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NBA PM: A Sneak Peek At The Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets acquired Dwight Howard this offseason. Buddy Grizzard analyzes Charlotte’s roster and how Howard might fit in.

Buddy Grizzard

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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.

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.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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