Big name free agents such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will get plenty of airplay and rightfully so, but the smaller moves often help complete the equation. For instance, Shane Battier helped swing the 2013 title in the Miami Heat’s favor with his shooting, while Boris Diaw had a similar effect with his passing for the San Antonio Spurs during the 2014 championship season.
In the case of Charlotte, the endgame isn’t a title, but competing for a second-round postseason berth would surely be a welcomed development for its fans. How do the Hornets get there?
Excellent question if I do say so myself.
In order to properly respond, we will look at the glaring needs on the roster, and from there see which players could potentially come in and help.
The Hornets made 44.2 percent of their shots during the 2013-14 campaign, a figure that ranked 25th in the league.
Those numbers are only slightly better than those of a Milwaukee Bucks team that won 15 games last year. In other words, the Hornets weren’t quite good enough on this front, and that will have to change.
The main problem was that Charlotte was incredibly dependent of Al Jefferson. He is the only player on the roster capable of creating quality shots for himself and others.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe offered this take in late March: “Jefferson commands a double-team on the block against almost any defender, and that has made life easier for his teammates.”
His post-ups produce high-percentage scoring chances either for himself or his teammates whenever defenders converge on him. But that’s not enough.
The front office will have to address the lack of offensive options before the start of the 2014-15 campaign. The Hornets desperately need players capable of manufacturing and making shots.
LeBron and Carmelo would certainly give the Hornets ample help in this spot, however both have title aspirations, and Charlotte isn’t the kind of destination that will help them in their quests.
Instead, there are lesser talented players such as Paul Pierce and Vince Carter who could give the Hornets what they are looking for. Pierce scored 17.1 points per 36 minutes last year, on 45.1 percent shooting for the Brooklyn Nets.
He was an adequate option in isolations and post-ups, where he got to the areas he wanted and produced scores. The same is true for Carter, who averaged 17.6 points per 36 minutes, albeit on 40.7 percent shooting. He offset the low field-goal percentage by shooting a very solid 39.4 percent on three-point shots.
Also, Carter spent his college days playing for North Carolina. That’s not necessarily high on the priority list, but fans might enjoy seeing one of their own in a Hornets jersey.
Considering that Charlotte will have nearly $20 million in cap space, they could potentially sign both Carter and Pierce to orbit around Jefferson. This sounds at least a bit interesting in theory, but both players will be 37 years old when next season opens.
That means there might be too much mileage on their respective legs to carry a heavy burden. In addition, it’s probably fair to assume they might retire after the 2014-15 campaign.
Lowry averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists on 42.3 percent shooting last year. One can forgive the low shooting number in this instance because he was effective in setting teammates up for easy scores.
Lowry is a good drive-and-kick player, and he always does a solid job in the pick-and-roll of sucking defenders toward him and then finding the man rolling to the basket.
Lowry gave Toronto some extra gravy by converting 44.1 percent of his spot-up treys during the 2013-14 campaign, per SportVU player tracking. The shooting and playmaking make Lowry a superior option to current Hornets starter Kemba Walker (39.3 percent shooting during 2013-14).
Lowry would be an ideal fit because he addresses the team’s offensive dilemma.
In the event Charlotte fails to get Lowry, Stephenson is a really interesting option because of his ball-handling ability. The Pacers used him as a backup point guard with the second unit and gave him the freedom to orchestrate the offense. He beat defenders off the dribble in one-on-one scenarios and also did a good job of setting up his teammates on pick-and-rolls. His handles allow him to get to most spots on the floor without much of a hitch.
To be fair, playing alongside All-Star Paul George meant that Stephenson didn’t always draw the best defender from the opposing team. But by the same token, George's presence was part of the reason Stephenson averaged “only” 13.8 points and 4.6 assists in 35.3 minutes per game.
If Charlotte can get one of these players, I would then put the full court press on getting a shooter. P.J. Hairston was drafted to help in this area, but it’s entirely possible that it will take him some time to get acclimated to the professional ranks.
Thus, the Hornets should pull out all the stops to acquire Mike Miller of the Memphis Grizzlies, who would open up the floor for Jefferson.
Some might prefer to see the Washington Wizards’ Trevor Ariza instead, given his defensive acumen and the fact he made 40.7 percent of his three-point shots last year. I can’t fault anyone for that line of thinking.
But I have concerns.
Lowry and Stephenson enjoyed their best professional seasons in contract years (career high PER of 20.1 and 14.7 respectively), which could be a red flag. It’s possible they might never be as good again.
Know who else has that problem?
During the 2009 playoffs, he drilled 47.6 percent of his treys and helped the Los Angeles Lakers win the title in a contract year. He then signed a five-year $33.9 million deal with the Houston Rockets after the 2009 NBA Finals.
In the final year of that contract (the 2013-14 campaign), Ariza had the best three-point shooting year of his career. Coincidence? It’s a possibility, but it could also be a trend that’s taking shape.
That’s why I’m more inclined to pick Miller and his 40.9 percent career mark from long range.
Jefferson is certainly a load on the interior, but he is the only reliable big man on the roster.
The Associated Press reported that Brendan Haywood and the new draft pick Dwight Powell were traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Alonzo Gee, which removes a center from the lineup. Haywood missed the 2013-14 campaign due to a stress fracture.
In addition, Bismack Biyombo has proven he’s only a bench option at best judging from the fact he averaged 13.9 minutes per game during the 2013-14 season. Cody Zeller wasn’t much better. He played 17.3 minutes per game and shot 42.6 percent from the floor. Further exacerbating issues, Josh McRoberts is opting out of his contract, according to ESPN.com.
McRoberts was a key piece to the team because of the mix of skills he brought to Charlotte. He’s a good passer with range on his jumper, talents which prompted Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford to use him as a high-post passer at the three-point line.
Instead of stationing him at the free-throw line, Clifford pushed him further out where defenders were forced to abandon the paint and give Jefferson more room to operate.
“He [Jefferson] stays on me to shoot the ball from the outside just because it will give him more space,” McRoberts said to Sporting News’ DeAntae Prince in late January. “That’s something that I have to do in order for him to have more room. Make some plays out there and just stay aggressive so that throughout the game he gets open and we can get him the ball a little bit easier.”
The numbers might not be all that impressive, but they do have the feel and impact of Boris Diaw. McRoberts averaged 10.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes coupled with 36.1 percent shooting from downtown (Diaw’s per 36 numbers: 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, four assists and 40.2 percent three-point shooting).
Even though the Hornets drafted Noah Vonleh, losing McRoberts would be a big blow.
“He was a big part of our team and we definitely want to re-sign him," general manager Rich Cho said at a pre-draft press conference per ESPN.com. He helped Kemba (Walker) and he helped Big Al (Jefferson). He's such a great passer. He's a connector to the team. And he's a great teammate also. So we're hoping we sign him."
In the event Charlotte can’t re-sign McRoberts, the Hornets simply might have Vonleh learn on the job or perhaps go after someone with skills similar to McRoberts. In an odd twist of fate, Diaw is a free agent, but he played before in Charlotte, and the franchise paid him (waived) to go away.
That’s probably still in the back of his mind, and also, there’s that small thing where Diaw was an integral part to a Spurs team that just won the title. I think he wants to enjoy defending it.
That leaves Charlotte with two wildly different choices: Marcin Gortat of the Washington Wizards or Channing Frye of the Phoenix Suns.
Gortat is your classic center: sets picks, rolls to the basket, protects the interior and rebounds in traffic. He’s not a great low-post player, but he can generate some offense down there.
Because Gortat is a center, that means he would either back up Jefferson or play next to him, with big Al sliding over to power forward. Smart coaches can get away with lineups featuring two interior players (see Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers and Spurs to name a few) provided they have an abundance of shooters.
Because Charlotte doesn’t yet have an army of snipers coupled with passers to hit them when open, we go to option No. 2.
Frye won’t much get in the way of Jefferson on offense, because he will be stationed beyond the three-point line. He averaged 5.3 long-distance attempts last season and hit 37 percent of them.
That’s a terrific way of loosening the defense while still having a big man on the floor. Frye isn’t the passer that McRoberts is, but Frye’s a better rebounder (6.5 boards per 36 minutes).
These are the moves that I can see Charlotte executing to improve the roster. It should allow them to build on the success of last season’s postseason berth and potentially become a better team.
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