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.

Nikola Jokic’s All-NBA first-team selection shows his meteoric rise

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Just four years ago, Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick still playing in the Adriatic League. Just three years ago, he was battling a struggling Jusuf Nurkic to be the Nuggets’ main center.

Yesterday, Jokic made the All-NBA first team.

Jokic has risen incredibly quickly. Before this season, he had never even been an All-Star.

That makes Jokic the first non-rookie in NBA history to make an All-NBA first team without a prior All-Star season (including ABA All-Stars).

The No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic is just the fourth second-rounder to make an All-NBA first team since the NBA-ABA merger. The others: DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol and Marc Price.

For most players not immediately deemed to hold first-round talent, it takes a while to build stature in the NBA. Jokic made the All-NBA first team in just his fourth season. That’s way sooner than Gasol (seventh season), Price (seventh season) and Jordan (eighth season):

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The Nuggets didn’t wait for this honor to make Jokic their franchise player. They gave him a near-max contract last summer, and by leading them into the second round of the playoffs, he triggered incentives to reach a max salary.

Denver has built a young supporting cast – mainly Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – to grow with Jokic. The Nuggets also signed veteran Paul Millsap, whose defense complements Jokic’s offensive-minded game.

So much is coming together so quickly for Denver, and Jokic’s honor is just the latest example.

Report: Trail Blazers sign president Neil Olshey to contract extension

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Just after a rumor emerged about the Wizards trying to hire Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

It’s nice to be wanted. It always adds leverage in contract negotiations.

Olshey has done well in Portland, building a winner around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum after LaMarcus Aldridge left. But Olshey’s job will get harder now.

Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless each have another season on the expensive contracts Olshey gave them in the wild summer of 2016. That’ll inhibit flexibility this offseason.

Then, Lillard is set to sign a super-max extension that will take effect in 2021. As great as Lillard is, it’ll be difficult building a contender around someone projected to earn $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34. There’s so little margin for error, especially if ownership is less willing to pay the luxury tax than the late Paul Allen was.

But Olshey has earned a chance to handle these dilemmas.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert hits super-max criteria for extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years

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Anthony Davis signed a max rookie-scale contract extension in 2015, between his third and fourth seasons. Based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time, the extension called for him to earn a higher salary if he was twice voted an All-Star starter or made two All-NBA teams during his first four seasons. Davis was voted an All-Star starter and made the All-NBA first team in his third season.

Unfortunately for Davis, he missed both honors his fourth year. The All-NBA and All-Star-starter tracks ran independently. Davis couldn’t qualify for a higher max salary by earning one of each.

That cost him $19,683,908 over the four pre-player-option seasons of his extension, which will end next year.

The current CBA’s more significant adjustments to super-max eligibility – changing the years for qualification, using Defensive Player of the Year instead of All-Star starter – obscured a minor tweak. The tracks now run together. A player can qualify with one Defensive Player of the Year and one All-NBA selection. He needn’t achieve two of one category.

So, Jazz center Rudy Gobert – who won won Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and made All-NBA this year – quietly became eligible to sign a super-max extension in the 2020 offseason. The extension’s highest-allowable value projects to be $250 million over five years. The first four years would follow the structure of the super-max Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers are set to sign.

Newsflash: Gobert isn’t Lillard.

Gobert is elite defensively and underrated offensively. But paying him $50 million per year from ages 30-34 in a league overflowing with good centers? That’s a recipe for disaster for Utah.

But Gobert earned eligibility. That makes it harder for the Jazz to tell him they don’t deem him worthy. That tension is an unintended consequence of the super-max rules.

There is room for negotiation. In this case, Gobert’s designated-veteran-player extension must be for five seasons and have a starting salary between 30% and 35% of the 2021-22 salary cap. But his salary can increase or decrease annually by up to 8% of his first-year salary. The deal can be partially guaranteed.

Still, the lowest possible designated-veteran-player extension for Gobert projects to be $155 million over five years. If fully guaranteed, that’d be expensive for a player of his age. If not fully guaranteed, the Jazz would get savings only by waiving him, and that’d mean dropping the cheaper latter years.

Because he doesn’t have enough experience to qualify, Gobert can’t sign a super-max extension until the 2020 offseason. He met the award criteria, but a player must have seven or eight years of experience. Gobert just finished his sixth year. He’s also under contract for two more seasons – locked into salaries of $24,758,427 next season and $26,275,281 the following year.

So, there’s time to figure this out.

But this is the most uneasy super-max situation so far – unless Gobert just doesn’t insist on the money. Good luck with that.

Rumor: Wizards interested in Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey

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The Wizards struck out on luring Nuggets president Tim Connelly.

Washington’s next choice?

Ben Standig of NBC Washington:

As for the rumor mill, one name stands out: Neil Olshey.

Numerous sources told NBC Sports Washington of the Wizards’ interest in Blazers President of Basketball Operations

Olshey has done a good job in Portland. He drafted Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum then built a winner around those two after LaMarcus Aldridge left. Trading for and re-signing Jusuf Nurkic to a reasonable contract looks great. Olshey also overpaid Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Festus Ezeli, but many teams spent wildly in 2016. It was a weird summer.

The Wizards would do well to hire such a proven executive.

Would Olshey leave the Trail Blazers? Their ownership situation remains uncertain following the death of Paul Allen in October. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has demonstrated extreme loyalty to his executives.

Portland will also reportedly sign Damian Lillard to a super-max extension – a move that practically must be made, but one that carries massive downside risk. However, if he goes to Washington, Olshey would be trading uncertainty in Damian Lillard’s value on the super-max for certain negative value with John Wall on his super-max extension.

A couple years ago, Olshey signed his own extension through 2021. Maybe he’s ready to move on.

Or maybe he’s ready to use the Wizards as leverage for a raise.