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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.

Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. The logic is simple - since the Americans have the best athletes and the most skilled players in the world, they should be playing in as much space as possible. Coach K was playing 4-out basketball before it became fashionable in the NBA, most notably in 2012, when he used a frontcourt of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.

LeBron and Carmelo were never going to play internationally in 2014, but Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George were expected to be mainstays on the roster. In a perfect world, they would have split the majority of the time at the forward positions, giving Team USA an almost unbeatable combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. Instead, Love withdrew before training camp started, George was injured and Durant got cold feet at the last minute.

As a result, in a 95-78 win over Brazil in a scrimmage this weekend, Coach K started Kenneth Faried at power forward and brought Rudy Gay off the bench. While it’s hard to be too critical of a 17-point win over a good team, the game was closer than the score indicated. Faried and Gay are proven NBA players, but neither is likely to make an All-Star team and they don’t have the combination of skill and athleticism to blow international teams off the court.

In the modern game, power forward is the most important position on the floor. It determines your identity as a team - a traditional big man means a two-post team that wants to slow the tempo, attack the glass and play through the post, a combo forward means a four-out team that wants to speed up the game, spread the floor and slash at the rim. As a rule, bigger teams struggle with floor spacing on offense while smaller teams struggle on defense and the glass.

At the international level, where there isn’t nearly as much size as there is in the NBA, you can get away with playing smaller guys at the position. That’s the bind Team USA has traditionally put other teams in - their big men don’t have the size to exploit guys like Durant and George in the post and they don’t have the quickness to defend them on the perimeter. If they downsize and try to play with four perimeter players, they play right into Team USA’s hands.

That dynamic changes without those guys on the roster. On Saturday, the only small-ball PF’s on hand were Gay and Chandler Parsons. It’s a dramatic downgrade on both sides of the ball - they don’t have the athleticism to blitz teams on defense and they aren’t nearly as dynamic on offense. Other countries would be more than willing to have Team USA run offense through them. The talent gap is still there, but the rest of the world can match up with the Americans.

When Faried was in the game, Team USA became much more conventional. At 6’8 230, he likes to crash the offensive glass and is most effective playing in the paint. While he has received raves for his energy level and hustle in training camp, he can’t shoot and doesn’t have the skill to create a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor. In many ways, he represents the worst of both worlds at the position, since he can’t defend the pick and roll or protect the rim either.

The only reason Coach K could stick with his offensive schemes was the presence of Anthony Davis at the center position. Davis was the best player on the floor for most of the night and his ability to run the pick-and-pop and knock down the 20-foot jumper allowed Team USA to play 4-out even with Faried on the floor. While he has the size to play as a small-ball center in the international game, Davis is also the best power forward on the roster.

Given the lack of options at the forward positions, that is the adjustment that could make the most sense for Team USA. If Davis is going to play big minutes on the perimeter on offense anyway, Coach K might as well pair him with a bigger player who can protect the rim. All three of the centers still in the running to make the team - DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee - would make more sense next to Davis than Faried, Gay or Parsons.

Even before a knee injury that kept him out of the game against Brazil, Cousins was seen as a longshot to make the cut to 12 players. However, his ability to play out of the post would give the Americans a whole different dimension on offense and he can’t be any worse at defense, either on the perimeter or in the paint, than Faried. The duo of Cousins and Davis would be an absolute nightmare to defend and would give Team USA a ton of length and skill upfront.

What makes Drummond so interesting is that he is simultaneously the biggest player on the roster as well as the one reserve who would significantly improve the Americans overall athleticism. At 6’11 275, his ability to run, jump and stand at the front of the rim at would represent a huge mismatch problem for other countries. While he can’t operate outside of the paint, the shooting ability of Davis means Team USA could play Drummond and still space the floor.

Plumlee would represent a compromise choice, as he’s more athletic than Cousins and more skilled than Drummond. Of course, he isn’t nearly the player the other two are and it seems unlikely he would even be in consideration if he hadn’t played at Duke. Nevertheless, like the other two centers, he would represent a dramatic upgrade from Faried in terms of his ability to protect the rim and match up with the Gasol brothers in a game against Spain.

In the last two Olympics, Coach K has been able to get away with going small against a much bigger Spanish team, knocking them off in the gold medal game. However, the 2008 and 2012 teams had far more athleticism and skill than the 2014 version and the Spaniards stuck with them for all 40 minutes. This time around, if he moves Davis to PF and pairs him with a C, he can have the benefits of playing small while upgrading his team on both sides of the ball.

No matter what Coach K decides to do with his rotation, the Americans will be the favorites in Madrid. Not only do they have the most talent, they have a very easy draw, as the vast majority of their potential challengers will be other side of the bracket. However, a depleted talent pool means Team USA is as vulnerable as it has been in some time. If they leave points on the board in terms of building their roster, it could come back to haunt them.

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LeBron Opens Up His Own Finishing School In Northeast Ohio

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