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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: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu GinĂłbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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