Things are not going well in Charlotte. But fans who expected a leap forward upon the return of the teal can take solace in two things:
1. The Hornets play in the East. Any roster sitting at 4-14 would be toast in the West, save for the very unique situation in which an injury-depleted contender reincorporates two of the league’s 10 best players. But the Hornets have played the second-toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team, with a four-game West Coast road trip and a bunch of home dates against Western Conference heavyweights already in the rearview. Things will get better, even with Charlotte’s bricky offense and a once-stout defense that has sprung gaping holes in all the wrong places.
2. The Hornets have been aggressive making trade calls, according to sources across the league.
The Hornets are searching for upgrades on the wing and at power forward, per those sources, and they are willing to talk turkey on basically anyone other than Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson. Free agents signed this past offseason can’t be traded until December 15, and few would be surprised if the Hornets make and take calls on Lance Stephenson ahead of that trigger date.
The Hornets viewed Stephenson as a dose of perimeter dynamism for a plodding offense built around Walker’s pick-and-roll work and Professor Al’s post-up trickery. The 2013-14 version of that offense didn’t really have a third leg — a creative off-the-dribble threat waiting on the weak side when smart defenses snuffed out the good stuff. Stephenson didn’t promise to solve Charlotte’s fatal spacing issues, but with Indiana he was an average 3-point shooter and a bullying rim attacker on the pick-and-roll.
It hasn’t worked. Charlotte ranks 27th in points per 100 possessions, and Stephenson has been a train wreck. He’s shooting just 37 percent overall and a ghastly 7-of-38 from deep. He passes up open 3s, choosing instead to whip out an array of fancy crossovers and behind-the-back jobs that go nowhere. Stephenson’s drive-and-dish game has opened up good looks for teammates, but his shooting issues have outweighed his bursts of productive creativity.
He’s clanking almost every pull-up jumper on the pick-and-roll, which means that when Stephenson can’t get all the way to the cup, he’s a borderline liability. Opposing defenses know that Stephenson won’t pull from deep, and they’ve taken an extra step or so away from him when he doesn’t have the ball. Charlotte’s offense is in clogged toilet mode, leaving Jefferson and the team’s ball handlers to navigate a thicket of bodies just to approach the dotted line:
That’s Gerald Henderson squeezing a pass to Jefferson on a left-side pick-and-roll. Note Stephen Curry barely guarding Walker. Charlotte’s newly re-signed point guard has a nice stroke and a “clutch” reputation, but he’s a career 31.8 percent shooter from deep struggling badly this season.
Here’s Walker turning the corner on a pick-and-roll with Jefferson, finding nowhere to go:
The Hornets rank toward the bottom of the league in drives per game, and they are among the league’s worst catch-and-shoot teams, per SportVU data.
Stephenson is an easy scapegoat, and that’s partly his own doing. His body language has been horrible, and that degrades morale. He pouts when he doesn’t get the ball on the weak side, flapping his wings and looking skyward as if his teammates have wronged him. He steals rebounds, and he hot dogs with the ball at times.
But this is not all about Stephenson — not by a long shot. He hasn’t made a dent in Charlotte’s shooting issues, but he’s an upgrade over basically any alternative available to Steve Clifford. Henderson can’t shoot 3s, falling out of Clifford’s rotation for a bit as a result. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has remade his jumper, but he’s not a threat from beyond 20 feet yet.
P.J. Hairston draws rain on his jumper, but he’s a rookie, and he has predictably struggled on defense. Charlotte played league-average ball on offense in the second half of last season, and while some of that was about Jefferson getting healthy after some ankle issues, the acquisitions of Gary Neal and Chris Douglas-Roberts let the offense breathe. Both are capable shooters, and Neal surprised the team with his ballhandling.
“I envisioned him more as just a spot-up player,” Clifford told me earlier this month. “But he can really play off the dribble.”
But Neal has been dealing with injuries, and he’s a defensive liability. The Hornets have played Walker and Brian Roberts, their backup point guard, together more in Neal’s absence, and defending with that kind of size deficit is always tough.
The Hornets don’t have a good defender with 3-point range in their entire perimeter rotation. Kidd-Gilchrist, who has missed the last 10 games with a foot injury, may be their closest thing to a two-way wing player; you know he’s going to bring killer defense every night, and on at least some of those nights, he’ll scrounge out points on cuts, transition chances, rebounds, and herky-jerky drives that confuse defenders.
They need Kidd-Gilchrist’s defense badly. Charlotte ranks 25th in points allowed per possession after shocking everyone with a sixth-place finish last season. The basic foundation is the same: Charlotte is keeping opponents away from the rim, limiting fast-break chances, coaxing a ton of midrange jumpers, and cleaning the glass.
Opponents are just hitting more shots this season. Charlotte’s opponents have nailed 65.5 percent of their shots in the restricted area, the second-worst mark in the league for defenses, and they’re torching the Hornets on corner 3s. Some of that is early-season noise, related in part to having faced a pile of elite Western Conference offenses.
But everyone is just a little bit worse this season, and with Kidd-Gilchrist gone, those incremental drips have added up to a deluge. Jefferson has always been a glaring minus on defense, but he survived in Clifford’s conservative scheme last season. He looks slower this season, both against the pick-and-roll and especially as the last line of defense at the rim. He’s nearly helpless there, a ground-bound swiper.
Leaks along the perimeter are forcing Jefferson to plug more crises, and he’s just unfit for that. Walker and Roberts are dying on screens or going far under them, leading to open jumpers or penetration into the middle of the floor:
Everyone has been weirdly susceptible to backdoor cuts, leaving Jefferson in the lurch near the basket. When opponents force the Hornets into rotations, the second or third rotation — the one where someone flies out at an open shooter — too often just doesn’t happen. Stephenson has been strong on the ball, but he has been late darting in from the weak side on help assignments; that’s him standing listlessly in the left corner as Tyson Chandler soars for a dunk:
This will all turn around some, but it’s possible Clifford pulled a bit of smoke-and-mirrors magic last season.
Kidd-Gilchrist won’t help their spacing, which was always going to be bad. The Hornets did nothing on the fringes to address their shooting woes in the offseason, choosing instead to hunt big game in Gordon Hayward and Stephenson. They splurged on a $14 million, two-year deal for Marvin Williams to replace Josh McRoberts as the stretch power forward who could toss entry passes to Jefferson. Williams doesn’t quite fit that role as a starter. He’s undersized, which can kill the Hornets on defense in the wrong matchups, and he’s a below-average 3-point shooter. Real stretch power forwards force opposing defenses to scrap basic principles in order to account for their shooting. They warp the very shape of opposing defenses.
Defenses don’t drop away from Ryan Anderson and Dirk Nowitzki like this on the pick-and-roll:
Those are unfair comparisons, of course. The Hornets didn’t sign Williams thinking he could shoot like those grenade launchers. But a stretch power forward who causes no disruption for enemy defenses really isn’t a stretch power forward. He’s just a smaller-than-usual power forward trying to survive at the position.
Charlotte fans clamoring for McRoberts should note he has shot 42 percent in limited minutes in Miami. The McRoberts of the early 2014-15 season would not fix what has ailed Charlotte. Peak McRoberts doesn’t panic defenses with his shooting, but he’s bulkier than Williams in the post and on the glass, and he’s leagues better than Williams as a passer, cutter, and screen-setter.
The Hornets could have re-signed McRoberts at just over $5 million per season had they made such an offer out of the gate on July 1, but they chose to let him field offers with the intention of matching, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. Bonnell reports that the strategy irked McRoberts, and multiple sources confirmed that chain of events.
In hindsight, it’s clear the Hornets did not do enough to remedy their lack of shooting. Any offense built around post-ups cannot afford to surround those post-up threats with crappy shooting. Ask the Grizzlies, who haven’t had an above-average offense since trading for Zach Randolph. They survive because of superior point guard play and the presence of a second all-world post player, Marc Gasol, who can provide a precious extra bit of spacing by facilitating from the elbows. 1
And now that they have a bit more shooting, depth, and comfort in Dave Joerger’s system, the Grizz are doing just fine on offense.
Hindsight is easy, of course. The hothouse of free agency is hard, with 29 rival teams, false rumors galore, and agents playing team against team while the clock ticks on every player’s choice. Toss in an owner, Michael Jordan, who badly wanted a playoff push in the first year of Hornets Redux, and you can understand why general manager Rich Cho and his crew went for big names above all else.
There were other shooters out there. The Thunder snagged Anthony Morrow for just $3 million per season. The Nuggets didn’t even have to send out a first-round pick to nab Arron Afflalo, though the Hornets lacked an expendable-ish prospect on Evan Fournier’s level that could have served as Afflalo bait.
The Drakes got Lou Williams and a prospect at the low, low cost of John Salmons’s nonguaranteed deal. The Bucks banked a first-round pick and a useful wing in Jared Dudley by leveraging two partially guaranteed deals2 and the Clippers’ desperation to unload salary. C.J. Miles has stunk it up between migraines and other issues for the Pacers, but he’s a proven 3-point shooter earning about $4.5 million per year on his new deal.
Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica, both partially guaranteed for 2015-16.
Shawne Williams, earning the minimum, has been a better stretch power forward for the Heat than Marvin Williams has been for the Hornets. The Wizards got Paul Pierce for about $1.5 million less per season than Marvin Williams; Pierce shares an agent with Jefferson, Walker, Cody Zeller, and Noah Vonleh, and he could have toggled between both forward positions for the Hornets.
Channing Frye, struggling to find his place in Orlando, is a real stretch power forward — though with an $8 million salary, he might have required more cap gymnastics than the Hornets had in their arsenal.
Again: This stuff is not easy. The Pistons also yearned for shooting, and they outbid the market with a $19 million deal for Jodie Freaking Meeks.3 Free agency is a whirlwind, and not all of these guys were available to the Hornets at the right time at the right price. Almost none of them had the long-term growth potential Hayward and Stephenson held for a franchise that should still be concerned mostly with the long term.
And we can’t even fully judge that deal yet, given Meeks hasn’t played, and the cap is set to go way up during the life of his contract.
Bottom line: The Hornets traded Brendan Haywood’s hugely valuable contract for an extra $2 million in cap space, and they came away with Williams and Stephenson. The play for Stephenson was a worthy risk; I praised it at the time, and I stand by it now, even with all we’re coming to know of Stephenson. He’s a 24-year-old two-way talent who came via a team-friendly three-year contract, including a team option on Year 3. That is the kind of bet a small-market team should make. It hasn’t worked, but the process was sound, and there is still a ton of time for things to turn around.
But it seems possible that one tree, shaken with appropriate aggression, would have yielded something better than Williams.
Now the Hornets are in trouble, and they’ll scour the trade market while hoping the status quo roster can find just enough punch to trample over a few of the teams that will surely stumble down the Eastern Conference ladder. You could see them making calls on a number of potentially available wings: Randy Foye or Wilson Chandler in the Denver overflow pile; Jeff Green in Boston, capable of swinging between both forward positions; Corey Brewer, suddenly weirdly essential for a banged-up Minnesota team; and in a much lower trade-value range, shooting tweeners like Dorell Wright and old friend Anthony Tolliver.
The Hornets have to be careful here. They cannot trade themselves into anything like contendership, and they cannot afford to cough up a valuable future asset to chase the no. 7 spot — not even within a conference in which the presumed top two seeds have played uneven ball. They may well get there without doing anything.
Any team haggling with Charlotte over a quality player will ask about Zeller, Vonleh, and a future first-round pick; Henderson’s a tempting suggestion, but his $6 million player option for next season kills his trade value. Zeller has cooled after a strong start, but he’s a 22-year-old seven-footer with clear NBA skills — teams should tread carefully in flipping those guys. Vonleh is completely unproven but well-liked by personnel guys. Charlotte’s 2015 first-rounder may well end up in the lottery, and teams these days almost never trade picks with a high lottery likelihood.
You don’t mess with these kinds of assets unless you’re getting a real impact player you might be able to keep for at least one season beyond this one. And if the Hornets aren’t messing with those assets, they’re just not going to get much.
But that’s the good news: They may not need much to reach the playoffs, and that’s the only real goal here. Winning a couple of postseason games would be nice, and these guys were surely dreaming just a month ago of hosting Cleveland in Games 3 and 4 of the conference semifinals.
The Hornets last season were a nice story, but they were really just a middling team with limited upside that relished the good feeling of late April games after years of stagnation. That alone would do this season — after such an abysmal start, the Hornets might be able to get there without a major shakeup. And if they don’t? Enjoy the lottery pick. Work your cap space properly. Lean on Jefferson to re-sign at a reasonable number. And try again next season.