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Fixing the Charlotte Hornets

With little cap flexibility, the Charlotte Hornets have a tough path toward improving its roster.

James Blancarte

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The Charlotte Hornets are a team searching for answers. The Hornets came into the season following a relatively successful 2015-16 campaign in which they went 48-34 and made the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Making the playoffs was a notable accomplishment for a team that had losing records in four out of the last six seasons going to back to the 2010-11 campaign.

The Hornets came into this season hoping that with continuing focus on defense and hustle, coupled with some offseason retooling, they would again make the playoffs. Unfortunately, things have not worked out quite so well as the Hornets are currently 30-39 and have little hope of making the postseason.

Understanding and embracing the following ideas may help the Hornets move forward after this disappointing season.

Accept the Season is Lost and Prioritize the Future

The Hornets went into a critical matchup with the Chicago Bulls on March 13. The Bulls had just lost five straight games and were struggling mightily. The Hornets needed to score a win to keep their own playoff hopes alive. However, the team suffered an unfortunate setback when starting small forward Nicolas Batum sat out due to severe migraines. Reserve forward Jeremy Lamb stepped up against the Bulls with a career-high 26 points but the Hornets still went on to lose.

Again without Batum, the team lost in a lackluster effort against the Indiana Pacers on March 15. The back-to-back defeats effectively ended any realistic hope of making the playoffs for a second straight year, a feat not achieved since before the inception of the Charlotte Bobcats, which came into existence in 2004. Now that the playoffs are effectively out of sight, the team should look toward the draft and offseason.

The Hornets hold both their first and second-round picks in the upcoming draft. They possess the 10th worst record in the league and only have a 3.6 percent chance at a top-three pick and a .8 percent chance of landing the No.1 pick. With 14 games remaining, they have three fewer losses than the New York Knicks and if they lose enough games, the Hornets could move up a few spots in the projected draft order. If, for example, they were to overtake the Knicks, the Hornets would have a 21.5 percent chance at a top-three pick and a 6.3 percent chance at the top pick.

With a talented draft class and the potential to improve their odds of landing a top pick, the Hornets should consider firing up the tank and resting their starters and veterans. This would allow younger players and prospects to showcase their long-term potential and gain experience, in addition to working towards improving their chances at a top draft pick. This would be beneficial for young prospects such as power forward Johnny O’Bryant III, who was recently signed for the remainder of the season and point guard Briante Weber, who recently signed a two-year deal with the Hornets, just before his second ten-day contract was set to expire. Developing young talent and having a better chance in the draft should be the goal at this point.

Bolster the Bench and Be Overly Cautious with Injuries

While scoring a high draft prospect helps in the long term, it’s unrealistic to expect almost any rookie to contribute meaningfully to a team in his first year. Where the Hornets are in need of serious help is with their bench. Of the players that played the majority of the season, only forward Cody Zeller and All-Star guard Kemba Walker sport a decent net rating, +4.3 and +2.5 respectively.

So far, only Lamb, 9.7 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting and offseason addition Marco Belinelli, 10.3 points on 42.3 percent overall shooting and 35.7 percent three-point shooting, have provided consistent bench production this season. The addition of younger players with potential, such as O’Bryant III and Weber, could help improve this situation if either takes a step forward in their respective games.

Compounding the bench productivity issue is injuries, which have forced bench players to move into the starting lineup and has left the bench even more depleted. For example, Zeller, who started 44 of 48 games, has missed time due to injuries. Trade acquisition power forward Miles Plumlee has only played five games so far for Charlotte due to a calf strain and even big man Frank Kaminsky III recent recently missed time with a shoulder injury.

All of the above has left the big man rotation in Charlotte in disarray, contributing to the lack of bench production and the disappointing results so far this season. While injuries are mostly random and cannot be prevented in most situations, Charlotte should look to add players with track records of being durable to guard against having to dig deep into their roster or look for help from players with little NBA experience. Additionally, they should be overly cautious with treating injuries to avoid recurrence and leaving players vulnerable to suffering other setbacks.

Address the Team’s Defensive Issues in Late Game Situations

The Hornets have struggled mightily in late game situations this season. In fact, this may be the single biggest reason why Charlotte has had such a disappointing season.

Per NBA.com, the team is 17-26 in games decided with a point differential of five points or less and were outscored by 10.9 pointers per 100 possessions in these clutch situations. Simply put, the team loses close games at an alarming rate.

The biggest problem is that the Hornets’ defense repeatedly falls apart at the end of close games. In clutch situations, the Hornets are giving up 124.4 points per 100 possessions, which is the second-worst rate in the NBA this season (placing them ahead of only the Los Angeles Lakers). Systematically, the Hornets have failed to make the right rotations, close out on three-point shooters and force opponents into tough shots. Usually, this sort of futility in the clutch is aberrant or can stem from simply having bad luck, as was the case with the Minnesota Timberwolves a few years ago. However, the Hornets’ lack of success in the clutch has been a consistent issue and it stems mostly from a shaky closing defense. This is something Coach Clifford will have to address heading into next season.

The Hornets could also look to adding a player with a track record of hitting clutch shots. Attracting free agents in small markets is not the easiest task, but perhaps taking a risk on a player like forward Rudy Gay, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear this past season would be worth the risk. In 28 games this year, Gay had a positive 2.8 net rating in the fourth quarter of games while shooting 45.6 percent overall and 42.9 percent on three-point attempts. The Hornets shouldn’t pursue a player like Gay simply because of last season’s clutch numbers, but if he shows signs of making a full recovery and fits in the team’s plans, he could in theory help with these late game issues.

Unfortunately, landing a player like Gay, even with his Achilles injury in mind, will require the Hornets to clean up their cap situation a bit and will also require that free agent to take a discount. This would be a hard sell considering the team isn’t exactly one player away from being a true contender.

Develop a Long-Term Solution to Address the Cap Situation

To put it bluntly, Charlotte’s cap situation is a nightmare, as is readily apparent when looking at Basketball Insiders’ salary data.

The Hornets have some tough choices to make and they need to decide whether they want to clear the ledger or simply make cutbacks where possible. Charlotte could choose not to exercise options on a few players, the key being a team option on career back-up guard Ramon Session’s contract. The league is full of young point guard talent and the team is better off saving nearly $6.3 million owed to Sessions, who would be going into his 10th year and hasn’t lived up to expectations in recent seasons.

The team can look to teams with cap flexibility who are looking for depth in a trade or who might be willing to take on additional burdensome salaries in exchange for a draft pick or two. Trading away Miles Plumlee, who has only played five games and is the team’s third big man, would save an additional $12.5 million annually. Additionally, trading away Lamb (owed $7 million in 2017) or Belinelli (owed $6.6 million in 2017), who they also just acquired, would help relieve their cap situation somewhat.

Charlotte will need to lock in a long term plan to ultimately determine how to best address their cap situation. Offloading salary is great if you have a plan to take advantage of that newly generated flexibility. But if their approach is to simply clear the deck without a well-reasoned plan in place to move forward successfully, it won’t make any real positive change for Charlotte.

Re-embrace the Defense-First Philosophy

Head Coach Steve Clifford has espoused the need for effort and intensity for years. He recently voiced his frustrations with the team’s defensive effort this season.

“We play with no discipline defensively,” Clifford said after the Hornets’ tough loss to Chicago. “We don’t. It’s been the story too many times this year. This is on me now. I have to do a better job of getting them to understand what we have to do.”

A major goal for next season should be to embrace, or re-embrace, the defensive philosophy that has been the hallmark of the Clifford era in Charlotte. The Hornets still rank in the top 10 in defensive rating this season, but last year they surrendered just 101.8 points per 100 possessions, whereas this season they are giving up 105 points per 100. While the Hornets have been pretty solid overall defensively, this team needs to improve its defensive performance since this is a more realistic path to improvement as opposed to improving significantly on offense.

Coach Clifford, venting his frustration with the whole season, spoke recently about his inability to coach the current team through its struggles.

“You know everyone talks about connecting, right? I’m supposed to be good at connecting,” Clifford said. “Well, I haven’t connected with this team, OK. [Because] I know what the problems are. [The players] know what the problems are, see. But the problems have not been fixed. And that’s coaching, that’s my job.”

The Hornets face a tough road ahead. Their cap situation limits their ability to make significant upgrades in the short term and the players they have don’t collectively have a ton of upside. However, this team has the net rating of a team that should have been in striking distance of the postseason but fell short in large part because of its terrible clutch-time defense. Fortunately, Steve Clifford has proven himself to be a talented defensive coach and should find some solutions during the upcoming offseason.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and the observing eyes in Las Vegas.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

For Scotty Perry, though, he’s more than just another promising prospect; he’s the latest entry on the list of things that the newly hired general manager has gotten right. 

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts worth barely enough to buy LeBron James lunch, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite.

Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in those few performances, though, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

If you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that among Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and strategically managing his cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future and Kornet hasn’t exactly appeared to be the next coming of Dwight Howard, so for the rebuilding Knicks, the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season. Yet together, they’ll carry the hopes of a billion dollar franchise on their backs.

Still, you don’t need to be able to count to a billion to understand that the ROI on Robinson could be exceptional. And it’s those crafty acquisitions that could help the Knicks maintain the space they’ll need to bring a superstar to Gotham City.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign. Robinson, like Knox, has given us over a dozen.

Truth be told, Perry has, too. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

In Vegas, Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim an in-prime Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. Nobody closed space from the weakside better than Camby, and few centers in the league were able to run out and contest jumpers like him. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

It truly isn’t rocket science. When you think back even over the course of recent history, ask yourself how long it took for the world to recognize and extol the virtues of the likes of LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis and even Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons. While each representing an extreme case, the truly impactful players are able to utilize their gifts to dominate and can usually do so from day one. Certainly, they can’t do it everyday, but the potential is there and it’s evident from jump.

The most you’re gonna get from summer league is a young stud showing you that he has some exploitable advantage over his competitors. For Knox, it’s his combination of ranginess and a better than advertised nose for the ball. For Robinson, it’s the incredible agility that an extended absence from the game doesn’t seem to have blunted.

The concept of exploitable advantage is where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. And although an extreme example, they are the specimen of what a team full of those types look like.

So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up fulfilling that potential will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job. That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused—irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, back in 2015, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York. He was the team’s best player and has since proven to be a surefire Hall of Famer, yet they improved without him.

One could argue it to be ironic that Kyrie Irving welcomed a trade to the Boston Celtics after spending years battling them, or that fans of the Los Angeles Lakers have actually begun calling LeBron James the King of LA while Kobe Bryant still flies in a helicopter over Orange County.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s ironic. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury. Infinite fanfare and declarations of grandeur. All for naught. In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns.

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