There's no question that Al Jefferson had an outstanding season with the Charlotte Hornets last year. He took a team wading at the bottom of the Eastern Conference to the playoffs, giving it a legitimate and primary offensive threat to take pressure off of the young players still developing their games.
Still, the team's 101.2 offensive rating ranked 24th in the league, according to NBA.com. Defenses were able to pack the paint and load up on Jefferson, daring the Hornets' perimeter players to beat them from beyond the three-point line and with dribble penetration.
The signing of Lance Stephenson to a more than reasonable three-year, $27 million deal is a great first step toward solving this problem. Not only does he fit the defensive mold that coach Steve Clifford has built in Charlotte, but his offensive creativity will relax some of the pressure off of Jefferson. Instead of one player to key on, there will now be two.
Whether it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker or Gerald Henderson, opposing defenses simply did not respect anyone Charlotte tossed out to complement Jefferson last season. That led to possessions like the one below, with massive collapses on Jefferson the second he received the ball in the post:
This happened quite often throughout the season. Though Jefferson would make the right play by kicking the ball out (to Anthony Tolliver here), Charlotte wasn't dangerous enough to capitalize on the isolated defensive attention.
On this play, Atlanta doubles Jefferson immediately, sticks with sharpshooter Gary Neal in the screening action just above the Jefferson post-up and completely ignores Tolliver. This is Jefferson's easiest pass as well, as Tolliver is one pass away. Atlanta doesn't care and gives him a wide-open three. Jefferson is the only player with whom they're concerned.
The Hornets only shot 35.1 percent from three-point range last season, 23rd in the league. Shot fakes against closing-out defenders were equally ineffective, as the Hornets 35.8 shooting percentage on off-the-dribble jumpers—that ranked 25th, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Only Kemba Walker could handle it well enough to get all the way to the cup, but he could only finish 47.4 percent of his attempts around the basket, according to Synergy. That put him in the 18th percentile among all players in the league.
So the crux of the problem wasn't strategy; it was personnel. The inside-out offensive design generated high-quality shots for the Hornets, but they simply weren't able to knock them down.
Stephenson certainly helps to solve the catch-and-shoot jump shot problem, as he's been one of the Indiana Pacers' best threats from deep over the past two seasons. But Stephenson's greatest contribution to Charlotte won't be any specific offensive or defensive skill; it will be his ability to improve both ends of the floor.
Many of Charlotte's young perimeter players last season specialized on one end of the floor. Kidd-Gilchrist has already developed into one of the best young defenders in the league, but he cannot shoot whatsoever. Walker is a nice offensive player, but he's undersized and struggles on defense.
Having Stephenson at the 2-guard will allow Charlotte to lock up the opponent's perimeter players without sacrificing offense. During the playoffs last season, Indiana often stuck Stephenson on LeBron James to give Paul George a break.
Stephenson is a menace defensively, and relishes great challenges. It takes a certain type of player to take pride in individual defensive matchups, and Stephenson has that makeup. Here, he muscles LeBron into a poor shot:
And on another possession in the same series, he handles the point guard duties, runs a pick-and-roll and finds Rasual Butler on the weak side with a pinpoint, cross-court pass:
In Charlotte, Walker was the primary ball-handler and the only competent pick-and-roll guard on the team. But Walker is primarily a scorer, and his distribution skills in these situations is suspect at best. Stephenson will add a pass-first dimension to the offense.
This will allow Charlotte to expand its offensive repertoire beyond throwing it into Jefferson. Mixing in some pick-and-roll play will prevent the defense from shading towards his post play, thereby facilitating the success of both forms of offense.
Pure pick-and-roll play, however, is usually dependent on more than one pick-and-roll in a single possession. Oftentimes a big man will screen one side of an on-ball defender, then flip around and screen the other side. Maybe he'll then roll to the rim and nothing will develop.
This sequence usually takes no more than a few seconds, and most offenses don't devolve into late-clock isolation immediately. That's why a failed pick-and-roll combination often results in a ball swing to change sides of the floor. Sometimes forcing a simple rotation by the defense can throw someone off balance, providing the necessary angle for a second pick-and-roll involving two new players to work.
Last season, the Hornets couldn't change sides of the floor for secondary pick-and-roll action because there simply wasn't anyone capable to throw it to outside of Walker. Stephenson now provides this option for Charlotte, and his secondary ball-handling can also rope in another big. With more players involved in a given offensive possession, it is reasonable to expect better ball movement and general engagement:
That's what we see here last season with the Pacers, when a failed pick-and-roll with C.J. Watson and Roy Hibbert leads Watson to swing the ball to Stephenson. David West then steps in to set a second pick, catching Rashard Lewis slightly by surprise. He doesn't step up far enough, Miami's defense pinches in a touch too far and the Pacers nail a three off of the Stephenson pass.
The acquisition of Stephenson by no means makes Charlotte a top-tier NBA offense. In fact, it might not even push them toward league average. There still aren't enough pieces, and the loss of Josh McRoberts certainly hurts. But in a weak Eastern Conference with a path of very little resistance to the conference finals, the Hornets look like a viable candidate to make a playoff run.
Jefferson was fantastic last season, but his burden was too great. Stephenson should ease the load some, and the offense should improve as a result. But the real victory for Charlotte is in Stephenson's overall fit on both ends, as he won't take away from what is already a top-notch defense.
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