To piggy-back on something I said during the season when Al Jefferson went down, we’ve now seen how do we look like as a team when the all of the five starters are our own back-to-back lottery picks.
The timing might seem a bit off, but, yes, that was actually true about our starting line-up of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo. Gerald Henderson was actually our last lotto pick (in 2009) before Bismack and Kemba in 2011. While Hendo isn’t really a part of the same generation, all of the four other guys have been drafted during Rich Cho’s reign.
Besides Kemba, we’ve mostly based our draft decisions on athletic potential, instead of any kind of basketball-related skillset. Add a fifth guy like Gerald Henderson, who reminds you of an 80s wing player, on top of that and you get a team that just isn’t suited for an NBA offense in 2015. This right here is the screen-shot that describes our offense of the future if we stick with this core of young talent.
Howard isn’t just coming over to “tag” the screener after a Hendo – Zeller pick-n-roll. Dwight’s doing a full-body bump on Zeller until Ariza gets back in the picture. He can do that since he shouldn’t worry about Biyombo. Even if someone would ever attempt a pass to Biz on these plays, odds are Howard could get retreat back before Biz has gained 100% of control over the ball. Not to mention the fact that James Harden is right by him, satisfied to help out in the paint and ignore MKG, who’s trying to space the court inside the three-point line.
To make matters worse, Al Jefferson, a possibly necessary stopgap between our rebuilding process and this core of new guys entering their prime, isn’t exactly a contemporary player either. With the rest of the league mainly looking for centers suited to protect the rim or to be used in pick-n-rolls on offense, Jefferson is a unique and weird piece.
The Lance Stephenson signing is easy to trash in hindsight. I can’t really do that since I liked it at the time and understood the motive for it. We were riding a wave of good vibes thanks to our post-season entry and took a shot at a rare occurrence – a border-line All-Star entering unrestricted free agency at the age of 23. Even with Stephenson having made 86 three pointers on a 35.2% percentage, he was notorious for passing up open threes, taking a second or two before making his move in such situations, and couldn’t really be considered to be a player who helps your spacing. The bet was that the collective talent could figure it out.
Well, it hasn’t. Stephenson this season was a bad enough shooter to not have any space in our clogged-toilet offense (term coined by Zach Lowe). While Marvin Williams is a luxury at 7-million per year. His name carries more weight than, let’s say, Anthony Tolliver. If you’re a GM you can, perhaps, feel a bit safer that Marvin is ready to go the length of a 82-game season when spending cash for a playoff push.
Yet he remains an over-pay at his salary and for some reason wasn’t fully used by Steve Clifford to help our Al-centered offense with spacing (a topic covered in Marvin’s separate column) as Williams would be found on the opposite side of the paint on Jefferson’s post-ups.
Stretch-4s do get paid under the thinking of today’s front offices. We have successfully evaded coughing up basically the same contract over a four-year period by not going for Channing Frye, but in the meantime the Marvin Williams signing has us stuck in a no-man’s land. We didn’t pay more to steal a better player like Markieff Morris from Phoenix (on a real bargain of a deal now that the TV money is about to come in), yet didn’t get much more production out of Marvin than we would have out of a player who gets paid as much as Tolliver.
Obviously, there was also the possibility to re-sign Josh McRoberts, however, it’s a tricky hypothetical to tackle due to Josh’s injury and the fact that he seemingly preferred to sign with Miami. The only aspect that saves Cho in this regard is that Williams’s contract expires before the summer of 2016 season. We have paid him above market value, yet it doesn’t really hurt our cause if the deal isn’t a long-term one.
With a disappointing season behind our backs, Lance Stephenson’s value being at an all-time low and Al Jefferson about to opt in, it will be a tricky summer for Rich Cho. The seemingly most realistic scenario (Jefferson opting in, Henderson opting out) would have us at $60 million. Meanwhile the salary cap for the next season is slated to be around $67 or $68 million.
Now, that’s without re-signing Biyombo, whose qualifying offer Zach Lowe put at $5.2 million, or filling out all of the other gaps in the roster. By the way, I’m not close to being a cap expert, but I do believe that Frank Berndt from AtTheHive has a point when saying that Biz qualifies only for about $4 million due to the amount of minutes he has played.
We’re mostly stuck with the same group of players for the next season and the summer of 2016 projects to be the one where the future of the team is moreso decided. If I were Cho, I’d hope that Noah Vonleh (or whatever we do with our draft pick this summer) provides our team with a huge offensive boost that the current young core severely needs. Otherwise, I’m not certain that this roster fits. Deciding that during the madness that will be the summer of 2016, is an unenviable task. Cho, by the way, can spare us the argument that we’ll have cap room next summer. So will a dozen other teams. I wouldn’t bank on the possibility of a small-market franchise like ours to sign a huge name.
As for coach Steve Clifford, there are arguments you can make in support of coach him.
The players seemingly like him and play hard for him. He’s created a defensive-minded culture which the players follow and execute by securing our own glass (we’ve lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage for two straight years now) and religiously getting back on defense in transition.
Having Michael Kidd-Gilchrist really helps, but us being a top10 defense both of the years under Clifford is a real achievement with a defensive sieve in Al Jefferson manning the middle. Our players have learned to execute Thibodeaun defensive schemes after playing a more helter-skelter style under Mike Dunlap. Any responsibility for our lack of success I’d rather place on Rich Cho for the creation of a sloppy offensive team as described above.
There are though some negatives from this season that I’d like to touch on, however.
1. Falls into Adjustments by Accident
Clifford’s body of work has proven that he’s prone to stick to his rotations. Any changes that he’ll make regarding playing time, unfortunately, he tends to reach by accident.
I’m not sure what the hell was behind him starting the season with Jason Maxiell as our back-up center but Biyombo couldn’t prove him wrong until given the opportunity to play.
Gerald Henderson and Cody Zeller got their deserved spots in the starting line-up only after Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams were side-lined with injuries. One can’t be sure about how long we would have played with both of them as starters if it wasn’t for them to miss some games.
Noah Vonleh was supposedly not ready for NBA basketball all season long until he faced playing time due to a injury-depleted roster near the end of the season.
Like said in the column on Maxiell, I can understand a coach, especially a defensive-minded one at that, having concerns about a 19-year-old’s readiness to contribute for a supposedly playoff-bound team. Especially when the team in question starts the season off at 6-19 and spends rest of the year in an up-hill battle. Add a sports hernia injury to the equation and you’ve got yourself a passable excuse for not playing Vonleh. We’re not at practices and we don’t see how well he can execute whatever the coaching staff wants him to do.
But this happening in the 59th (!!!) game of the season is inexcusable.
I’m sorry, but there are absolutely no circumstances under which Maxiell checking in before Vonleh did (in a 31-point blow-out) can’t be filed under “moronic”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only occurrence of Clifford taking away opportunities for Vonleh to play garbage minutes.
2. Last Possession Play-Calls
This is also something inexcusable. The majority of our last possessions in close games, out of time-outs, mind you, have been either Kemba Walker isolations or a simple screen-and-roll.
Steve Clifford will even lack the savvy to switch the play up after the defense commits the intentional foul. You can see at 1:24 how he orders his guys to run the “same one”, much to the delight of the Knicks who then audibly communicate with one another that the same pick-n-roll is coming.
It does make you wonder how much flak would Clifford get for this if we were a bigger market team or what our record would be like if Kemba hadn’t actually saved us with some late-game heroics on these exact iso-heavy plays.
Overall, I do believe that it’s too easy to point at our offense and say that we’re going to Al Jefferson too much. It does go hand in hand with us not having real threats out there.
Dallas, per example, can run creative stuff with Dirk Nowitzki as a decoy every time down the court or actually go to Dirk for real on an off-ball screen. Cleveland’s Irving-LeBron, Irving-Love pick-n-rolls are practically unarguable.
We, meanwhile, seriously lack offensive threats and creativity on both parts (admittedly, both from the coaching staff and in our player skillsets).
You can create so much by simply having dangerous offensive players like Dirk. A shooter having some side-action on the weak-side off the court that keeps the defenses attention, a guard on whom you can’t go under the screen, etc. Players who have a certain skill at a good level have to be respected when put in screen situations.
In the case of our starting five, defenses aren’t concerned about any of our players. Nobody cares that Hendo is coming off a pin-down, worst thing that can happen is an open mid-range shot. Nobody cares about Zeller in “horns”. Let him have that 18-foot look.
The sets aren’t creative but you also need certain players to make those sets look good. They lose their appeal and don’t force defenses to make difficult judgments when the players involved aren’t ones that you are concerned about leaving.
Per example, just look at what a difference Mo Williams, a capable shooter from all over the court, has made since joining the team. We’ve almost managed to climb out of the top10 worst offenses in the league, whenever Williams has been on the court as we’ve scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions with Mo playing. Meanwhile, our offensive rating with him sitting has been 92.7, worse than the one of the 30th-placed Philadelphia 76ers.
I’d spare the criticism on coach Clifford when in regard to our offense. In my opinion, that’s a problem that Rich Cho has created.
The play-calls that decide our games are indeed terrible though. No excuse for Clifford there.
3. Doesn’t Hold Everyone Accountable
Lance Stephenson (despite all of his bad performances), Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo evidently can be benched for a supposed lack of defensive effort. Al Jefferson and Gary Neal cannot be.
It’s a baffling world we’re living in when Clifford has made his success on being a defensive-minded coach. I would be interested to hear about how much the coaching staff talks defense with Al Jefferson and how do they try to relay the message that he, you know, is horrible at it.
The Hornets Watching Experience
When you’re enduring 82 games of a non-playoff team, the overall presentation of a basketball game is an important one in order for one not to give up on Al Jefferson guarding pick-n-rolls. Us going back to the Hornets name seemingly could have done the trick.
(The fact that we’ll have to win some games in order to keep those people in the stands next season as well is a topic for a more important discussion than the one I’m about to get into.)
You shouldn’t fall under the spell of the awesome rebranding the franchise has done though.
Yes, the jerseys and the honeycomb court is top-notch. I also enjoy the work of Steve Martin, Dell Curry and Stephanie Ready, even if I’m pretty sure that Uncle Steve called Marvin Williams “Melvin Williams” at least five times this season (the Wire fan in me naively hopes that Steve Martin makes this error because he knows of Melvin Williams of Baltimore).
They remain unbiased, Steve and Dell’s dad jokes actually make me laugh and are entertaining, while Stephanie Ready is among the few in the business who actually gets the access to team huddles and reports what they are intending to run in late possessions.
The only questions I would have would be for the guys in the truck. When they ask a trivia question, you bet that it will be damn trivial.
How is any answer in this case representative of anything worth noting?
Public address announcer Big Pat is also a staple of our games and has me randomly yelling out “Eeeem-kaaay-geee!!!” much to the annoyance of others.
Our in-game music is where it gets iffy. I am a fan of the organ. It’s simple, it’s classy and it either provides the necessary rhythm in the background or isn’t registered by your brain. A frequent mistake of small-market teams is forcing it by trying to replace the organ with crappy commercial music. Unless you’re Memphis or San Antonio (great song choices in both arenas, from classic rock and 80s pop to underground hip-hop), don’t do this.
(Side-note – Thank god, we moved on from our PA announcer going the extra mile and encouraging the crowd by urging on a live microphone: “Let me hear you say, deee-fense. Deee-fense!” The pre-recorded PA sound of “Deee-fense!” is bad enough already. And I admit that there’s a 5% chance that it might be a bad dream that I’ve had, but I think that us and Atlanta used to do this like five or six years ago. Nothing screams “we have 12 thousand people attending our games and it’s dead quiet in here” like a PA announcer doing that.)
Now, we mostly rely on the organ. That’s good. I also understand that the league has a secret agreement with whoever that one-hit wonder was for all 30 NBA teams to use the “Clap, Clap, Clap.. Clap Your Hands!” audio. At least we’re not the only ones.
But there are some specifics about our music selection that bother my mind.
Please, oh, please, stop using this loop of “Oi!” from AC/DC’s “TNT”. Is there anyone who actually likes this? Why do we rely on this as one of our few actual song choices on offense?
Toward the end of the season, for some reason, we went to this Macklemore song a few times. I swear that it happened for the first time in April and I’m confused on why is it so. Did somebody at the organization lose a bet? Why would you start such a tradition only in April?
Finally, the most perplexing choice of music at Time Warner Cable Arena has been the Star Wars Imperial March, which first made an appearance during a second quarter offensive possession.
Had Steve Clifford told the sound engineer to blast The Imperial March whenever Gary Neal touched the ball? Was it a scheme to throw him off and keep him from chucking up shots? Or did somebody accidentally slip and hit the soundboard, which had already been set to play the march when we beat the lowly Timberwolves?
That may be so since we started to hear it at some home wins. Once again though it started to happen only in the second half of the season.
This bothers me. It’s a theme with a dark connotation and usually is used to attribute such qualities to the opponent. Are we really trying to wear the black hat and be the villains by jamming this after our victories? Seems rather silly when we have problems surpassing the 40-win mark.
Since the time of writing I’ve been told of the significance of the Imperial Death March. Big thanks to knowledgeable RealGM user “Vanderbilt_Grad” for pointing it out.
“Heh, I guess that you do have to know the history of the team to appreciate the Star Wars Imperial March. Short answer is that it’s from the early days of the old Hornets. Bringing it back is a retro move that was likely part of the rebrand.
That said, there is some fun detail around it. The Imperial March was put in for Alonzo Morning, the team’s Darth Vader (and this was WELL before all the crappy prequels). One of the sideline reporters joked that he sort of expected Zo to turn around and say “I am your father!” at some point. Sadly I can’t remember if the music came before or after that, but either way lots of old time fans remember that music well, if not the reason why the team adopted it.”
That’s what I get for trying to be a smart-ass…
It also served as a reminder that I forgot about the most important part of this column. I absolutely love us using the bee swarm sound effect after certain made baskets, also a throwback from the early days of the old Hornets. I inexplicably forgot to include this in the column even if I had uploaded the following video back in November, expecting that I would mention it some day.