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.”

Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 13 rebounds and the Milwaukee Bucks surged to a 24-point lead in the second quarter in a 133-86 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The 47-point loss was the Thunder’s worst of the season.

Chris Paul scored 18 points for Oklahoma City.

Both teams were without their second-leading scorers. Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton was a late scratch with a sore neck. An ankle injury kept Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari out.

The Bucks had won four in a row and the Thunder had won five straight.

The Bucks built their second-quarter lead behind 14 second-quarter points from Antetokounmpo, seven from Donte DiVincenzo, who started in place of Middleton, and back-to-back 3-pointers from Wesley Matthews.

A key moment occurred late in the second period.

With Milwaukee leading, 54-43, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer got a technical foul after approaching a referee during a timeout with 3:43 left in the quarter. That was moments after Eric Bledsoe was called for a charging foul that irked Budenholzer. After that, the Bucks went on a 17-4 run and led 71-47 at halftime.

Milwaukee outrebounded Oklahoma City, 67-36.

The Bucks made a season-high 21 3-pointers. The Thunder were 6 for 35 on 3-pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shrugs off James Harden dig: ‘I’m just trying to do my job’

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There is some meat to the James Harden/Giannis Antetokounmpo beef.

Harden was pissed Antetokounmpo won Most Valuable Player over him last year and vented about it. When it came to this year’s All-Star Game, captian Antetokounmpo drafted Kemba Walker over Harden while joking he wanted someone who’d pass. After his team lost the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo said his team’s strategy was to get the ball to whomever Harden was guarding and attack.

Harden ramped up the skirmish of words Friday when speaking to Rachel Nichols of ESPN, saying:

“I wish I could just run, run and was 7-feet and run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.”

Antetokounmpo decided to let it die when ESPN asked pregame about what Harden said.

“I’m not the type of guy to take stabs at somebody. … I’m just trying to do my job which is win games and go back home to my family. At the end of the day, if that’s what he believes that’s what he believes. I can’t say anything about it. I’ve just got to keep being focused.”

If you’re circling dates on your calendar, March 25 is what you’re looking for, the day the Bucks host the Rockets.

Harden should believe he is the best player in the game — you don’t get to be where he is without that level of confidence. Antetokounmpo should believe the same thing about himself. We could say the same things about LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and a host of others. It’s part of what makes them great, and not a surprise.

If the MVP thing is eating at Harden he might not like this season’s outcome any better. While I haven’t done a poll, most voters I’ve spoken to have The Beard third behind Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. There’s still more than six weeks of basketball before votes are cast — and the Rockets as a team are surging — but right now, the Greek Freak looks like a repeat winner from what I am hearing.

Rockets protested game despite Tilman Fertitta’s dissent

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta talks big about his devotion to winning.

But when Houston had a chance to turn a loss into a victory by protesting due to an uncounted James Harden dunk, Fertitta balked.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“That’s my basketball people who got mad at ’em. Honestly, I don’t think we should have filed the protest because honestly we blew the 22-point lead. But if something is important to my players and basketball ops people, I give them a lot of leeway.”

I wonder whether Fertitta would have publicly shared his stance if the protest succeeded. I also wonder whether how supported Fertitta’s basketball employees feel considering he’s publicly revealing that he wasn’t on their side.

But this is actually one of the more encouraging stories of Fertitta’s ownership. He allowed room for debate. He listened to the other side. He posted the $10,000 protest fee.

It didn’t pay off this time, but that’s how good owners operate.

As expected, Rockets sign veteran Jeff Green for remainder of season

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Before they committed fully, Houston signed free agent Jeff Green to a 10-day contract. They just wanted to make sure the veteran forward was a fit in their small-ball system.

It turns out, he was a perfect fit.

Through four games, playing a little more than 19 minutes a game, Green averaged 9.8 points a game on a ridiculous 89.6 true shooting percentage. That’s not sustainable (he’s shooting 61.5 percent from three), but it was enough for the Rockets to sign Green for the remainder of the season, something the team announced Friday.

Green, at 6’8″, played on the wing most of his career. However, with the Rockets he backs up P.J. Tucker at center.

Green started the season a member of the Utah Jazz, but the fit there was not as clean. While he averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances, the Jazz ultimately waived him to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker.

This contract only runs through the end of this season, but the Rockets could re-sign Green for next season, if the sides agree this summer. For now, the focus is on the Rockets’ hot streak and building on that as the league moves toward the postseason.