One of last season's best stories began with one of its most widely criticized moves. The Charlotte Bobcats' decision to give Al Jefferson a three-year, $40.5 million deal on July 4, 2013, got lit up like the sky in an Independence Day fireworks display, pegged as an overpay for a slow-footed center who'd always been a sieve on defense, and whose offensive gifts couldn't make up for all the points he'd give away.
It seemed like owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho had thrown an awful lot of money at an answer that wouldn't actually solve the Bobcats' problem — namely, being not only the worst team in the NBA, but a league-wide laughingstock. And Jefferson wasn't the answer ... at least, not all by himself. Add respected longtime Van Gundy lieutenant/first-time NBA head coach Steve Clifford to the mix, though, and suddenly the Mississippi-born monster had not only all the left-block touches he could stand, but also a defensive scheme that mitigated his lack of quickness by mostly just asking him to stay near the basket and be big.
As it turned out, you can build a top-flight defense around Big Al, provided everyone chips in and focuses on stuff like chasing 3-point shooters off the arc, hustling back in transition, clearing the defensive glass and keeping pick-and-rolls on one side of the floor. (It sounds a lot easier than it is.) Clifford led Charlotte to the league's sixth-stingiest mark in terms of points allowed per possession, and with Kemba Walker manning the controls at the point, 2012 No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist improving as a wing stopper and reclamation project power forward Josh McRoberts slingin' passes like a hippie Brad Miller, Charlotte looked like something it hadn't in years — an honest-to-goodness professional basketball club.
The rising tide lifted Charlotte to a 43-39 record, just the second winning record in Bobcats history, and their first playoff berth since the spring of 2010. They were promptly swept out of the first round by the Miami Heat, but with Jefferson and Walker coming back this season, young pieces Kidd-Gilchrist and 2013 No. 4 pick Cody Zeller looking like potential keepers, plus an extra first-round draft pick thanks to the long-since-forgotten Ben Gordon-for-Corey Maggette trade, there was cause for excitement ... headlined, of course, by the long-awaited transition back to being the Hornets, complete with purple-and-teal jerseys and a honeycombed home court.
The $64,000 question now: Can Charlotte keep the momentum going?
Jordan's promise of a "big leap" during the offseason were fulfilled by perhaps the summer's greatest leap of faith — a three-year deal to import the talented but volatile Lance Stephenson from the Indiana Pacers. With LeBron heading back to Ohio, the Heat's stranglehold on the Southeast Division has loosened. Can the deeper, more talented Hornets capitalize on last year's success and create a contender in Carolina? Or will the addition of the mercurial Stephenson scuttle what Cho and Clifford spent the last year building?
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
Marvin Williams will help fill the stretch-four gap created by McRoberts' move to Miami, but represents an across-the-board downgrade. Brian Roberts can mind the store when Walker rests, but not much more. Jannero Pargo is a spot-minutes veteran who'll jack shots (8.9 3-pointers per 36 minutes last year!) when dusted off. Charlotte was looking forward to getting swingman Jeff Taylor back from a ruptured right Achilles tendon, but the Hornets have barred him from team activities following his arrest on domestic assault charges, casting doubt as to whether he'll factor in as a significant "addition."
The Hornets are high on 2014 first-rounders Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, but we shouldn't expect too much from them this year. Vonleh comes in super raw after his lone year at Indiana and will miss the bulk of training camp recovering from sports hernia surgery. Ex-Tar Heel Hairston, who had some offseason trouble of his own, finds his path to minutes at the two impeded by Stephenson, Gerald Henderson and Gary Neal.
In a larger sense, though, the summer helped Charlotte's profile as a landing spot. After years of brutal, relentless losing made North Carolina seem like the place careers went to die, the Hornets followed up last season's playoff run by reaching agreements with two of the top free agents on the market: Gordon Hayward, whom they signed to a four-year, $63 million offer sheet that the Utah Jazz promptly matched, and Stephenson, whom Cho lured with a smart contract that the Pacers couldn't fully match.
MJ's club might not yet be a premiere destination. But after landing two pretty big fish in one offseason, with a clean cap sheet going forward — just $17.5 million in salary on the books for 2016-17, although a likely forthcoming extension for Walker will eat into that — plus the goodwill associated with their nostalgia-fueling Hornets rebrand and the chance to win even bigger in a less top-heavy East, Charlotte's closer to being back on the map than at any point since the Hornets moved to New Orleans.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Yep, you guessed it — Stephenson. After a career year in which he posted a league-high five triple-doubles and was one of two players to average more than 13 points, seven rebounds and 4.5 assists per game — the other won MVP — Stephenson joins a Charlotte team with a similar defensive system to the one in which he excelled in Indiana, and that could use more playmaking on an offense that finished just 24th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession.
He addresses a weakness while bolstering a strength. He upgrades a position where elite two-way talent is all too rare. He does so for less than eight figures a year, and with the Hornets holding a team option for the third season. In a vacuum, this is an absolute home run for Charlotte.
Stephenson's three-year, $27.4 million deal represents a gamble for both sides. Lance turned down a longer, more lucrative overall deal in Indiana, betting he can become a signature star worthy of a max-level payday over the next three seasons. The Hornets bet that their strong locker room can corral Lance's penchant for problem-starting, that a 24-year-old's on-court shortcomings (decent but not great shooting, at-times shaky decision-making as a facilitator) can become strengths with more work, and that a competitor as fiery as Stephenson will thrive under the pressure of a primary offensive role.
If both sides wagered correctly, the Hornets could land a top-four seed in the East this season. If the bet busts, though, things could get ugly fast.
Coming out of last season, it was supplementary playmaking. While the Bobcats' offense finished in the bottom third of the league in offensive efficiency, Clifford's starting lineup — Jefferson, Walker, McRoberts, Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist — averaged 106.9 points per 100 possessions, equivalent to the ninth-best offense in the league over the full season. The problem came when the top creators hit the bench. Charlotte averaged 2.7 fewer points-per-100 when Kemba sat, 4.1-per-100 fewer without Jefferson and 5.1-per-100 fewer in non-McBob time, bottoming out to basement-level efficiency when the reserves ran things.
It might not be quite so glaring this year. Clifford could take a page out of Frank Vogel's book, spelling Stephenson earlier than his other starters before unleashing him as the primary playmaker on second units. Stephenson's insertion in the starting lineup will also bump veteran wing Henderson to the bench, adding another ball-handler capable of supplementing the reserves. A full season of Neal — who chipped in 11.2 points in 23 minutes per game on 44/41/96 shooting splits after coming over in a midseason trade — could also help, especially if what Clifford calls Charlotte's best training camp carries over into the season.
But Clifford will have to adjust the offense to account for the downgrade from McRoberts — who posted a career-high 4.3 dimes per game last year and assisted on nearly 22 percent of his teammates' baskets, an elite mark for a guy his size — to Williams, who might replicate McRoberts' shooting but won't match his facilitating. If the coach struggles to find the right way to deploy his newfound depth, Charlotte will struggle to make the offensive improvement needed to propel them up the standings.
Contributor with something to prove:
Zeller. Yes, this is only Year 2, but the way Charlotte conducted its offseason — bringing in Williams to start, drafting fellow ex-Hoosier Vonleh — didn't exactly project boundless confidence in Cody's capacity to step in as Charlotte's power forward of either the present or the future. He can change that perception by earning a more significant role this season.
After a fairly dismal start to his NBA career, in both fan reaction and performance, Zeller gained steam as the season wore on. He averaged just under eight points and five rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game after the All-Star break, shooting 50.7 percent from the floor and looking more comfortable defensively. While the presence of Williams and, eventually, Vonleh crowds the power-forward rotation, Zeller's athleticism and passing give him a path to more playing time if he steps up his interior finishing and does a better job on the boards, as At the Hive's Derek James writes.
Doing that while showing an improved touch away from the basket — he shot just 28.9 percent on all attempts outside the restricted area as a rookie — would establish Zeller as a bona fide rotation piece and more viable future building block. If his development stagnates, though, he could find himself surpassed by Vonleh and going nowhere fast.
Potential breakout stud:
Kidd-Gilchrist. To date, MKG's career has been defined by three things — the regrettable reality that he isn't Anthony Davis; the happier fact that he is one of the league's best young perimeter defenders; and the grim horror show that is his jumper.
After Kidd-Gilchrist shot 60 for 212 (28.3 percent) from 10 feet and beyond as a rookie, the Bobcats hired longtime sharpshooter Mark Price to rebuild his shot. MKG then shot 27 for 100 past 10 feet in Year 2. (To be fair, he missed 19 games after breaking his left hand early in the season; he was shooting a somewhat respectable 40 percent from midrange before the injury, but hit just 20.8 percent after returning.)
Undaunted, Price and his pupil went back to the drawing board this offseason. The early returns seem promising:
Nobody will confuse MKG with Ray Allen any time soon, but the major issues — the pause, the elbow turn, the release on the way down, etc. — no longer appear in the jumper, and, most importantly, "it's going in a lot more."
That'd be a significant development for Charlotte, whose offense often seemed congested and choked last season, with defenders willing to sag off non-threatening shooters like MKG to make life more difficult on Jefferson. If Kidd-Gilchrist can show he's capable of making defenses pay for leaving him open, it could draw an additional man to the perimeter, both relieving pressure down low and opening up juicier stuff — beating unbalanced closeouts, forcing defensive rotations, initiating ball swings to find clean looks, etc. — that could boost the Hornets' offense.
The form looks better, but the real challenge will lie between MKG's ears; as Hardwood Paroxysm's Scott Rafferty notes, a rebuilt jumper's only a weapon if you're confident enough to use it. And while Clifford's encouraged by the work Kidd-Gilchrist has put in, he's also adamant that the just-turned-21-year-old swingman not fall in love with the long ball, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:
With all the attention paid to improving small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot, Clifford doesn’t want MKG forgetting what got him into the NBA.
“He’s got incredible instincts defensively and getting the ball off the glass. He’s an energy/effort guy: That is his exceptional trait,” Clifford said. “I told him, ‘If you make five 18-footers in a row and run down and stop defending, you’ll just be OK.’”
If he can keep his nonstop motor revving while canning a few more shots per game, he could be a lot more than that.
Big Al turns in another All-NBA-caliber season in the post. Stephenson and Walker mesh well splitting ball-handling duties, with both guards becoming more viable floor-spacers away from the ball, and Lance keeps his outbursts to a minimum. Kidd-Gilchrist's rebuild holds up and he emerges as an ascendant two-way player. A Henderson-Neal-Roberts-Zeller-led second unit keeps Charlotte afloat when the starters rest, Hairston provides instant offense off the bench, Vonleh shows flashes, and Charlotte pairs a top-five D with a middle-of-the-pack offensive finish. The Hornets win the Southeast, the first division title in franchise history, hold home-court advantage in Round 1, and loom as a real threat to make the Eastern finals.
If everything falls apart:
A me-first Stephenson disrupts the locker room while taking the ball out of Walker's hands and limiting Jefferson's touches. Without McRoberts, there isn't enough shooting or passing to space the floor, limiting Jefferson's effectiveness when he does get the rock. MKG's jumper turns back into a pumpkin, and defenses keep mostly ignoring him. Zeller continues to be overwhelmed by stronger players and can't earn his way onto the floor; this, combined with Vonleh's rookie growing pains, leaves Charlotte heavily dependent on Marvdawg, which isn't a great place to be. The defense takes a step back, the offense never takes off, and the Hornets drop back below .500 and back out of the playoffs.
Kelly Dwyer's Best Guess at a Record:
46-36, good for second place in the Southeast and the No. 5 seed in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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