increase his value down the line. In addition, the NBA’s current television rights agreement ends after the 2015-16 season. Reports have indicated that the league will look to double the current fee, which would have a huge impact on future salary cap numbers and contract figures.

With that said, Stephenson is taking a chance. If he doesn’t continue to develop, which most expect him to do on a young, emerging team, he may not earn back the money he left on the table over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons (the back end of the initial Indiana offer). He also loses some the shine that comes from playing for a contender, which the Pacers may no longer be without him.

Ebanks stressed Stephenson’s desire for a shorter term deal than the Pacers offered, but the elephant in the room is the fact that he didn’t get that much more money. The average annual value of the Charlotte deal is just $300,000 greater than he have earned with Indiana. That leaves us to decide whether Stephenson was left hanging when the market died up and the Pacers moved on, or he truly valued hitting the market again in three years over waiting until his late 20s.

The Pacers will undoubtedly miss Stephenson, who provided much of their edge during the 2014 postseason, but it seems plausible that one of two things happened during negotiations. They pulled $44M offer off the table when Stephenson hesitated, or they offered him a five-year deal knowing full well that he wasn’t going to sign a contract of that length. Either way, Bird made a decision on how he valued Lance and didn’t budge.

I reached out to both sides asking if Indiana’s initial offer was still on the table up until the Hornets agreement, but both declined to comment.

Grade for Pacers: D+

Indiana deserves some credit for standing firm with their offer, especially in team’s NBA, but this loss cannot be looked at solely in a vacuum.

The Miami Heat took a step back with the loss of LeBron James, opening up the short-term window for the Pacers to contend. When LeBron left for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who will need some seasoning before reaching an elite level, Bird and Co. should have seen it as an opportunity to finally get back to the NBA Finals. The Eastern Conference is no longer top-heavy, but with Stephenson re-signed the Pacers would have been the favorite among a number of possible contenders -- including Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and Toronto.

Chemistry will often be mentioned as a positive for the Pacers with Stephenson gone, but that’s overstated. He may have cost himself a few million with his antics against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Indiana will severely miss his offensive tools and competitive nature.

The Pacers had the best defense in the NBA in 2013-14, but they scored just 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 23rd. Stephenson was often the only player on the roster capable of jumpstarting Frank Vogel’s offense when it stalled. He is volatile, and at times selfish, but can be a creative and willing passer. He led the Pacers in assists this past season.

Indiana needed help on the offensive end, even after signing C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez earlier this month, and the loss of Stephenson compounds the issue. Bird will almost certainly have to address the need via trade, unless the club is able to shed salary in a deal and sign a free agent outright. The market isn’t exactly flush with options at this point and if a cash-saving trade was easy, one might have already been made to free up space for a larger Stephenson offer or to target someone that is already signed.

Rodney Stuckey and O.J. Mayo have been mentioned in the past and present as options. Stuckey is a free agent, while Mayo would have to be acquired from the Bucks via trade.

Adding Stephenson looks like an odd move for the Hornets on the surface, but considering the current state of the Eastern Conference it helps their chances of making the playoffs for the second-straight season. Charlotte has Gerald Henderson and Gary Neal at shooting guard, which may mean a trade is forthcoming.

Signing Stephenson for roughly $9 million annually is good value, even if it carries risk as he becomes the second option on a good team after being the fourth option on a very good team.

Grade for Hornets: B

Kemba Walker, who will be a restricted free agent next summer, stands to lose the most. Stephenson is at his best with the ball in his hands, which will reduce opportunities for the third-year guard. Stephenson was Plan B for the Hornets, who signed Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $63 million offer sheet and then watched the Utah Jazz match it over the weekend. If the Jazz let Hayward go to the Hornets, Stephenson might have been forced to re-sign with the Pacers.

Like the Pacers, the Bobcats tend to struggle offensively. That means more latitude for Stephenson, but how will he handle himself without as much veteran leadership, fewer meaningful games and suddenly flush with cash remains to be seen.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

The problem with most mock drafts, especially early in the draft process, is the butterfly effect. If just one team in the lottery makes a surprise selection, it causes a chain reaction up and down the board that renders a lot of the previous speculation useless. At this point, I think it’s more useful to look at what each team in the lottery needs and what will be going into their decision-making process. With that in mind, here’s a quick sketch of one way it could go. 

1) Cleveland Cavaliers - Joel Embiid 

This is from David Griffin’s interview with ESPN last night - “I think we need to get a better fit for our roster. We’ve got an awful lot of talent and we just need to find the pieces that can serve as a conduit to make it gel.” That screams Embiid to me. When you have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the last thing you need is another perimeter player who needs the ball. That core needs interior defense and post scoring, which are Embiid’s two strengths.

2) Milwaukee Bucks - Jabari Parker

If Cleveland takes Embiid, some combination of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum go in the next three picks. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them and when you have multiple elite prospects on the board, you have to look at how they fit with the players already on your roster. In other words, which one makes the most sense playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo? I want an explosive scorer who can stretch the floor next to him, which would be Parker. 

3) Philadelphia 76ers - Andrew Wiggins

This would be a great fit for Wiggins, a guy who is more comfortable in transition than playing in the half court at this stage of his career. The one thing I wonder about with Wiggins and the 76ers is that he’s not the pick if you are going by advanced statistics. Here’s the PER of lottery picks from Kansas in the last two seasons - 28.2 (Embiid), 23.2 (Ben McLemore), 21.4 (Wiggins). He’s a guy you take based off the eye test and projecting future ability, not the data.

4) Orlando Magic - Dante Exum 

Orlando will be happy to take whoever falls to them, but Exum is the best fit with the players on their roster. At 6’6 195 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s a big guard who can run point, which would allow him to cross-switch with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt. Taking Exum would free up Oladipo to hound smaller guards on defense and hunt for his own shot on offense. In a best-case scenario, those two would become Orlando’s version of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

5) Utah Jazz - Aaron Gordon 

If the draft plays out this way, Utah at No. 5 would be one of the big swing picks in the lottery, as they would have first choice on a run of power forwards. Most people have Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle rated ahead of Gordon, but if they take one of those guys, they would have to go back to the two-post system they went away from this season. Gordon is going to be an incredible pick-and-roll player and he would allow them to play 4-out with Derrick Favors at the 5. 

6) Boston Celtics - Noah Vonleh 

In this scenario, Boston would have their pick of two fairly similar PF’s in Vonleh and Randle, which could be one of the more interesting debates in this draft. If you are going with the stats and collegiate success, you have to look at Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and lead Kentucky to the national title game. If you are looking at it from a tools perspective, Vonleh is the better outside shooter and he has much longer arms. 

7) Los Angeles Lakers - Julius Randle

I hate to say this about a guy from Dallas, but Randle is the guy I would not want in the Top 7-8 picks. He will put up a lot of stats, but he doesn’t project as a great shooter or a great defensive player and I want my PF to do one of those two things. Given the amount of shots and minutes that could be up for grabs in the Lakers frontcourt, Randle would have a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think his ceiling is as high as a lot of these other guys. 

8) Sacramento Kings - Marcus Smart 

Smart is one of the wild cards in the lottery - there’s a pretty high range of where he could go. It’s hard to see him sneaking into the Top 5 and if he doesn’t go to either the Lakers the Kings, the teams picking after them don’t really need a PG. Smart offers a lot of line-up versatility, as he can play as a SG next to Isaiah Thomas or a PG next to Ben McLemore, but the Kings are an interior defender away from being a solid team, so I wonder if they would reach here. 

9) Charlotte Hornets - Nik Stauskas 

This seems like the first spot where Doug McDermott could come off the board. Charlotte desperately needs outside shooting and they have the personnel to hide McDermott on defense. However, if they are committed to Cody Zeller at the 4 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the 3, Stauskas would be the more logical pick. He’s just as good a shooter as McDermott and he’s a much better passer who has the ability to run the pick-and-roll and create shots for others.

10) Philadelphia 76ers - Doug McDermott 

Philadelphia could go in a number of different directions, depending on who they take at No. 3. McDermott, for example, would make a lot more sense next to Wiggins than Parker. Wiggins can defend multiple positions and McDermott can’t defend any while McDermott’s shooting ability would open up the floor for Wiggins and Carter-Williams to attack the rim. I prefer players with more two-way ability, but he could score a lot of points walking into transition 3’s in Philly.

11) Denver Nuggets - Jusuf Nurkic 

If Brian Shaw wants to run more offense out of the low post, Nurkic makes a lot of sense. At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a 19-year old who is already big enough to score over most NBA centers. He comes into the league with a pretty solid post game and he moves well for a player with his mammoth size. He’s not getting up and down the court particularly fast, so taking him would represent a complete turning of the page from George Karl’s small ball style.

12) Orlando Magic - Adreian Payne 

If the Magic go with a perimeter player at No. 4, they will probably want to look at a front-court player at No. 12. Nik Vucevic is entrenched at center, but he isn’t much of a shot-blocker, so that’s a huge need in terms of how they are going to build their roster. I’m surprised at how far Payne is sliding in some of these mocks. He is a legitimate stretch 4 with elite athletic ability who has the ability to play interior defense and rebound - that’s exactly what Orlando needs.

13) Minnesota Timberwolves - Gary Harris 

Minnesota was a perfect example of the problems with fielding a line-up of one-way players. Nik Pekovic, Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are all poor defenders, while Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are both poor outside shooters. The result was a group that was worse than the sum of its parts. Harris doesn’t have the upside of a guy like LaVine, but he’s a safer pick who will instantly make the Wolves a better team on both sides of the ball. 

14) Phoenix Suns - Zach LaVine

I’m going to put the Suns as the floor for LaVine. They have three first-round picks in this draft, so they will be willing to roll the dice on a guy with as much pure ability as anyone on the board. He didn’t do much in his one season at UCLA, but he’s a 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, he has unlimited range on his jumper and he can handle the ball like a PG. LaVine has a chance to be a special player in the type of uptempo system the Suns run.

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