ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Charlotte Bobcats

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Last season: Remember when the Bobcats started the season out 7-5 and we all kind of did a double take? That really happened, there was a moment where we wondered if this team wasn’t as terrible as we all thought. Then reality hit. The Bobcats went 14-56 the rest of the season. Charlotte had the worst defense in the NBA (allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions) and their 28th in the league offense wasn’t going to make up for that. It was ugly.

Signature highlight from last season: Byron Mullens throws it down all over LaMarcus Aldridge (in a highlight that starts in a very Bobcats way).

Key player changes: Charlotte has been terrible for five straight years, so with the best, deepest draft in a decade next year they will continue that trend to finally get rewarded, right?

Wrong. Charlotte signed Al Jefferson to a three-year, $40 million deal (the third year is a player option). This is clearly the biggest free agent signing in the Bobcats short and turbulent history. I personally like this signing because Jefferson is a guy they can sell makes them better… but not that much better. Not out of the lottery better.

The Bobcats drafted Cody Zeller at No. 4, and while that had a few of us shaking our heads at the time Zeller showed a good outside game for a big at Summer League, he could be a stretch four to balance Jefferson on the block. Anthony Tolliver was added as a free agent.

As for guys who are gone Byron Mullens left for the Clippers, Tyrus Thomas got amnestied and Reggie Williams is now with the Rockets.

One other key change: Mike Dunlap is out as coach and Steve Clifford is in.

Keys to the Bobcats season:

Can Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develop more reliable jumpers?

Charlotte’s offense will not be a complete abomination this season, the addition of the rock-solid Jefferson in the post guarantees that. But with him in the post they need to space the floor — Ben Gordon helps with that and Gerald Henderson has his moments. However that is not going to be enough. It will take the two most athletic Bobcats — Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — knocking down jumpers consistently to make the other team pay for packing it in or doubling Jefferson on the block.

Walker is the guy with the ball in his hands and he made some big strides forward last season, but he needs to make more. He can be a very creative playmaker, an underrated one, but he needs to be able to stretch the floor with better shooting from three. Last season he took most of his threes from above the arc and hit just 33 percent of them, that number needs to go up.

Kidd-Gilchrist had the ugliest jumper in the NBA and has worked with Mark Price to correct it. The fact is for all the intangible things he does right he doesn’t have the handles to create looks and he shot 29.6 percent from the midrange. He has to improve that number, if not Jeff Taylor looked good at Summer League.

Can the Bobcats stop anyone?

Charlotte had the worst defense in the NBA last season, and now they added Al Jefferson as a cornerstone — a guy who admits he’s not very good at defense. Their defense could be on a course to get worse, which will stymie any progress the offense makes. This is where new coach Steve Clifford is going to have to earn his money. He has to put in a system then get his team to fully buy in, otherwise Charlotte will play matador defense all night. The Bobcats have a couple good defenders on the roster — Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo — but this has to be a team effort.

Frankly, it’s hard to expect much improvement.

Why you should watch Bobcats: Because it’s the last season ever of the Bobcats — next season they are rightfully the Hornets again. Those Bobcats unis will be collectors items (just not in Charlotte where the fan base hates the name). Charlotte also has some good young players who could blossom — Zeller, Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, Taylor — and this will be your last chance to see any of them in a Bobcats uniform.

Prediction: 31-51. That’s a 10-game improvement over last season — their offense will improve but it can’t make up for that defense — but one that leaves them still comfortably in the lottery (just with not as good of odds as Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Utah most likely).

Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers completes pass to become part owner of Bucks

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Aaron Rodgers is regularly be seen courtside at Milwaukee Bucks games, having professed his love of the sport many times. Here was there Friday night for the Bucks’ Game 3 win, sitting courtside with girlfriend Danica Patrick.

This time, he was doing it as part owner of the team.

Milwaukee announced between the first and second quarters that the Packers QB1 is now part-owner of the Bucks, having bought a minority stake in the team.

“I have proudly called Wisconsin my home for the past 13 years, and I am thankful for the friendships and the opportunities I have been given to live and play here,” Rodgers in a released statement. “I am excited and honored to deepen my connection to the region by joining Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, Jamie Dinan, Mike Fascitelli and the ownership group of the Milwaukee Bucks. As a huge fan of the NBA and the sport of basketball, this is a dream come true for me, and I look forward to furthering my affinity for Wisconsin sports as a minority owner in a team I love and support.”

Rodgers is a California native who attended Cal in the Bay Area for college and now — like many an NBA player — splits his time between living where he works in Wisconsin and Southern California.

This is a smart time to buy into the Bucks — and not just because they won Friday. Milwaukee moves into a brand new building next season which should generate a lot more revenue for the franchise. Plus, the Bucks are poised to make a leap forward in the East as a team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast (likely led by a new coach next season), which will lead to more revenue as they become a team to see on the road, one that fills buildings.

Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.