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.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.