Championship or bust has been the motto this past decade in the NBA. As some franchises have loaded up on stars in an attempt to win championships, others have torn their rosters down to the studs in an attempt to land the next big thing. This season has been strange because more clubs than usual find themselves firmly in NBA limbo -- neither bad enough to land a top pick nor good enough to be more than playoff fodder.
Nine teams in particular find themselves in this no-man’s land. We’ll take a look at each of these club’s situations and examine how potential paths forward will affect their organization, the trade deadline and the league itself going forward.
Next Up: Charlotte Hornets
The Path to the Middle of the Pack:
Say hello to the most boring team in the NBA. Most of the teams in this series appear here because of a tragic flaw on one end of the floor or the other. A leaky defense or a misfiring offense is typically the fastest way to be stuck treading water (or worse). The Hornets, however, don’t even have the common courtesy to be outlandishly bad at something.
Despite a less than flattering 24-32 record that suggests a broken franchise, this Charlotte team is actually fairly respectable on both ends of the floor. In terms of defensive efficiency, they’re actually quite good! Our RealGM database actually has the team in the league’s top 10, sitting 8th to be exact. On offense, things aren’t quite as rosy the Hornets sit 19th, but this combination typically doesn’t add up to a team stuck eight games below .500 and potentially on the verge of using the upcoming trade deadline to begin a franchise reset.
If you’re looking for a reason Charlotte is perilously close to becoming the latest lotto-land visitor, it comes in the form of a 7-foot, 240-pound center from Indiana (both the state and the college): Cody Zeller. In terms of his stature in the game, the 24-year-old isn’t exactly considered to be an NBA superstar. When it comes to this Hornets team, however, Zeller might as well be LeBron James.
When Zeller plays, Charlotte has outscored opponents by 175 points in 1044 minutes. To put that in perspective, that’s the scoring differential of a 64-win team (not a typo). When Zeller’s not on the floor doing basketball things, the Hornets are scoring differential is akin to a 26-win outfit. It should come as no surprise then to find out that in real games, the Hornets are 22-17 when Zeller is in uniform (putting them roughly on pace to repeat their 48-win season from last year) and a dreadful 2-15 when isn’t-- quite the swing.
What’s even stranger is that a team in Charlotte’s position is very rarely hamstrung by a singular issue. Usually in the process of dissecting a season gone awry, you come across a series of smaller deficiencies spread between strategy and roster construction that have dragged a franchise down. For the Hornets, it’s clear that the root cause of their struggles this season has been the availability of one solid, if unspectacular big man. The real mystery in this case, is why?
When looking at Charlotte’s roster before a recent trade with Milwaukee, it’s not as if they lacked options at the 5 to turn to in Zeller’s absence. Frank Kaminsky (who is mostly used as a 4), Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes all have shown the ability to competent rotation cogs either with the Hornets or other teams. It’s not as if Kaminsky, Hibbert and Hawes lacked the physical profile or a definable skill to provide the team cover at a crucial position.
The problem for Charlotte, however, was two-fold. The first part was that those three players all weren’t actually good at the things they were supposed to be do well. Kaminsky is an inside-out big who has not proven capable of posting up (49th percentile, per Synergy sports data) or knocking down 3’s (30.8 percent this season). Hawes is a “stretch 5” that has spent two of his past three seasons well below league average from beyond the arc (29.1 percent this year to be exact). Hibbert was brought in to be an off-the-bench defensive specialist who, due to health, age or the evolution of the league, has had no impact on the team’s defense -- in fact, Charlotte was actually better on that end of the floor when Hibbert sat, per NBA.com data.
The second part of Charlotte’s problem to cope without Zeller is that none of those three players, even had they have lived up to their theoretical labels, do things that mesh well with the rest of the roster. The Hornets' offense, like most teams in the NBA, thrives off running pick-and-rolls. To be a good pick-and-roll team at any level of the sport you need two key ingredients -- spacing and penetration.
When it comes to the former, Charlotte has enough threats that manufacturing open real estate around pick-and-rolls. Kemba Walker (39.5 percent), Nic Batum (36.0), Marco Belinelli (37.4), Marvin Williams (34.5 percent after a career high 40.2 last season) and Kaminsky (30.8) aren’t striking fear into opposing defenses the way Steph Curry does behind the 3-point line, but they all possess at least enough gravity to make a defender think twice before abandoning them to crash into the paint. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, despite still losing a battle with his shooting mechanics, can keep help defenders honest with cuts to the basket a la Dwyane Wade.
The latter aspect of a successful pick-and-roll is where Charlotte’s roster comes up short. Despite his improvement, Walker is still a mid-range master at heart. His pick-and-roll success comes from punishing “drop” coverages (where the big sags back toward the paint) with mid-range jumpers or knocking down 3’s when the on-ball defender dares to sneak under a screen. Batum has been horrifically bad as a scorer in pick-and-roll this season -- 17th percentile per Synergy’s database -- but showed last year he does a fine job acting as a distributor out of the action, whether it’s to shooters spotted up along the arc or…..a roll man diving to the rim.
This is where we start to see why Zeller has emerged as such a crucial piece of this Charlotte team is because he is the only big man, until the Miles Plumlee trade (more on that in second), that is both willing and capable of rolling to the rim -- giving the team a vertical, basket-attacking threat they lack out of the action.
The ability for a roll man to suck defenders into the paint because of the threat of a rim finish is a crucial aspect of any pick-and-roll attack, likely why Charlotte’s offensive rating jumps from 102.8 sans Zeller to 108.6 with him on the floor, per NBA.com. Hawes, Kaminsky and Hibbert all lack this crucial trait. While they do roll on occasion, none of those three are either naturally inclined to do it (because they prefer to pop and shooter jumpers either at the 3-point line or around the elbow) or very effective at finishing at the rim in traffic. And in Hibbert’s case, he’s not exactly rumbling into the paint at ludicrous speed.
Zeller on the other hand, puts in a yeoman’s work possession after possession -- setting screens, diving to the basket, then coming back out and doing it all over again if necessary. While it’s easy to get caught up in physical traits like finishing ability, the willingness to simply screen and roll to the basket multiple times in a possession, game after game for a grueling NBA season is a skill in itself (and a surprisingly rare one at that). And while lob dunks are often the first thought when it comes to a screener finishing off a pick-and-roll, Zeller’s effectiveness comes from his ability to two do things: catch early on the roll (at or above the free throw line) and finish with one or no dribbles and hit difficult little touch shots when defenders scramble back to cut off his path to the basket.
Now what makes this whole Zeller phenomenon even more entertaining is that he really isn’t a great finisher out of pick-and-rolls, ranking in the middle third of the league per Synergy data. A fair amount of the time, Zeller’s aggressiveness in attacking the basket wind up with his shot getting blocked. Yet that fervor to try to finish everything at the rim sucks in the defense and opens things up for the rest of the Hornets offense. It’s not a surprise to find that Batum’s assist rate is up and turnovers are down per 48 minutes when Zeller is on the floor with him, per NBA.com.
All this makes easy to see now why the Hornets made the deal to nab Plumlee from the Bucks. With Zeller off the floor, the team lacked a player capable of crashing down the lane out of pick-and-rolls. It makes sense on a theoretical level, but Plumlee has failed to make a big impact from the jump. The reason being that in his limited time in the Charlotte rotation so far, the team has been absolutely destroyed defensively -- which is where we also see Zeller’s value.
Steve Clifford is a savvy defensive mind. Anyone that can craft a defense that lands in the top 5 of efficiency with Al Jefferson at center -- as Clifford did in 13-14 -- definitely deserves some props. As the NBA has seen more of the Steph Curry/Damian Lillard types aggressively exploit bigs setting deep into the paint by shooting 3’s and mid-range jumpers with impunity, coaches like Clifford have responded by asking their bigs defending pick-and-rolls to play “up to touch” far more.
That NBA lingo means almost exactly what you think: a defender guarding the big in pick-and-roll plays at the level or touching the screener. It’s a tactic best used to either impact ballhandlers (meaning they don’t just come off and go wherever they want) or prevent the Curry’s or Lillard’s of the world from taking a dribble to or just past the screen and launching an uncontested long range bomb. Not all bigs, an extreme case being someone like Hibbert, have the mobility to pull such a tactic off.
Even Plumlee, who is an upgrade over Hawes and Hibbert when it comes to moving in space, isn’t nearly as good in this role as Zeller. Because of his ability to slide with ballhandlers, Zeller can snuff out drives and recover back to the screening bigs as well as any center in the league. He can also turn up to touch into semi-traps and force ballhandlers into bad decisions:
In related news, Charlotte is drastically improved defensively when Zeller is available as well. The Hornets defensive rating of 100.8 with Zeller on the floor would be a better mark than the league leading Spurs if it held up for an entire season, according to NBA.com’s data. Clearly, Zeller is an important piece of the Charlotte puzzle -- something that makes you wonder about the general state of the team going forward.
Reload, Rebuild or Stand Pat?
As Zach Lowe pointed out this past Friday, Charlotte’s collection of assets and personnel isn’t exactly the envy of the league. The Hornets overpaid to bring back Batum and Williams this past summer. The Plumlee trade brought them another eight-figure salary and Zeller’s extension kicks in next season.
So while Walker continues to get more efficient each season, this team has very limited upside. As I pointed out in a preseason preview, Charlotte could have repeated last year’s 48-win pace, or even improved slightly, and chugged along just fine. After all, hanging around the middle of the East’s playoff picture for a handful of season, maybe hitting a crescendo of a conference finals, wouldn’t be the worst end game for a franchise. The rough start due to an extended absence by Zeller has now changed the perception of the team.
Charlotte is now at a point where tanking for a high pick in a loaded draft seems prudent -- if they can get bad enough. And therein lies the rub. While Batum would be a nice piece to a team closer to Finals contention, he’s salary makes it hard for salary-strapped team to acquire him. Ditto for Williams, though that’s more so because his production doesn’t match up to his money. With those two, Charlotte isn’t going to be bad enough to give themselves a real shot at a franchise-changing pick at the top of the lottery.
And if the team can’t move Batum or Williams, it makes little sense to trade Walker as Thursday’s deadline approaches. It’d essentially be swapping an All-Star point guard for a slightly better chance at drafting a kid that perhaps equals his level of production years down the road -- all while Batum and Williams sit on the books and prevent a full-scale rebuild.
On top of that, the move for Plumlee and his lengthy, expensive deal (four years and $52 million signed this summer) trigger a shift to being all-in on this season. Any moves to counter that -- whether you deem it prudent or not -- would run counter to the direction the team was going with a trade they made just weeks ago.
The best course of action for Charlotte it seems would be to stand point. When Zeller is healthy, they’re a good team, certainly capable of climbing back into a less than stellar playoff chase -- as of now, they sit 2.5 games behind Detroit in the battle for the 8th seed. If Plumlee can adjust to Clifford’s system and give the Hornets a Zeller-esque type boost from the bench, they may even be better. Rebounding to a .500 season and a playoff berth would be a solid achievement and position the team to make improvements to the fringe of their rotation this summer in hopes of sniffing the 50-win mark as they did last season.
Given the number of truly dreadful and desperate teams -- see New Orleans taking a monster gamble on DeMarcus Cousins and Sacramento hitting the reset button in yesterday’s deal -- hanging out as a mid-tier playoff team doesn’t seem so bad. While everyone wants their team to ascend to greatness, Charlotte needs to stay the course and grind their back to simply being good.