The Al Jefferson Effect: Now that the Bobcats are playoff-bound, how they want their big man to help next

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BOSTON – Al Jefferson, then a rookie with the Celtics, arrived to work the day after the 2005 regular season ended. Immediately, he realized the vibe had changed as Boston prepared for its first-round playoff series.

“It was a different film session. It was a different practice. Everything was just different,” Jefferson said. “I was like, ‘What have I got myself into?’”

Two days later, he found out. Jefferson shot 3-for-3 in Game 1 against the Pacers, but he also learned a valuable lesson about postseason basketball.

“If you make a mistake, it was going to come back to get you,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson hasn’t won a playoff game since that series, getting swept with the Jazz in 2012. He spent the rest of his formative NBA years playing for some truly lousy teams.

It’s an experience the Charlotte Bobcats, Jefferson’s current team, don’t want for their developing players. After all, that’s why they signed Jefferson last summer – to ensure their young players get more-meaningful minutes rather than just more minutes.

At the time, the plan was viewed by many, myself included, as foolish. I believed Jefferson wasn’t good enough to lift Charlotte into the playoffs, but boy, was I wrong. Now that the Jefferson-led Bobcats are in the postseason (facing the Heat in the first round), the question becomes: Will his addition, and the winning it produced, help Charlotte’s young players?

“If you want to get into player development, you could argue all day,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said. “I think that one of the best things for young players is that they play in a role that they can play well in.”

For Clifford, the rationale is twofold.

1. Players learn best when they’re not overextended. “I’m a big believer that they should get what they’re ready for,” he said. “That teaches them how they have to play.” On bad teams, though, at least some players must take roles larger than they’re qualified for. If everyone could fill a role they were ready for, it’d be a good team.

2. Players getting appropriate roles prevent issues down the road. When teams with bad players add good players, either the current/bad players must accept lesser roles or the new/good players must. Either way, that’s problematic. The current/bad players often don’t want to relinquish responsibility they believe they’ve come to deserve, and new/good players shouldn’t take a backseat despite merit.

And that’s where Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker come in.

Zeller (21 years old, drafted No. 4 in 2013), Kidd-Gilchrist (20 years old, drafted No. 2 in 2012), Biyombo (21 years old, drafted No. 7 in 2011) and Walker (23 years old, drafted No. 9 in 2011) are not only the Bobcats’ youngest players, but they’re also the team’shighest-drafted players.

These four, based on how Jefferson affects them, will dictate Charlotte’s future.

Kemba Walker

Walker, who leads the team with 35.8 minutes per game, is the only one with a huge role already. He’s also the most-advanced and nearest his peak. Walker’s role is not over his head by any means.

The third-year point guard will likely still grow, but it’s difficult to see areas on his game primed for major positive overhaul. Walker entered the NBA relatively polished after three years at UConn, and his between-season growth has shrunk rapidly.  At this point, it’s about fine-tuning – setting up more easy shots for his teammates while still avoiding turnovers, stealing more balls while still playing sound positional defense.

If he tops out as a quality starting point guard, a tier he might have already reached, that would be a praiseworthy accomplishment. But at just 23, Walker probably has not quite plateaued

Bismack Biyombo

Biyombo, who’s especially raw given his lack of high-level basketball experience prior to entering the NBA, is much harder to gauge.

Among the 109 players who defend at least four shots at the rim per game, nobody – not even Roy Hibbert – holds opponents to a lower field-goal percentage on those shots than Biyombo (39.1). Here are the top 25:

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Biyombo is also finishing around the rim at a solid rate, a worrying spot last season.

When he plays, I see breakout potential, but it’s concerning his role has trended the wrong direction – all the way to the back of Clifford’s rotation. Eventually, Biyombo must parlay his inspiring flashes into his coach’s trust.

Also concerning, Biyombo and Jefferson don’t complement each other. As long as Jefferson keeps producing at All-NBA third team levels, Biyombo will have to prove himself in limited minutes. If he does, maybe he’d help the Bobcats most as a trade piece.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

When Charlotte drafted Kidd-Gilchrist, I called him the perfect pick because he’s particularly well-suited to bring out the best in other good players. At the time, Charlotte lacked those, meaning Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn’t prevent the Bobcats from getting a much-needed high pick the next year.

Considering the Bobcats had the NBA’s second-worst record last season, that part of the plan worked.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s defensive development has similarly followed the desired progression. He’s both versatile and effective in the many responsibilities he takes.

Just look at the Bobcats’ roster and defensive ranking (sixth). Clifford has done a marvelous job, but Kidd-Gilchrist is the defensive centerpiece the coach has relied upon.

The success just hasn’t extended to the other end of the floor.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting stroke has always been problematic, but now he’s just stopped trying. The only players who play as often as Kidd-Gilchrist and shoot less frequently outside the restricted areas are centers.

biyombo shot chart

As a result, Kidd-Gilchrist sits during crunch time, freeing the Bobcats’ ball movement. When opponents are forced to guard all five players on the floor – something they often don’t do when Kidd-Gilchrist plays – Charlotte has shown a proclivity for making the extra pass(es).

For Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays just 24.2 minutes per game, there’s no question his evolution requires better shooting. He needn’t be a great jump shooter, but if he can even join the lowest end of his fellow small forwards, that would allow him more playing time – meaning more minutes Charlotte gets its best defender on the floor.

In the meantime, as the Bobcats designed, Kidd-Gilchrist will get valuable growing experience in the playoffs. He’ll become the first top-two pick to make the playoffs within two years of being drafted since Derrick Rose, who was picked No. 1 in 2008.

Cody Zeller

Like Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller is getting an uncommon learning opportunity. Not many top-four picks reach the playoffs as rookies. (Washington’s No. 3 pick Otto Porter, in a much lesser role, will also do it this year.)

Even before the postseason, Zeller showed how a young player can develop as games become more meaningful.

Zeller admitted, because he had no reference point, he didn’t realize before the year the Bobcats would make the playoffs. But as that goal became more and more evidently attainable, Zeller has steadily improved, especially as a shooter.

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As he’s established himself as a reliable shot-maker, the Bobcats can use him without their offense crumbling

  • Before All-Star break: 38 percent shooting by Zeller, 95.5 points per 100 possessions by Charlotte
  • After All-Star break: 50 percent shooting, 104.3 points per 100 possessions by Charlotte

Clifford said he’s seen Zeller’s defense improve too, but the rookie’s progress on that end is not as evident. Zeller is still prone to getting caught flat-footed and not providing enough physical resistance. There’s unquestionably significant room to grow.

All in all, Zeller doesn’t mind his limited role – for now.

“You always want to make a bigger impact,” Zeller said. “But as a rookie, playing 18 to 20 minutes on a playoff team is a good role for me. I’m going to play the 18 to 20 minutes to the best of my ability, and if more comes, then more comes. But I’m not too worried about it.”

Zeller knows he’s still learning, and he lists Jefferson first among the veterans who’ve helped him.

Jefferson is seizing that leadership opportunity – imparting wisdom to Walker, Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller as the Bobcats prepare to enter the postseason.

“I hope to show them that, if we believe in ourselves and play together and work together and commit coach’s system, this could the first of many playoff appearances,” Jefferson said, pausing slightly, then adding five words that will determine just how well Charlotte’s experiment will go. “And advancing in the playoffs.”

Rumor: “Rumblings” Chris Paul has interest in San Antonio Spurs

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We were robbed of the chance to see exactly how the San Antonio Spurs match up with the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, and you can direct your blame at Zaza Pachulia. But even if Kawhi Leonard were healthy, San Antonio could use another distributor and shot creator on the perimeter, someone to replace what Tony Parker used to bring them.

How about Chris Paul?

That rumor has been circulating for a while, that the Clippers’ free agent guard wants to win and sees a path to a ring through Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. ESPN’s well-connected Zach Lowe confirmed that during a recent Lowe Post Podcast.

“There’s been a lot of rumblings about Chris Paul, and I think that’s real,” Lowe says. “I think there’s mutual interest there. I don’t know how real it is given the Clippers can offer a gigantic amount of money and are also a really good team; and the Spurs, like I said, have no sort of cap flexibility to get there. I’m very curious about what they do this summer and who’s on the team next year.”

It’s easy to see the logic of a path to winning there, and it’s easy to understand why the Spurs would want to go this route. CP3 is the best floor general in the game, he can shoot the three, and he’s still a strong defender at the position. Go to the Spurs and he makes bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol look better, he gets rest for his aging body, and he gets to chase a ring.

Don’t bet on it happening, however, and the reason is money.

Paul was head of the players’ union during the negotiation of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 and a new provision in that CBA is that the over 36 rule — limiting max contracts for guys who turned 36 during the deal — will become the over 38 rule. Why? Because it gives Chris Paul one more five-year max contract from the Clippers. Are you going to go through all the hassle of changing the CBA then walk away from that money?

The only way San Antonio could get near max cap space would be to shed the salaries of Pau Gasol — $16 million next season, and he has said he’s opting in — and Tony Parker, plus just let Patty Mills walk as well as guys likeDewayne Dedmon. The Spurs may be willing to do this, but to trade Gasol and bring no salary back is going to require serious sweeteners in the deal (picks or young players). And it would be very un-Spurs to coldly let Tony Parker go for a cap-space move — Popovich is not Bill Belichick.

In reality, the Spurs would need to get CP3 to take less, and I’m not sold he will do that. Paul will take the meeting, he will talk to a number of teams this summer, but in the end expect him to take the payday and re-sign with the Clippers (maybe giving himself an opt-out after three or four years in case he then wants to ring chase elsewhere).

 

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Will Lonzo Ball justify LaVar Ball’s hype? Does he fit on the Lakers?

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Lonzo Ball is unlike anything that we’ve seen come through the college ranks in recent years.

It’s not simply that he’s a 6-foot-6 point guard with range out to 30 feet on his jump shot and court vision that is probably more aptly described as radar. Lonzo is the son of LaVar Ball, who has become a viral sensation and a quasi-celebrity due to the nature of the way the media operates today and his desire to turn the Ball family into an athletic apparel brand.

Put another way, the circus surrounding Lonzo isn’t just a result of him being the closest thing we’ve seen to Jason Kidd since he was torching Pac-12 defenses with Cal back in the early-90s.

It’s unfortunate that the discussion about Lonzo’s potential has a pro has been dominated by whether or not LaVar is too involved in his son’s life, because the conversation about whether or not the oldest of the three Ball kids can transform an NBA team the way that he’s transformed his high school and college teams is far more intriguing, and frankly, more relevant.

Lonzo’s strengths are elite in every sense of the word. But he has some pronounced weaknesses that, at the very least, make you wonder if the team he ends up on will have to tailor their roster to cover those holes.

What kind of a pro will Ball end up being?

Height: 6′6″
Weight: 190
Wingspan: 6′9″
2016-17 Stats: 14.6 points, 6.0 boards, 7.6 assists, 73.2% 2PT, 41.2% 3PT

STRENGTHS: What Lonzo Ball does well he does at an absolutely elite level, and you can’t talk about Ball without first mentioning his unbelievable skill in transition.

It starts with his ability to get from one end of the floor to the other. He isn’t the quickest or most explosive guard in this draft, but once he hits his top gear, he can run away from the defense; 30 percent of his offense, according to Synergy, came in transition possessions. He creates transition opportunities himself. He not only runs on turnovers or off of an outlet, he’ll go and grab a defensive rebound himself and lead the break. This not only creates layups for himself, where, at 6-foot-6, he can finish at or above the rim with either hand, but it puts pressure on the defense to stop the ball. He also runs hard without the ball, and his size and athleticism allows him to be a lob target in transition.

As good as Ball is going running, he’s even better passing the ball in transition. It’s incredibly entertaining to watch. His vision and understanding of where his teammates are going to be is on another level — his basketball IQ is off-the-charts — and he is able to vary the angle, the height or the hand that he passes with in order to get the ball where it needs to go. He’s a quick, decisive and creative decision-maker with the size to see over the defense and accuracy that would make Aaron Rodgers jealous.

It’s not just in transition where he has that kind of success. He can make just about any pass you need to make coming off of a ball-screen — a big popping, a big rolling to the rim, same-side shooters, weak-side shooters. Again, his size here is an incredible advantage, allowing him not only to see over the defense but to make passes over the defense.

His unselfishness permeates a team. His teammates fill lanes and run to spot-up because they know he’ll reward them for doing it. They make the extra pass because they know the ball will eventually find its way back to them. It’s contagious, and it starts with Ball.

As a scorer, he does have some limitations — we’ll get to that — but the things he does well he’s very good at. It starts with his three-point shooting, where he has range well beyond the NBA three-point line, either off the catch, off the dribble or off of a vicious step-back jumper that was borderline-unstoppable in college. He shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, many of those from out to 30 feet. He also shot 73.2 percent from inside the arc, which speaks to his effectiveness at getting to, and finishing at, the rim; Ball only attempted 13 shots inside the arc that weren’t layups or dunks, as he’s a very good straight line driver going right.

Ball is also better moving off the ball than he gets credit for. He can run off of screens and bury threes off the catch or off of a one-dribble pull-up, and his size and ability to make back-door cuts made him a lob target for UCLA this past season.

Defensively, Ball must add strength to his frame, but he proved to be a pretty effective defender one-on-one when he was actually engaged on that end. His physical tools, his anticipation and his basketball IQ make him a dangerous defensive playmaker as well, and that should carry over to the next level as well.

WEAKNESSES: What Ball does well he does as well as anyone that we see at the college level, but his struggles are just as glaring as his strengths are obvious, and it all stems around one, simple question: Will Ball be able to create offense in a half-court setting?

The biggest issue is his jump shot. When he’s knocking down threes, be it off the catch or off of that deadly step-back, he’s bring the ball all the way over to the left side of his body and his feet are pointing well off to the left of the rim. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, this isn’t all that much of an issue — there are shooting coaches that will teach players to have a slight turn; watch Stephen Curry‘s feet when he shoots threes — and when Ball shoots his step-back, his feet are naturally going to be angled in that direction.

The trouble comes when he’s attempting to pull-up, particularly when he is going to his right. His feet are out of whack and he has to bring the ball all the way to the other side of his body, which is part of the reason Ball appears to fumble with the ball quite often when shooting off the dribble. As a result, Ball essentially has no mid-range game. On the season, Ball made 189 field goals: 80 of them were threes, 102 of them were layups or dunks and only seven were either floaters or two-point jumpers.

This issue is also evident when he shoots free throws, as his toes are pointed directly at the rim. That’s why a guy that shoots 73 percent from two and 41 percent from three makes just 67 percent of his free throws.

Ball’s other issue is in the pick-and-roll, where he never proved to be much of a scoring threat. There were just 49 pick-and-roll possessions all season where Ball wasn’t a passer — for comparison’s sake, Markelle Fultz had 184 while playing 11 fewer games — and he turned the ball over on 32 percent of them. He had nearly three times as many pick-and-roll possessions as a passer, and all of 33 possessions in isolation.

The result is that Ball is entirely too predictable in the half court. If he’s getting a ball-screen, he’s going to be a passer three out of four times. If he’s going right, he’s going all the way to the rim. If he’s going left, you know it’s going to be a pull-up. Throw in questions about whether or not he has the first-step to turn the corner at the next level, and there are certainly legitimate concerns about his effectiveness against NBA defenders.

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Matt York)

NBA COMPARISON: Jason Kidd is the obvious one, and it mostly works. Both are big guards with unbelievable court vision and an unselfishness that permeates a team. Both are average athletes by NBA standards. Both thrive in transition. Both make a lot of threes — Kidd is eighth all-time in three-pointers made — even if there are questions about how good, or effective, they are as shooters. All that left is to find out whether or not Ball can put together a Hall of Fame career, or if he can sell signature shoes, like Kidd.

OUTLOOK: Ball is going to end up being drafted by the Lakers with the No. 2 pick. We can pretend like there is going to be drama here, like Magic Johnson is going to look at a big point guard, a local kid, with an innate ability to lead the break and see anything other than himself and the reincarnation of the Showtime Lakers, but that would be a waste of time.

What that means is that Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, will be teamed up with D'Angelo Russell, a point guard that was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft, and Brandon Ingram, a wing that was the No. 2 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.

And, frankly, I think that works. What Russell and Ingram do well make up for where Ball struggles. Russell operates in the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler in the half court. Ingram is an isolation scorer that shot better than 41 percent from three in his one season at Duke. If Ball struggles to create in half court settings, he can act as a floor-spacer thanks to his ability in catch-and-shoot actions.

That’s before you consider that Luke Walton, the second-year head coach of the Lakers, spent two seasons as an assistant — one of which where he spent half of the season as the interim head coach — with the Warriors, and the offense UCLA ran this year, one heavy on spacing, ball-movement and player movement, is quite similar to what the Warriors run.

Put another way, on paper, Los Angeles looks like the perfect place for Ball, a exquisitely skilled albeit flawed prospect, to end up.

Charlotte awarded 2019 NBA All-Star Game

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This isn’t a surprise.

Disappointing by the NBA, but not a surprise.

A month after the NBA Board of Governors cleared the way for the NBA’s showcase All-Star Game to return to Charlotte — saying the steps the state took to reverse the controversial “bathroom bill” that cost the state the 2017 game were enough — the NBA has awarded the 2019 game to Charlotte.

“For three decades, the NBA has had a home in Charlotte. Generations of families have attended games there, and fans from many different walks of life have come together to share a passion for a team that is an anchor in the community,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “We have decided to award NBA All-Star 2019 to Charlotte based on this deep connection and the belief that we can honor our shared values of equality and inclusion, and we are excited to bring the All-Star Game back to Charlotte for the first time in 28 years.

“While we understand the concerns of those who say the repeal of HB2 did not go far enough, we believe the recent legislation eliminates the most egregious aspects of the prior law. Additionally, it allows us to work with the leadership of the Hornets organization to apply a set of equality principles to ensure that every All-Star event will proceed with open access and anti-discrimination policies. All venues, hotels and businesses we work with during All-Star will adhere to these policies as well.”

“We are thrilled the league has awarded NBA All-Star 2019 to the city of Charlotte,” Hornets primary owner Michael Jordan said. “All-Star Weekend is an international event that will provide a tremendous economic impact to our community while showcasing our city, our franchise and our passionate Hornets fan base to people around the world.”

The weekend of events will take place Friday through Sunday, Feb. 15-17, 2019, mostly at The Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. (The 2018 All-Star Game is in Los Angeles.)

All the controversy was due to the discriminatory bill HB2, commonly called “the bathroom law,” which was passed by the North Carolina legislature in 2016. The law restricted transgender bathroom use (you had to use the bathroom for the gender with which you were born) and preempted anti-discrimination ordinances put in by Charlotte and other North Carolina cities that tried to block discrimination against gays and lesbians. The NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from the city, one of a number of events that pulled, or businesses that reduced their footprint in the state due to the bill, ultimately costing North Carolina $3.76 billion in economic impact, according to an Associated Press report.

The repeal of the law was not complete, some LBGT restrictions remained in place, such as a ban on cities (such as Charlotte) passing any nondiscrimination ordinances covering sexual orientation until 2020. Gay-rights advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union, and mayors from multiple other cities (which did not lift their government business travel bans to the state) said the compromise repeal did not go far enough. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who was elected in part due to this issue, said this compromise repeal was the best that the legislature would approve.

This was not enough of a repeal. The NBA returning the All-Star Game to Charlotte is the moral and economic equivalent of liking a post on Facebook complaining about Chick-fil-A’s history of anti-LGBT donations and activism, then going and eating at the restaurant.

But the NBA is a business and it wants to make that fan base happy. No doubt Jordan and his ownership group have brought stability to the franchise and worked hard to rebuild an NBA market that the previous owner had completely destroyed (ending with George Shin moving his team to New Orleans, if it wasn’t for Donald Sterling Shin would be seen as maybe the worst NBA owner of the past couple decades).

So the 2019 game is headed to Buzz City.

Pau Gasol on Warriors: “In all my years in the league, they’re playing at the highest level right now”

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Pau Gasol has two rings from playing alongside Kobe Bryant on a Phil Jackson coached team in Los Angeles. He knows what elite basketball looks like.

And he’s very impressed with the Golden State Warriors.

Via Courtney Cronin of the San Jose Mercury News.

“They’re in a groove,” Gasol said. “They know what it takes to win and obviously they’ve been champions, they’ve established records that have never been set before and they’re on a path to get another championship. In all my years in the league, they’re playing at the highest level right now.”

This kind of praise was heaped on the Warriors last year, but Cleveland was able to come from 3-1 down in the Finals. Cleveland is an excellent team led by the best player on the planet.

Still, this year feels different. As Boston has shown in recent games, Cleveland’s help defense can be exposed with good ball and player movement. And even if the Cavaliers can again slow down Stephen Curry, this year there is Kevin Durant, too.

Danny Green was one who thinks the Cavaliers have a chance.

“They’re a great team, but Cleveland’s a great team, too,” Spurs forward Danny Green said. “Cleveland’s done it before. Do I think they can do it again? It’s possible. I wouldn’t say anything’s impossible. It’s a really good team and they have pretty good chances if they stay healthy and keep rolling like they are to win again.”