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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

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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.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#28 – Jacob Evans – Golden State Warriors

Jesse Blancarte

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With the 28th overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Cincinnati Junior Jacob Evans.

Evans represents a solid pick for nearly any NBA team. Evans fits in the mold of a potential 3-and-D role player. Evans improved in his time at Cincinnati, culminating in his junior year, where he scored 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Evans spent three seasons at Cincinnati and rounded himself into a versatile two-way player who can bring a lot of value at the NBA level.

Evans is a very cognitive player, especially on the defensive end. He has a better grasp of his limitations than most players at this stage of their respective careers and is able to maximize his individual defensive ability within a team concept. Evans generally makes the right rotations, double-teams at the right times and funnels his opponents to where his teammates are when he cannot contain the ball-handler on his own. With the right coaching, he could become a valuable defensive wing in an NBA rotation sooner than some anticipate.

Additionally, Evans is more than just a shooter. He led his team in assists last season and has some skill as a playmaker. Evans will be more of a shooter and finisher in the NBA, but the ability to make the right pass, swing the ball when he isn’t open and take the ball off the dribble when necessary make him an intriguing prospect. This is especially true when you consider how valuable a player like Khris Middleton has become over the years, adding layers to his 3-and-D skill set each season.

The Warriors aren’t in need of an influx of talent but are happy to add Evans regardless.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#27 – Robert Williams III – Boston Celtics

With the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics have selected Robert Williams III.

Ben Nadeau

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With the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics have selected Robert Williams III.

Although there were early week rumors that the Celtics might try to trade up, they’ve ultimately elected to find a difference-maker at the end of the first round instead. For a team that nearly reached the NBA Finals despite debilitating injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Boston’s roster didn’t need a wholesale change on draft night. But at No. 27, they’ll be more than happy to leave with the mysterious-but-talented Williams.

Last year, Williams was viewed as a potential first-rounder before he returned to Texas A&M for his sophomore year. In 2017-18, Williams averaged 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 63.2 percent from the field, fueling the Aggies to a 22-13 record. During this current pre-draft process, Williams looked poised to become a mid-first-round selection once again — but his stock faded as the big night got closer. In fact, Williams even decided to watch the draft with his family, even though he was a green room invitee.

His stock has undoubtedly dropped as of late, but this may end up being the steal of the draft — naturally, he dropped right into general manager Danny Ainge’s lap. Williams, 6-foot-10, is a freak athlete that’ll bring a new look to an already fearsome defensive unit in Boston. At A&M, Williams won back-to-back SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and averaged 2.5 blocks per game. Of course, he’ll get the opportunity to learn from the hard-nosed Al Horford, a five-time All-Star and the defensive linchpin for Boston — a win-win situation for all.

Williams, 20, joins an extremely young core in Boston that also includes Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, among others.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#26 – Landry Shamet – Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers select Landry Shamet with the 26th overall pick.

Dennis Chambers

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With the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select guard Landry Shamet of Wichita State.

Shamet, if he is able to fulfill his potential, should provide the Sixers with some much-needed shooting, as their rotation was noticeably starved for another deadeye sniper.

A career 43.7 percent three-point shooter, Shamet sank 44.2 percent of his shots from downtown last season, and he did so while firing nearly six attempts from deep a game. Sliding Shamet at the guard position alongside franchise point guard Ben Simmons allows for another weapon at Simmons’ disposal.

Standing at 6-foot-5 and 21 years old, Shamet has the size to play either guard spot in the NBA (especially given Philadelphia’s lengthy and versatile lineup). Along with his shooting ability, Shamet also led the American Athletic Conference with 166 assists last season. With Markelle Fultz still a question mark for Philadelphia, Shamet provides a secondary ball-handler and playmaker, whether in the starting lineup or in the reserve unit.

The first round of the 2018 NBA Draft was a whirlwind for the Sixers, and they ultimately land two guards of very separate varieties: an upside-laden athlete in Zhaire Smith, and a skillful “veteran” rookie whose skillset is established.

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