ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Charlotte Hornets

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Last season: After years of being a league-wide punchline, Charlotte took some steps towards actual respectability in 2013-14. They splurged on Al Jefferson in free agency and finished 43-39, making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. Under first-time head coach Steve Clifford, the Bobcats had the sixth-best defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 101.2 points per 100 possessions despite lacking a traditional rim protector. Jefferson proved a terrific signing, Josh McRoberts thrived in a stretch-four role, and Kemba Walker established himself as a quality starting point guard. They were swept out of the first round by the Miami Heat, but nonetheless made it clear that this is a team with a real future.

Signature highlight from last season: Gerald Henderson couldn’t have hit this trick shot off the top of the backboard on purpose if he tried.

Key offseason moves: After Utah matched the Hornets’ massive offer sheet to Gordon Hayward, Charlotte shifted gears and signed Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million deal. They lost McRoberts to the Heat and traded Brendan Haywood to the Cavs but brought in point guard Brian Roberts and veteran forward Marvin Williams to fill out the bench. The Hornets are also adding two first-round picks in power forward Noah Vonleh (No. 9) and point guard P.J. Hairston (No. 26).

Keys to the Hornets’ season:

Which Lance are they getting? The Hornets’ top summer signee is a game-changer on the defensive end and an explosive scorer. But, as witnessed during the Pacers’ second-half collapse last season, Stephenson can also be a major liability when his head isn’t in the right place. Good Lance has the perfect skill set to take the Hornets to the next level; Bad Lance has a questionable shot selection, gambles too much on defense and causes needless distractions (like the LeBron ear-blowing incident). Charlotte gave him a lot of money, making the gamble that they’ll get more of the former than the latter. Hopefully, they’re right.

How good is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Despite a hand injury that sidelined him 19 games in 2013-14, MKG continued to blossom as a defender, playing a major role in the Bobcats’ success on that end. Still, the 2012 No. 2 pick is a complete unknown offensively — his jump shot is notoriously bad, and he hasn’t become a reliable scorer in other ways, either. Kidd-Gilchrist and Stephenson should be a lockdown defensive combo on the perimeter, but in order to reach his ceiling, MKG will need to become a factor on offense in some way. That jumper may never be consistent, so improving his scoring around the basket is probably the way to do that.

Who fill the void at power forward? The loss of McRoberts hurts, more than a lot of people may realize. He was a uniquely skilled power forward capable of spacing the floor and making plays, and a versatile defender who was a big part of the Bobcats’ success on that end last season. His departure leaves a hole next to Big Al in the frontcourt, with three leading candidates to pick up those minutes.

2013’s No. 4 overall pick, Cody Zeller, is the likeliest to start, at least early on. Zeller overcame an awful start to his rookie season and put together a solid final stretch. Per Basketball-Reference.com, before the All-Star break, Zeller was averaging 5.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while shooting 38.0 percent from the field; after the break, those numbers jumped to 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds with a 50.7 percent shooting clip. Both sample sizes are much too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but Zeller seemed to figure things out as the season progressed. He still has a ways to go defensively, as most rookie big men do, but the signs are encouraging, and he should see the lion’s share of minutes at power forward when the season kicks off.

Williams has played small forward for most of his career but will likely see most of his minutes at the four position this season. He’s a become solid outside shooter over the last two seasons in Utah, but he isn’t nearly the passer McRoberts is. At the start of the season, Clifford may feel more comfortable starting a veteran over one of the two young guys competing for minutes, but Williams is probably best suited as a reserve at this point.

Vonleh is a total question mark. He fell to No. 9 in the draft because of a lack of polish, and that was before undergoing surgery last month for a sports hernia that will limit him for most of training camp and possibly the first part of the season. Back injuries are scary regardless, but it’s especially not ideal for a player going into his rookie season. The injury only decreases Vonleh’s chance of finding consistent minutes and solidifies him as a long-term project, even if the Hornets envision him as the long-term starting power forward.

Why you should watch: They’re a few years away from contending, but the Hornets are one of the up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference. Jefferson is one of the most gifted and underappreciated low-post scorers in the league and no player can singlehandedly win or lose a game for his team quite like Stephenson can. Charlotte should absolutely be in your regular League Pass rotation. Plus, they’ve got some killer new uniforms to go with the name change.

Prediction: 44-38. The Hornets are no longer a “surprise” team — with this roster in the weak Eastern Conference, they should be expected to make the playoffs barring a catastrophic injury. They have the defense, especially with Stephenson in the fold, to give a contender headaches in the first round and maybe even make win a playoff series if they get the right matchup.

Luka Doncic greets Mexico City fans in Spanish, a tough act for Blake Griffin to follow (video)

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The Pistons had a rough time in Mexico.

Andre Drummond suffered an allergic reaction to avocado. Detroit lost to the Mavericks. And Blake Griffin had to follow Luka Doncic in addressing Mexico City fans.

A Slovenian, Doncic spent several years playing for Real Madrid in Spain. We knew that prepared him for the NBA. We didn’t know it prepared him this well.

‘Seinfeld’ predicted last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game 28 years ago (video)

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On a 1991 episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry woke up in the middle of the night with a joke idea for his stand-up routine. He scribbled it down on paper by his bed. But when he woke the next morning, he couldn’t read what he had written.

George suffered what he thought was a heart attack. On Kramer’s advice, George visited a holistic healer.

The storylines converged when Jerry, accompanying his friend to mock alternative medicine, asked the healer to read his note. The healer read it, laughed and said:

“Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109”

The score of last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game?

Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109

Bucks easing into life after Malcolm Brogdon

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George Hill has become a trusted voice within the Bucks. The savvy veteran is in his 12th season. He began his career with the Spurs when they were still the gold-standard franchise, started for the championship-contending Pacers, helped the Jazz become a breakout team, played for the Kings, joined the Cavaliers as they made a run to the NBA Finals, stayed in Cleveland for the Cavs’ post-LeBron James freefall then came to Milwaukee. In other words, Hill has been (basketball) hell and back. He knows the game, knows the league.

Among his biggest talking points: role acceptance.

“I think that’s the difference between good teams and bad teams,” Hill said. “Good teams have guys that accept that role and excel in that role. That’s what good organizations do. And the bad teams have the ones that are just trying to chase their own stats.”

That sounds nice for someone where Hill is in his career. But what about young players still trying to establish themselves?

“You can make a lot of money being a great role guy,” Hill said. “You can last a lot longer in this league being a great role guy, a great teammate, a guy that everyone wants to play with and a guy that teams want you because they know you know how to win and you can fit with any type of style of play.”

A shining example of Hill’s worldview? Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon was mere months removed from winning Rookie of the Year when Milwaukee supplanted him at point guard – his preferred position – by trading for Eric Bledsoe. So, Brogdon shifted to shooting guard. He learned to keep the ball moving quickly rather than stunting the offense for his own looks. He sharpened his defense. He kept working hard.

The Pacers rewarded Brogdon with a four-year, $85 million contract and a leading role. Brogdon is flourishing in Indiana, building a case as an All-Star.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are trying to move on without him.

Milwaukee letting Brogdon leave in restricted free agency was the most consequential choice an NBA team made last summer. The Bucks are competing for a championship. They’re one season from Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s super-max decision. And they let a player as good as Brogdon depart?

There are reasons good (getting a first-rounder and second-rounder in a sign-and-trade with Indiana, maintaining flexibility without being tied to a long-term contract for someone with concerning injury issues, opening the door for cost-efficient replacements) and bad (avoiding the luxury tax) for the move. But it’s dangerous to willingly take a step back at such a critical juncture.

Except Milwaukee looks like it has hardly missed a beat.

The Bucks are 22-3. Their overall net rating season (+12.9) is higher than their net rating with Brogdon – who spent considerable time with other starters – on the floor last season (+10.7).

Maybe Milwaukee knew the guards – Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown – that could be added/empowered without Brogdon justified letting Brogdon walk. After all, the Bucks also have Bledsoe, Hill, Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver to bolster the lineup.

“That collection of wings,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said with a chuckle, “it’s really good. I don’t know how I can play them all.”

Matthews has replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup. Matthews brings a ruggedness that perfectly fits the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Shooting 39% on 3-pointers, he also provides essential floor spacing.

It seems clear Brogdon’s exit ushered in Matthews’ entrance. Matthews signed a 1+1 minimum-salary contract last offseason, returning to the state where he grew up and played collegiately at Marquette.

“I’ve been eying Milwaukee for a couple years now,” Mathews said, “and it was just the timing was right, the fit, the style of play.”

Did Brogdon leaving and vacating a role factor?

“That’s part of saying the timing is right,” Matthews said. “They probably wouldn’t have called if Malcolm didn’t leave.”

What if they kept Brogdon and still called, wanting Matthews for depth?

“Fit was the key part,” Matthews said. “So, it probably would have been a different situation.”

The Bucks’ other notable minimum salary signing last summer, Kyle Korver, said Brogdon leaving a role open didn’t really factor into his decision.

Ditto for Hill, who re-signed for three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Hill said. “The camaraderie we have, from the top guy in Giannis all the way down to the bottom teammates, were amazing. The time that we had here, the success that we had, made it fun to be here.”

Brogdon’s departure also opened the door for a few incumbent players – DiVincenzo, Connaughton and Brown – to step up.

DiVincenzo has especially taken advantage. Though he was happy for Brogdon, DiVincenzo also recognized opportunity for himself after barely playing as a rookie.

“The Bucks drafted me for a reason,” said DiVincenzo, last year’s No. 17 pick. “I don’t think they drafted me just to sit on the bench. I think they drafted me to develop and put trust in me.”

DiVincenzo has already played more this season than last season, and he should be a Most Improved Player-ballot candidate. His defense has been tenacious. He’s growing into his role offensively as someone who can shoot, dribble and pass.

In the shuffle, Brown and Connaughton are actually receiving fewer minutes per game than last season. That can’t be easy in contract years. But they appear to be following Hill’s lead.

“It’s great!” Brown said of Milwaukee’s guard depth. “I love it. It’s competition all-around. Practices are great.”

For his part, Connaughton said he prides himself on always being ready regardless of his role. When he gave up professional baseball to play in the NBA, he made a conscious decision to enjoy every aspect of the process. So, sitting doesn’t bother him – especially with the Bucks winning. On all teams, it’s more difficult for anyone to gripe about playing time when winning.

Of course, it always comes back to Antetokounmpo. Without Brogdon’s playmaking, Antetokounmpo has taken on an even larger burden. Antetokounmpo is creating more of his own and his teammates’ shots, combining the differing skill sets he employed in previous years. That’s why he’s favored to win Most Valuable Player again.

Everything the Bucks are doing now is encouraging. The real tests will come in the playoffs and, relatedly, when Antetokounmpo has that super-max offer in front of him.

Antetokounmpo said he wanted Brogdon to remain Milwaukee. Kind words about a friend or a message to management? The answer will become clearer in the offseason.

First, the Bucks will look to build on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll do it, for better or worse, without Brogdon.

“Yes, we wish we could have kept Malcolm,” Hill said. “It would have been great. But we know it’s a business, and we still thought that we have enough pieces to take a shot at it.”

Andre Drummond suffers allergic reaction to avocado with Pistons playing in Mexico

Andre Drummond
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The NBA sent the wrong team to Mexico.

There to face the Mavericks last night, Pistons center Andre Drummond couldn’t even enjoy a local treat.

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Drummond toughed it out and played.

His reward? Getting dunked on by a mean-mugging Kristaps Porzingis in a 122-111 Detroit loss.