Connect with us

NBA

How Charlotte Became Cleveland’s Biggest Eastern Obstacle

With an improving Kemba Walker and versatile defenders, the Hornets are the Cavaliers’ main challengers out East.

Ben Dowsett

Published

on

As debates rage around the league regarding which team in the Eastern Conference’s rising middle will claim the second seed, the more practical way of framing the question is really this: Which squad has the best chance of beating Cleveland in a seven-game series?

To whatever degree there’s really a valid response here – and there may not be – the answer might surprise you. Hype trains are running at full steam in Boston and Atlanta, and have combined with passionate noise from north of the border after a franchise-best season last year for Toronto. Together they’ve drowned out a group that could stand above them all, and more importantly could test the defending champs in ways the East hasn’t seen against a LeBron-led team in years.

The Charlotte Hornets aren’t sexy; Michael Jordan’s brand doesn’t seem to extend to the ownership suite. They were really bad for a number of years, eventually digging out of that hole through a combination of solid-but-not-flashy drafting and low-key savvy personnel moves.

They didn’t even draw that much attention last year, with arguably the franchise’s best season this millennium relegated to the runt end of a four-way tie for the third through six seeds and a wild first-round loss to Miami. Make no mistake though – this team was good, bordering on great.

At ninth in both cases, the Hornets were one of five teams to post top-10 marks on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, a common benchmark for elite teams – the others were Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the L.A. Clippers. That balance was evident elsewhere: Nine Hornets saw at least 1,000 minutes on the year and five of these used at least 20 percent of team possessions while on the floor. Head coach Steve Clifford put guys like Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams in the best situations of their careers, plus got solid performances out of young guys.

Charlotte’s 2016 offseason has been productive and understated. What looked like a dangerous summer with several major contributors hitting a historically lucrative open market turned into a significant positive.

A draft-day trade for Marco Belinelli was a bit strange, but it preceded multiple A+ moves. GM Rich Cho cashed in on a modest 2015 offseason gamble, re-signing Nicolas Batum to a long term deal after betting on the franchise’s ability to retain the Frenchman after just one season in town. He inked Ramon Sessions to a team-friendly deal to back up Walker in place of departed Jeremy Lin and nabbed Summer League standout and high-ceiling big man Christian Wood.

His biggest coup, though, was re-signing Williams. Not only did Cho get a huge discount for a guy coming off a career year in a perfect role, but the Hornets were able to fit Williams in using his Early Bird rights – allowing them to exceed the cap while signing him and in turn leaving room for a flier on one-time Defensive Player of the Year candidate Roy Hibbert on a prove-it deal. This sort of savvy maneuvering can separate mid-market franchises from the pack.

The result is a team that’s at least 10 deep, with insurance on the roster for injuries or rough stretches and the versatility to throw a number of looks on the floor. Clifford’s base alignment likely remains Williams at the four and Zeller at the five, a spaced-out unit that poured in buckets regardless which wing played alongside Walker and Batum last year, but he can shift big in a hurry with Hibbert on the back line when Frank Kaminsky plays alongside him. The Hornets can throw a ton of length at opponents without sacrificing much shooting.

Walker is the spark plug, now heavily underpaid coming off a career year that looks more like his realistic output alongside well-fitting NBA talent than an outlier. The biggest test here will be his shooting from three, which jumped to 37 percent after hovering in the low 30s most of the rest of his career. Though there is reason to be skeptical of his higher three-point percentage, the optics are good: Kemba shot way more open and wide open threes last year than in previous seasons, per SportVU data,and his comfort level shooting was clear within a well-spaced attack.

The rest is already there if the jumper stays consistent. Walker is now on two consecutive years setting the league-wide standard for low-turnover creation among volume guards, posting an assist percentage/turnover percentage combo unmatched in the NBA both last year and the one before. Clifford’s scheme is meant to emphasize ball control, and it has clearly sunk in; there are few guards on earth who make you more comfortable with the ball in their hands.

Walker also quietly made big strides defensively, leaping from a bottom-third rating in ESPN’s Defensive RPM two seasons ago to a top-third rating last year, a difference of nearly two points per-100-possessions after accounting for team and opponent context. His limited stature caps his ceiling here, but he’s proven to be a smart positional defender who can do some pick-slithering and keep guys in front of him in the two-man game. Kemba easily could have been an All-Star last year, and continuation plus a few smart additions around him are all positive signs for him staying at that level.

Creation could be an issue when Walker sits, or especially if he misses any time, but Clifford has shown the smarts to make due. Batum is a crafty passer who exploits gravity extremely well to help cover only modest ball skills, and both Sessions and presumed third point guard Brian Roberts are capable initiators. Zeller and especially Kaminsky could be ready for more touches on the block next year, especially with bench units while Kemba sits down.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will return from an injury-plagued fourth season, and this is where the greatest of Hornets optimists will get their primary fix leading into the season. The Hornets absolutely destroyed teams during MKG’s brief court appearances last season, with per-possession advantages nearly one-and-a-half times the season-long marks of historically great teams in Golden State and San Antonio. This includes a nine-point win over the full-strength Cavaliers in which MKG played his personal season-high of 36 minutes.

The sample (just 205 minutes) obviously begets a healthy grain of salt with these numbers, but this looks and feels like much more than some hot-shooting outlier. Kidd-Gilchrist is among the game’s premier three-position defenders, and he’s a terror in a lineup with four other above-average offensive players: The Walker-MKG-Batum-Williams-Zeller unit, this year’s presumed starting five, more than doubled those Spurs and Warriors’ per-possession domination last season.

His limited shooting hurts much less in units like these, and Clifford now has many more options available to deploy similar lineups that mask MKG’s weaknesses and emphasize his elite skills.  Kidd-Gilchrist can play virtually 100 percent of his minutes with at least three long-range threats, and Clifford could even juice things to the max by sliding him up to power forward and running Kaminsky at center.

As Jonathan Tjarks suggested on a recent Basketball Insiders podcast, these kinds of lineups could emulate Billy Donovan’s usage of Andre Roberson as a roll-man in Oklahoma City last year – MKG is a good finisher at the rim with enough passing instincts to survive, and a Walker-MKG pick-and-roll with gravity-inducing shooters dotting the perimeter could throw even good defenses out of whack. And of course, at just 22 years old with a lost season behind him, Kidd-Gilchrist may not have reached his offensive ceiling yet.

With MKG back in the fold, the outline of a tough out for the Cavaliers begins to take shape.

Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist are two of the conference’s best-suited LeBron defenders (to whatever degree such a thing even exists), and having both presents a fascinating option against Cleveland’s bread-and-butter James-Irving two-man game: Put MKG on Kyrie. He should be fully past any injury residuals come playoff time, and has enough athleticism to stay with Irving when he’s 100 percent.

Meanwhile, Charlotte’s resulting ability to switch Irving-James actions and negate the instant mismatches that carried the Cavaliers to a title last year could be a really big deal. This leaves Walker on J.R. Smith, an iffy option to be sure, but there are no perfect scores against the defending champs defensively. The Hornets have the personnel to funnel things differently than nearly any other Eastern Conference challenger.

Speaking of funneling, no big man in the NBA has had more success against a downhill-rolling LeBron than Hibbert over the last several years. Maybe this isn’t 2013 Indiana Hibbert anymore, but those willing to write the 29-year-old off completely after a year in NBA defender’s purgatory under Byron Scott are jumping the gun. Hibbert was still an elite rim protector during his last season under a competent coach; his effect on James in their playoff matchups was real, and he alone offers more of a challenge at the rim than all three of Cleveland’s Eastern opponents in last year’s postseason combined.

It may not be enough to topple the Cavs, but the Hornets match up with Cleveland in a unique way that might give them more problems than anyone else in the conference. Walker will make Irving work on the defensive end, just as Batum will with James; Clifford has both the personnel and the chops to play the matchup game if Tyronn Lue tries to hide either of these guys elsewhere.

Williams is a strong foil for Kevin Love, a shooter who can stretch Love out on one end and do just enough against him down low on the other. MKG can check either of Cleveland’s stars, and one of he or Batum can be on the floor for 100 percent of LeBron’s minutes in a given series. Guys like Zeller and Kaminsky have the foot speed to do better than previous challengers against the Channing Frye bench units that smashed the East last May.

The Hornets were already better than you thought they were, and they’ve only improved after one of the best offseasons in the league. They’re primed to compete for the two seed in the East, and could stand above starrier names as the greatest challengers to the conference’s dominant defending champion.

 

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

Advertisement




Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

Published

on

It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

Continue Reading

Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

Published

on

A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

Continue Reading

Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

Published

on

The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending Now