Cody Zeller

Sleeper teams for each conference in 2017-18 NBA season

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Eastern Conference

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets finished a disappointing 36-46 last season, but they were never as far off as it appeared. Despite that dismal record, they still outscored opponents, and point difference tends to better predict future success than record.

Charlotte’s big problem last year was center depth. The team went 3-17 without Cody Zeller.

The Hornets corrected – maybe overcorrected – that by trading for Dwight Howard. Howard will start over Zeller for now, and there’s certainly value in having both players provide depth. But Zeller has proven to be the effective fit in the starting lineup. If Howard’s ego allows a move to the bench, Charlotte is definitely better off with that option in its back pocket. If not, this could get tricky for Steve Clifford.

I’m not sure whether Nicolas Batum‘s injury makes the Hornets more or less of a sleeper. They’re obviously worse without him, but a couple-month absence isn’t nearly enough to write them off. The setback might help them fly further under the radar.

Batum’s injury will put more pressure on Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone and Malik Monk to cobble together effective point-guard minutes offensively and defensively when Kemba Walker sits. That was another, smaller, sore spot last year.

Still, Charlotte is well-coached with a fairly cohesive rotation full of players who’ve developed chemistry together. The Hornets are a highly likely a playoff team, not the borderline outfit many have treated them as. After all, they play in the East.

Western Conference

Utah Jazz

The Jazz will feel the loss of their second-best player.

That’s right. Second.

Rudy Gobert was Utah’s best player even before Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics. Gobert is appropriately touted defensively, the best traditional rim protector in the game right now. But he’s quietly an offensive force – a screener, rebounder and finisher.

The Jazz will miss Hayward, to be sure. But much of that is long-term. The 27-year-old will remain in his prime for multiple years and would’ve pushed Utah’s ceiling much higher.

This season, the Jazz rebounded with enough veterans – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh – to fortify a deep rotation. The newcomers and returning players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson just know how to contribute to winning.

Regression to the mean would make Utah healthier than last season. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors can take steps forward, though Favors is a tough fit with Gobert. First-round Donovan Mitchell looks like a steal.

For too many, last year was the baseline, and Hayward is simply being subtracted. Make no mistake, his offensive creativity will be missed. But this team should take steps forward in other facets and remain elite defensively behind Gobert.

The middle of the Western Conference is tough, and the Jazz are by no means a playoff lock. But they have the talent and savvy to at least hold their own in that very competitive environment – even without Hayward.

Hornets plan to start Dwight Howard over Cody Zeller

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In the last three seasons, the Hornets went 63-53 with Cody Zeller starting at center and 57-73 otherwise.

Charlotte plugged a major hole by acquiring a second center, Dwight Howard. But this team found a groove with Zeller starting at the position.

So, who will start this year?

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

Coach Steve Clifford said Friday that his projected starters, going into training camp Sept. 26 at Spectrum Center, are Kemba Walker at point guard, Nic Batum at shooting guard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward, Marvin Williams at power forward and Dwight Howard at center.

This is a tricky situation.

Howard is far more accomplished than Zeller and was probably better last season. But Zeller is seven years younger. If Howard is still better, he won’t be for long.

A five-time All-NBA first-teamer, Howard is also more likely to chafe at coming off the bench. But does Clifford want to implicitly reward that? Other Hornets might especially dislike a newcomer getting preferential treatment.

Unlike Howard, Zeller can play some power forward. But Zeller is far more effective at center, to the point it might not be worth eating into Marvin Williams’ and Frank Kaminsky‘s minutes at power forward. (Don’t even start on Williams playing small forward.)

There’s no easy answer, but it probably makes sense to give Howard the first crack at starting. Given Howard’s free-throw issues, Zeller might finish games. That could be a workable compromise.

Eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard: “I have a lot left in the tank”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — At 31 and entering his 14th NBA season, eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard says his best basketball is ahead of him.

Wearing a teal suit with black trim, a smiling Howard insisted Monday he can return to being a dominant center with the Charlotte Hornets, where he will be reunited with coach Steve Clifford and play for one of his childhood heroes, team owner Michael Jordan.

“A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder,” Howard said during his introductory news conference. “I’m just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank.”

This will be Howard’s third team in three seasons.

The Atlanta Hawks, his hometown team, traded him to Charlotte one year into a three-year, $74 million contract. Howard said he has no hard feelings, adding that “sometimes things just don’t work out.”

But he’s confident Charlotte is the right fit.

“I think I’m a lot healthier than I have been in the past five years and I think this is going to be my best time,” Howard said. “I’m a lot wiser now, stronger mentally and physically, and I’m in the right place with a great coach, a great GM and the GOAT (greatest of all time). So I think this is the perfect opportunity.”

Much of Howard’s optimism stems from being reunited with Clifford.

They worked together for seven seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles, and the 6-foot-11 three-time Defensive Player of the Year loves Clifford’s defense-first mentality. He’s also confident Clifford will put him in the right situations to succeed on offense.

“He understands me,” Howard said. “… He was always there for me and not once did he turn his back on me or talk bad about me. He was very positive and he was somebody that I have always trusted in.”

The feeling is mutual.

Clifford said he’s never coached a player smarter than Howard when it comes to understanding defensive coverages. While Howard has incredible athletic ability, Clifford said, he’s never been given the credit he deserves for playing a “thinking man’s game.”

“Smart always wins in the NBA,” Clifford said.

Howard is expected to start in Charlotte alongside All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, guard Nic Batum and forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. Cody Zeller, last year’s starting center, is expected to come off the bench for the Hornets but still see significant minutes.

Howard said he’s learned a lot over the past 13 seasons.

“Over the years a lot of things have been said and I’ve not said anything back,” Howard said. “Somehow things that weren’t true kept getting stirred up, and that gave a lot of people wrong opinions about who I was as a person. I should be the one speaking up for myself instead of allowing other people to do that.”

In Charlotte, Howard becomes the second big-name athlete to be known as “Superman,” joining former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Both are from the Atlanta area and have met a couple of times but aren’t close friends. Howard said he’s eager to connect with Newton and get to know him better.

“We have the same attitude; we love to win, but we want to have fun,” Howard said.

 

Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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Later Monday night, one of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, or Kawhi Leonard will be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (The smart money is on Green to win, but you can make a legitimate case for any of the three.)

Before that award is handed out, the NBA released its All-Defensive teams.

Not a lot of surprises here, especially on the first team. Green, Gobert, and Leonard are the top three vote getters for DPOY, so they were going to make this team, and since this team is positionally tied that meant two guards had to join them. (Each team has to have two guards, two forwards, and one center, and the voters have to vote that way.) Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley made that cut. The ballots were cast by 100 members of the NBA media (full disclosure I had a vote). A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

The biggest surprise: No LeBron James. Good defenders such as Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and Klay Thompson also didn’t make the cut.

Here’s who made the All-Defensive teams.

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE FIRST TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Forward Draymond Green, Golden State, 198
Center Rudy Gobert, Utah, 196
Forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio, 192
Guard Chris Paul, LA Clippers, 140
Guard Patrick Beverley, Houston, 110

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE SECOND TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Guard Tony Allen, Memphis, 80
Guard Danny Green, San Antonio, 68
Center Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 58
Forward Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 53
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 35

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (First Team votes in parentheses): Avery Bradley, Boston, 46 (12); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 45 (16); John Wall, Washington, 38 (14); DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers, 35 (1); Paul Millsap, Atlanta, 35; Hassan Whiteside, Miami, 25 (1); Marcus Smart, Boston, 21 (5); Jimmy Butler, Chicago, 18; LeBron James, Cleveland, 12 (1); Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 11 (2); Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City, 10 (5); Paul George, Indiana, 7; Kevin Durant, Golden State, 6; Dwight Howard, Atlanta, 6 (1); Mike Conley, Memphis, 5 (1); Jae Crowder, Boston, 5; Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 5; Wesley Matthews, Dallas, 4 (2); Stephen Curry, Golden State, 3; Andre Iguodala, Golden State, 3 (1); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte, 3; Ricky Rubio, Minnesota, 3; P.J. Tucker, Toronto, 3; Trevor Ariza, Houston, 2; Nicolas Batum, Charlotte, 2; Marc Gasol, Memphis, 2; Eric Gordon, Houston, 2 (1); Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota, 2 (1); Steven Adams, Oklahoma City, 1; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio, 1; Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland, 1; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit, 1; George Hill, Utah, 1; Serge Ibaka, Toronto, 1; Damian Lillard, Portland, 1; Luc Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers, 1; Austin Rivers, LA Clippers, 1; Isaiah Thomas, Boston, 1; Cody Zeller, Charlotte, 1.

It should be noted that Atlanta’s Millsap had as many total points as Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo for the final slot, but because the Greek Freak got seven first-team votes as opposed to zero for Millsap, Antetokounmpo wins the tie breaker. Also, Boston’s Bradley and Golden State’s Thompson had more points than Antetokounmpo, but they could only be listed as guards.

Report: Charlotte Hornets pick up option, will bring back GM Rich Cho for next season

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The Charlotte Hornets are the most unlucky team in the NBA, they have the point differential of a 42-38 team (via Basektball-Reference.com), but some ugly losses — they are 0-9 in games decided by three points or less — have them on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Kemba Walker was brilliant, but the Hornets defense regressed, and they missed the depth that Jeremy Lin and other veterans provided. When their guys were injured, specifically Cody Zeller for a stretch in the middle of the season, the Hornets couldn’t recover.

Owner Michael Jordan is apparently not laying the blame for that at the feet of GM Rich Cho. He will be back next season, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Charlotte Hornets have picked up the option for next season on general manager Rich Cho’s contract, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Hornets recently activated the 2017-18 in Cho’s existing deal.

This is the right move.

The Hornets need a smart, steady hand at GM spot. Jordan, as an owner, should be able to have input but what the Hornets don’t want is him or anyone catching a few games of someone playing well in the NCAA Tournament and demanding they move him way up the draft board. Or getting involved in trade details. Jordan was as great a player as the game has ever seen, but that’s different from running a basketball organization. The franchise seems to have learned that.

The Hornets have some decisions to make this summer, but they are in a stronger position than it looks — and with a decent team — heading into the draft and free agency.