The Charlotte Hornets' 43-win surprise season was almost as jolting as their name change. Now, they're looking to shock the basketball world even more.
Only two years removed from the worst single-season winning percentage in league history, the at-the-time Bobcats and new coach Steve Clifford jumped over .500 and sneaked into the playoffs, becoming one of the NBA's strongest defensive teams in the process.
After years of error after error, this much-maligned organization is finally heading in the right direction. And it all started with two moves in the summer of 2013: signing Al Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million contract and bringing in Clifford to run the show.
Jefferson was tremendous last season. His 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds a night made him one of five players to average 20 and 10, helping him make All-NBA third team—and deservingly so. But even while playing for a squad that could put a strangle hold on its opponent's scoring, one that eventually finished sixth in points allowed per possession, Big Al's defense lagged.
This is a team whose expectations and goals have to adjust now. Coming off a 43-win season with a legitimate coach and young core, why shouldn't the Bobcats—err, Hornets—expect to contend in the East? That means finding a rim protector to put next to Jefferson.
Even Clifford addressed the Hornets' lack of a shot-alterer in code before the NBA draft.
"Size across the board is a key thing at every position," Clifford told The Associated Press before the draft. "When you get into the matchups if the playoffs, size is a big deal."
He continued: "We are small. We aren't terribly small, but we are small."
A team can win with a center who doesn't alter shots, but Clifford needs someone else out there to fulfill that skill for him. Jefferson is never going to be a shot-alterer, and given how hard it can be to find power forwards who play that role effectively, it wasn't looking like the Hornets could take the jump into top-notch contender with Al in the middle of the D.
Enter: Noah Vonleh, who the Hornets selected ninth overall in the 2014 NBA draft.
Vonleh in the Picture
He may be far from his ceiling, but the 6'9" Vonleh and those huge hands are the perfect complement to Jefferson on both sides of the floor.
Let's start with the hands. Actually, they're more like paddles. When he holds a basketball, it looks like a first baseman catching a baseball.
You know Kawhi Leonard's famously large paws? Well, Vonleh's are actually bigger—if that even seems possible. He looks like he's groping the basketball every time he touches it.
Vonleh's hands measured 9.75 inches in length and 11.75 inches in width at the NBA combine. And yes, those are just as long and a half-an-inch wider than how Leonard's legendary grabbers measured at the 2011 combine.
Add in the 7'4" wingspan and that he's just 18 years old (which gives him the potential Giannis Antetokounmpo/Paul George growing-after-being-drafted factor), and Vonleh, who swatted 2.1 shots per 40 minutes as a freshman, could end up with the ultimate shot-blocking body, perfectly suiting him to be Big Al's garbage man.
On the offensive end, we're talking about the ideal pick-and-pop partner to pair with any point guard, an 18-year-old big man who can already shoot, sinking 46.3 percent of his jumpers as a freshman at Indiana, according to Synergy Sports. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, that went up to 50 percent.
He may be young and raw in some aspects, but it's hard to find a freshman big who already has a jumper. Once Vonleh understands how to screen and find space in an offense, the Chris Bosh comparisons are going to start to become more prominent.
That's the sort of game the inside-dominant Big Al prefers. Just under 60 percent of Jefferson's shot attempts came in the paint last year.
Give him a 4 who can stretch the floor, and it doesn't allow defenses to help on him all that easily. That's part of why Josh McRoberts, a current free agent who shot 36.1 percent from long range last year, adding the three-point shot to his game was so essential. It's also why the Hornets might be smart to invite McBob back to Charlotte.
Help on the Wings
Vonleh may not be able to help out right away. He's still raw and so young. Cut off his body, look at his head shot and you'd think he was a high school sophomore. He still looks like a baby, and in some ways, he's exactly that.
His presence, though, allows the organization to move forward with Jefferson past 2016 and still feel comfortable about the prospects of contending. This is a team that finished 24th in points per possession last year. It could use all the offense it can get.
That's why Charlotte went after P.J. Hairston with the 26th pick in the draft.
Back when they were the Bobcats, the Hornets didn't get very much offensive help from the guys on the wings. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Gerald Henderson created more hyphens than they did individual offense, even if they were all providing positives for the team in other aspects of the game.
MKG is a ferocious defender who you could argue should've been on an All-Defense Team this past season. CDR has turned himself into a solid three-and-D wing who can handle the ball a little bit, and Henderson is a slasher who has value as a scorer. But those guys don't bring offensive firepower.
With a 6'5", 229-pound NBA-caliber body, Hairston fits that bill. He nailed 35.8 percent of his 7.8 long-range attempts a night in the D-League last year while turning himself into one of the most dangerous scorers in the draft. He can catch fire from deep, and more than half his field-goal attempts were threes in the D-League. But Charlotte still needs more.
Salary-cap projections say the cap should go up to about $63.2 million for next season. Knowing that, Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders says Charlotte has about $17.9 million of wiggle room to spend. But that actually isn't as much as it seems.
The Hornets will want to re-sign McRoberts, who started 78 games last year and was an integral part of the offense. They could bring back CDR at a team-friendly price after he became a valuable wing defender and shooter for them. But again, they have to find some way to get offense, especially on the wings, with the remaining room.
They could go big and make an offer to a big-name guy like Gordon Hayward, who has already met with team execs. As B/R's Adam Fromal writes, a move like that could catapult this team to another level:
Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward, Lance Stephenson and Luol Deng would all be great fits, as each player is a capable defender (excellent, in the case of Parsons, Stephenson and Deng) with the ability to knock down three-pointers in the right situation.
A star, though, doesn't have to be the expectation with a young team trying to build. Even a shooter like Mike Miller would slot in nicely. And then there are the fliers.
Wouldn't this be a reasonable fit for Nick Young to come and be a bench scorer? How about Michael Beasley? Actually, no. Scratch that. Too far.
Changes at the Top
Youth, talent and stability. Those are the three most important traits for a rebuilding team to possess. And regardless of those first two characteristics, Charlotte has always been lacking in the stability department.
The organization has gone through four coaches in four years. Larry Brown, Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap all got tossed out like rotten apple cores. But Clifford is the first coach in Charlotte who will return for consecutive seasons since Brown in 2010.
He may not have gotten much press, but taking a team without a rim protector and turning it into the league's No. 6 defense should be the first bullet point on Clifford's updated resume. Before this past year, the defensively challenged Jefferson had never started on a team that finished in the top half of the league in points allowed per possession.
Clifford changed Al as a pick-and-roll defender and used long, athletic wings to pressure the perimeter. He created a system that went vastly unnoticed but yielded positive result after positive result.
For the first time in forever, the Hornets are heading in the right direction. We've gotten so used to strange decision-making from this organization, but in the past year, with Clifford there, the culture has started to change. Pieces are fitting into the correct slots, and the core is still so young.
Kemba is just 24 years old. Kidd-Gilchrist may get a lot of flack (too much actually), but he's only 20 and has plenty of time to work out the hitch in his shot.
Jeffery Taylor, if he can recover from his awful Achilles injury, is a fresh 25. Even Jefferson, who seems like he's been around forever, is on the right side of 30 and could easily still be going strong in a couple years when Vonleh starts to come into his own.
Now, the Hornets are drafting intuitive fits into their roster. It's all seeming to come together. Even a year ago, who would've thought that? We don't know what will happen the rest of free agency, but one more year of aging could mean another season of improvement for a group still searching for familiarity. After the second playoff appearance in team history, the best may be yet to come.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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