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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

NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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