The Charlotte Hornets made a huge gamble this offseason by trading for Dwight Howard, a polarizing player who has departed every NBA franchise he’s played for under a cloud of controversy. The Hornets easily won the trade with the Atlanta Hawks, as removing the three years and $37.5 million guaranteed left for the unproductive Miles Plumlee was a win in and of itself.
However, recent comments by Howard indicate that he believes reuniting with coach Steve Clifford in Charlotte will give him an opportunity to recapture past glory. Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer apparently feels it’s a foregone conclusion that Howard will replace incumbent Cody Zeller as the team’s starting center. But is that the best idea?
The Hornets were 33-29 when Zeller played but just 3-17 without him. Had Charlotte maintained the same .53 win percentage with Zeller absent, the team would have won seven or eight more games, possibly reaching the fifth seed in the East. Zeller also joined Kemba Walker as the two greatest difference makers on the Hornets’ roster. Zeller’s +5.4 net rating led the team, just ahead of Walker’s +3.6. The team was 10.6 points per 100 possessions better with Walker on court compared to off, and +9 in net rating differential for Zeller. Their nearest teammate in net differential was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (+3.3).
As we gear up for the 2017-18 NBA season, we dig into the Hornets’ roster, one of the teams expected to make a move in the weakened Eastern Conference. Players are listed in descending order of salary for this season.
Dwight Howard, $23.4 million
“I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando,” Howard told Adrian Wojnarowski for an ESPN piece published Friday. “I’ve been in this system before, and I know how dominant I can be.”
Howard was referring to the similarities between Clifford’s system in Charlotte and the system Stan Van Gundy ran in Orlando when Clifford was an assistant. The biggest take away from Howard’s comments, however, is that he’s not looking to age gracefully in a more supportive role. He’s still looking to turn back the clock and sees the Hornets as a vehicle for that end.
On the plus side for Charlotte, both Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are better at executing the pick and roll than Dennis Schroder, the starting point guard for last season’s Hawks. Howard scores a supremely-efficient 1.2 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls but used fewer than 100 such possessions last season. It’s unclear if this resulted from a lack of proficiency in executing the pick and roll by Schroder or resistance from Howard to making the play a staple of his offense.
If Howard still believes that most of his offense should come from post isolation, it will be a bad sign for Charlotte. Howard scores about 50 percent fewer points per possession in post isolation than he does as a roll man. Year after year, Howard remains among the NBA’s least efficient post scorers.
Nicolas Batum, $23.4 million
Batum is a natural small forward, but so are Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom join Batum among Charlotte’s four highest-paid players. Williams has morphed into a stretch power forward since joining the Hornets while Batum starts at shooting guard, Charlotte’s position of least depth. Aside from Batum, the only other experienced shooting guard on the roster is Jeremy Lamb, whose issues we’ll discuss below. The Hornets paid a hefty price to steal Batum from the Trail Blazers. His ability to stretch the floor and set up Howard will be huge keys to determine if the new lineup can be a success.
Marvin Williams, $13.1 million
Williams has been a reliable shooter and defender for Charlotte, but his -0.5 net rating last season was worse than every Hornet to play at least 800 minutes except Lamb (-1.1) and the departed Ramon Sessions (-4.8). It will be critical for Williams to remain consistent as a three-point shooter if Howard does indeed replace Zeller as the starting center. Zeller is a more dynamic offensive player while Howard typically remains glued to the paint. The more Williams can continue to stretch the floor, the more it will insulate Charlotte from the spacing issues that significant minutes from Howard will generate.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, $13 million
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of adding Howard to the Hornets’ starting lineup is the prospect of pairing him for significant minutes with Kidd-Gilchrist, another non-shooter. Even if Walker, Batum and Williams remain steady contributors from the three-point line, there will be major spacing issues any time Howard and Kidd-Gilchrist share the floor. MKG is among the better defensive small forwards in the league, but his presence will make it impossible for Charlotte to deploy the type of four-out lineups Howard became accustomed to in Orlando. Look for Kidd-Gilchrist to play increased minutes with the second unit alongside Zeller. You may also see Williams play increased minutes at small forward with Frank Kaminsky standing in as the fourth shooter in lineups with Howard.
Cody Zeller, $12.5
Zeller, after battling injuries, became one of the breakout players from the last NBA season. No Hornet will have to sacrifice more if Howard is to receive the increased offensive role he’s seeking. The biggest question is, if inserting Howard as a starter doesn’t lead to wins, will the chemistry fracture if he’s asked to swap places and allow Zeller to resume his role as a starter?
Kemba Walker, $12 million
That Walker, an All-Star, has only the sixth-highest salary for Charlotte shows what a massive bargain he is, especially with two guaranteed years left on the deal. Walker is the Hornets’ engine and it will be on him to make new lineups work. Charlotte should have improved depth at point guard so, ideally, Walker won’t be counted on to shoulder quite as heavy a minutes load as last season.
Jeremy Lamb, $7 million
Among the nine Hornets to play at least 800 minutes last season, Lamb had the second-worst net rating. The former first round pick for the Houston Rockets has had a disappointing career to date but will be among the keys for Charlotte to improve this season. He’s the only natural shooting guard on the roster with the size to guard larger wings, if you accept that Batum is a natural small forward. Lamb posted a career-best 17 PER last year, well above the league average of 15, and it has trended up every season. However, Lamb shot a career-low 28 percent from three. The Hornets will hope for a bounce-back shooting season from Lamb, which, combined with his excellent rebounding for his position, would translate to a huge boost for Charlotte.
Malik Monk, $2.9 million
According to Cole Zwicker of NetScouts, Malik Monk was the most efficient college freshman on shots off the dribble since 2006, posting a spectacular 1.01 points per possession. However, Monk remains a mystery since we haven’t seen what he’ll be able to do against NBA defenses. Can he handle well enough to spend minutes as a backup point guard? Can he defend well enough to spend significant minutes at shooting guard despite his under-developed, 6-foot-3 frame? These are questions that remain to be answered, and we were denied a sneak peek since he was sidelined during NBA Summer League due to injury. Monk could end up the steal of the draft or he could struggle to find a position in the NBA. His range of outcomes is very wide, and the Hornets will need that outcome to be positive to bolster the team’s efforts to join the contenders in the East.
All inclusive list of the top Freshman wing high volume (min 100 attempts) off the dribble HC pull-up shooters since 2006. I'm going to bed. pic.twitter.com/5PiMKD2L9p
— Cole Zwicker (@colezwicker) May 14, 2017
Frank Kaminsky, $2.8 million
Kaminsky was one of only five Hornets to post a positive net rating last season among players with at least 800 minutes. As mentioned, his outside shooting will take on a greater importance this season with Howard’s arrival impacting the team’s spacing. Kaminsky has shot 33 percent for his career from three, which is below league average but still good for a big man. If he can improve on that percentage while also improving his rebounding (4.5 per game last season) and maintaining something close to the 11.7 points per game he scored last season, he will remain an integral part of Charlotte’s rotation and a bargain as he is still on his rookie deal.
Michael Carter-Williams, $2.7 million
MCW was a good get for Charlotte on a one-year deal at $2.7 million, but his lack of shooting makes this move a question mark, given the new team dynamics. In an ideal scenario for the Hornets, Carter-Williams could spend minutes in the backcourt with Monk where his size allows him to guard larger wings. The ball will be safer in Carter-Williams’ hands on offense than Monk’s, and the presence of Zeller with the second unit could lead to vastly-improved depth. That’s if everything works out the way it’s supposed to. If any of Charlotte’s pieces stray off script, it could prevent the team from reaching its full potential.
Aside from Carter-Williams, Shams Charania of The Vertical is reporting that the Hornets are expected to sign point guard Julyan Stone if he’s able to receive clearance from FIBA. Stone is 6-foot-7 and could also bolster the team’s wing depth. And the team has also signed second round pick Dwayne Bacon — who has received comparisons to Joe Johnson — to a minimum deal. Bacon looked excellent in Summer League, leading the Hornets with 15.7 points per game, including 29 in the finale against Orlando
The Hornets have a brutal November schedule, with a stretch starting Nov. 10 that includes games in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto, interspersed with home games against the Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards and Spurs. That means Charlotte will have to figure things out right away. There won’t be a light early schedule to ease Howard into the rotation, so we should know before the year is out if adding him was the right move.
The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft
College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.
Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.
It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.
However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.
A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.
Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.
There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.
This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.
But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.
With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.
Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.
Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.
But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.
College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.
NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?
Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.
But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.
The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.
So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.
Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up
The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.
The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.
Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.
Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.
Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.
Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.
NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs
The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.
Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.
Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.
“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”
Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.
“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”
Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.
“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”
That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.
“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”
In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.
“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”
That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.
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