Could the new Hornets be the old Bucks?
Few people remember the Milwaukee teams of the late 1970s and ‘80s, built by Hall of Fame General Manager Wayne Embry, despite having great players like Marques Johnson, Paul Pressey, Ricky Pierce and Sidney Moncrief on the roster, and another Hall of Famer, Coach Don Nelson, on the sidelines. Few remember because those Bucks had the misfortune of playing in the same era -- and, for almost the entire time, the same conference -- as Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Larry Bird’s Celtics, Isiah Thomas’ Pistons and Julius Erving and Charles Barkley’s 76ers.
Those Bucks teams never got to The Finals. But they were in consecutive Eastern Conference finals (’83 and ’84), part of a string of 12 straight years of playoff appearances. During that dozen-year stretch, Milwaukee averaged 51 wins per year. The Bucks were a very successful franchise in a small market for a long, long time, able to draw lots of people out on frigid winter nights in the Midwest to fill both the Mecca and Bradley Center.
It’s not that cold in North Carolina. As a matter of fact, the wildfires that began in the western part of the state early last week put noticeable and breathable smoke in the air in Charlotte by Thursday. Hornets coach Steve Clifford normally can walk to practice, but it was a little harder than normal.
“Walking out there today, you can really smell it,” Clifford said.
His job, of course, is indoors. The Hornets have done well inside to start the season, standing just a half-game behind Atlanta in the Southeast Division. They have good players, very good ones, in Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum, both of whom are sure to get serious consideration this year for what would be each one’s first All-Star Game. The Hornets have made the playoffs twice in the last three seasons.
And they are precisely the kind of smaller market franchise (Charlotte is the 22nd largest Nielsen television market according to that rating system’s estimates for 2016) that the league pledged to help as a result of and after the NBA lockout in 2011 -- despite having Michael Jordan as an involved and willing owner.
The Hornets are one of the teams that has most benefitted from the NBA’s enhanced revenue sharing program, established in concurrence with labor negotiations in 2011. The double barrel of money coming from the league’s more successful revenue-producing teams, along with more punitive luxury taxes that were supposed to (emphasis on “supposed to”) keep teams from amassing and being able to keep star players, was viewed by the NBA as a way to help foster more competitive balance.
In Charlotte’s case, it’s worked.
"The best thing about it is how hard we all work. We work extremely hard. The guys around us, they see that. Hopefully over the years, whoever comes here to our team, they see how hard we work, and they follow."
The Hornets reportedly received $22 million in 2014 from the new revenue sharing program -- where teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, who play in markets too large to even qualify for revenue sharing dollars, take some of their huge payouts from their local TV deals and redirect them to some of their brethren.
The Hornets are averaging a little more than 17,000 per game in what is now known as Spectrum Center in Charlotte, currently ranking 18th in the league in attendance, according to ESPN.com. They have longstanding relationships with local corporate behemoths like Bank of America, Duke Energy and Wells Fargo that produce strong revenue streams. The combination of league help and self-help has produced a financial base that’s sturdy enough to assume a $99 million team payroll this season, including a new deal for Batum at five years and $120 million, and a four-year, $54.5 million contract for veteran power forward Marvin Williams.
They couldn’t keep everyone, of course, and they didn’t, losing two key pieces from last season’s team -- Jeremy Lin to the Brooklyn Nets and Courtney Lee, acquired at the trade deadline from Memphis, to the Knicks. (Knowing it would be unlikely they could keep Lee, the Hornets traded their first-round pick to Sacramento in June for veteran Marco Belinelli.
“Some of the best franchises around the league, whether it’s San Antonio or OKC or Golden State, there’s always a semblance of continuity,” General Manager Rich Cho said Sunday. “That’s really important when you’re trying to build. We put a lot of emphasis on player development and our coaching staff does a great job of that. It’s just an extension of that philosophy, as far as trying to keep your young guys.”
With Walker playing the best ball of his career – his 25.3 ppg ranks 11th in the NBA as Charlotte looks like a top-four team in the Eastern Conference -- even though three of the Hornets’ four losses have come to three of the East’s best teams (Cavaliers, Raptors and Celtics).
“Toronto and Boston and Cleveland, they’re the teams that are considered the top of our conference, of course,” Walker said Friday. “We lost to all three but we played all those guys really, really good, close games. We still lost but we have some confidence. We’re a really competitive team. We won’t back down from anyone. That’s what I love about these guys. Each and every night, we come to play. We play hard. And we give ourselves an opportunity to win those games.”
Walker has been unstoppable with the ball in his hands, and it’s almost impossible now to get it out of his hands -- especially once he starts his screen-and-roll action, usually so far out it makes a hard show from the second defender null and void.
Teams used to just slough off of Walker and make him shoot long twos. But a year of work with assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer, a co-founder of the Mark Price Shooting Lab with the former Cavs’ great, has fixed his stroke. Walker is blowing away his previous career highs in 3-point shooting (43.5 percent), 3-point makes (3.1 per game, tied for second in the league with the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and Eric Gordon, behind Stephen Curry) and True Shooting Percentage (.604).
And he’s tied with Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler for ninth in the league in PER (27.1).
“You’ve got to get him on the bounce,” a pro scout says of Walker. “He’s so good now. It’s Kemba’s team.”
It’s not that Walker was bad at attacking defenses with the screen and roll earlier in his career. But now, he’s deadly. He no longer looks for the home-run pass. Going station to station works just fine.
“I think it’s just he puts so much into it,” Clifford said. “He works so diligently on his shooting with Bruce Kreutzer, then he works on his finishing and his pick and roll game with (assistant coach) Steve Hetzel. And he’s also always watching film. He’ll come in and watch film of other players. He’s a professional, committed player, so he watches guys and I think that he has a real definitive idea of how he has to play to get to the next level.”
Hetzel, assistant coach Steve Silas and associate head coach Patrick Ewing have been vital to the Hornets’ goal of making their own players better. Hetzel watches film with Walker every day, then gets him in the lab on the court to work on the details -- how to set up a defender, how to get the defender to run into the pick at just the right angle to create more space.
And Walker has only committed 22 turnovers in 399 minutes so far this season, which fits Clifford’s sensibilities: Charlotte has led the league for threeseasonsrunning in fewest turnovers, and does so again this season.
“I think for the most part it’s just really just my pace of play is one of the biggest reasons why I don’t turn the ball over as much as I used to,” Walker said. “Just making the right decisions, not really making the home run plays. I just try to make the simple play, the best play. I don’t try to force anything. When I’m out there I’m very conscious of that. The least turnovers you have, the more chances you have to either score or make a play for your teammates. Coach is really big on being a low turnover team. So we really lock in on that. We want to have as many good possessions as we can.”
But the Hornets’ offense is a collection of moving parts. They can and do use either Walker or Batum as the primary ballhandler, spotting Williams in the corner -- or Batum on the wing if Walker has the rock. Batum’s offensive rating is off the charts, the highest among Charlotte’s regulars (109.4 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats).
Zeller was pressed into starting duty last season after Al Jefferson underwent knee surgery. The idea was for new addition Roy Hibbert to protect the rim and set the screens. But he’s been slowed by knee inflammation (though he did return to the starting lineup Saturday). And Zeller has again been a screening revelation.
“We put a lot of emphasis on player development and our coaching staff does a great job of that. It’s just an extension of that philosophy, as far as trying to keep your young guys.”
He is one of the cadre of fours and fives who relentlessly set, and re-set, at the elbows on the wings, part of a four-man ballet -- two on offense, two on defense -- that is the staple play in every NBA offense. Per NBA.com/Stats, among the players that set the picks most frequently in screen and roll sets this season (15 or more possessions), Zeller is Charlotte’s screener almost 32.7 percent of the time, fifth highest in the league; when he screens, Charlotte leads the league in and-one frequency (11.8 percent on screen-roll plays).
Coming into play Friday, the Hawks led the NBA in fourth quarter defense -- points allowed, and field goal percentage allowed. But Walker, and Batum, abused the Hawks’ Mike Muscala, who played center down the stretch after Dwight Howard was ejected for a flagrant foul, in endless fourth-quarter screen and rolls with Zeller, creating looks for themselves or rim runs for Zeller, who made himself available all night to the tune of a career high-matching 23 points on 9 of 10 shooting -- all in the paint. (Clifford insists that Zeller can, and will, eventually be a pick-and-pop guy as well.)
“Cody is a great screener as well as Roy,” Walker said. “It’s something we work on in practice. We’re really big on if the play is for someone then it’s everybody’s job to make sure that that man gets the play. He gets his screens. You have to screen if that’s the case. We’re just really conscious of things like that … especially Cody. He’s great at it. He uses his speed, he uses his strength, he uses his size to help me get open. He’s great. That man can move. He’s so athletic, he’s so fast. He loves to do it. And that’s why we love Cody. He plays his role really, really well. He’s a great teammate. We need him. He gets better every year.”
Which is why the Hornets worked quickly to make sure they locked up the 24-year-old to a four-year extension worth $56 million, a deal even he called “crazy” -- but in a good way.
It was in keeping with the Hornets’ recent history with their core -- they extended Walker (four years, $48 million) in 2014, and Kidd-Gilchrist (four years, $52 million) in 2015.
Charlotte is not averse to bringing in outside talent. The deal for Batum on Draft night in 2015 was transformative, one that the franchise knew would ultimately have a huge price tag attached. (And that was Lance Stephenson briefly in the Hornets’ home white in 2014, yes?) But for the most part the Hornets like to put most of their available resources back into their own guys.
That’s not a surprise, given Cho’s background at Seattle and Oklahoma City with Thunder GM Sam Presti before coming to Charlotte, or Clifford’s long-standing relationship with Detroit Pistons coach and president Stan Van Gundy. Clifford was on Van Gundy’s Magic bench for five years, and like Van Gundy, Clifford does not believe the grass is always greener where the unrestricted free agent is standing.
“That used to be one of (Van Gundy’s) biggest points. It’s so easy, when you watch a guy, you say he doesn’t do this or that, and then you let guys go, and you end up with a guy who’s similar in ability to them and it takes a year for them to get up to speed, or somebody less,” Clifford said. “When you find guys that you feel are really good players, and you think they’re a fit with your other guys, you’re crazy (to let them go)…
“It’s just how as an organization how you view players. One of the advantages of having Michael as an owner is, when you sit and talk to him, he just has a way of looking at players. He constantly talks about what they can become.”
That doesn’t mean Walker didn’t worry this summer when Batum and Williams hit unrestricted free agency.
“I was nervous as hell,” Walker said. “I didn’t want to lose those guys. I knew we couldn’t pay everyone. I wish we could have gotten a lot of the guys back, but unfortunately, the way this business works is it can’t happen all the time. Nic and Marv were high priority … I got a chance to go out to Dallas and be a part of Nic’s meeting. Me and MKG flew out. It was super cool. We got a chance to sit in the room and say a few words.”
Dallas and Washington were among the many serious suitors for Batum. But Charlotte’s goal was to not let him even take a meeting with another team. He didn’t.
“We were worried,” Cho said. “He had a terrific year and we knew he would have a lot of suitors. We met with him right as free agency began and we were able to hammer out a deal that night, the first day. The good thing was he had a comfort level here and he wanted to be here. He likes our coaches and our staff and he likes the city … you just never know what can happen if he starts meeting with other teams.”
Walker didn’t meet with Williams, “but I was talking to him throughout the whole time, was trying to get a feel for how his free agency was going,” he said. “He was throwing me back some information. I was trying to do whatever I could just to let him know that we need him back here.”
Williams came into the league at 19 as a high-profile Draft pick in 2005, and not in a good way -- he was the guy the Hawks took No. 2 overall instead of Chris Paul, who desperately wanted to play there, or Deron Williams. But the league has turned, as has the perception about Marvin Williams’ contributions. He’s basically the same player he was in Atlanta -- pretty durable (he’s played in 88 percent of his available games over 11-plus seasons) and pretty smart, solid if unspectacular. But in Charlotte, he wasn’t the second pick in the Draft; he was a veteran, who has filled a huge void.
“Marvin Williams, in this league right now, he’s the prototypical four man that you want,” Clifford said. “Because he creates space with his range shooting. He plays mistake free on offense. And on the other end, he’s so versatile defensively. He can battle all the bigger post up fours and he can guard all the other stretch fours. Then he guards the threes. Everybody thinks the league is four out, one in, and there are all these stretch fours. There are not a lot of stretch fours who can do what he can do.”
With Kidd-Gilchrist back, Clifford has done something he didn’t do much in previous seasons -- switch just about everything on the perimeter. MKG, Batum and Williams are basically the same size, and they’ll all battle.
The change hasn’t impacted Charlotte’s defense, which is, again, top 10 variety: fourth in defensive rating; 11th in points allowed; ninth in opponent points in the paint, despite not having Hibbert on the floor for long stretches so far.
“It just makes everything simpler,” Clifford said. “You’re not in rotation. You have to deal with some mismatches at times, but it just makes defense simpler for other guys on the floor. I think it’s personnel driven. You want to switch everything that doesn’t involve creating a significant mismatch for your team. So with those guys, you may not have the exact matchup you want, but all three of them are good defenders. And they’re all big enough, strong enough, and competitive enough that, even when they have a guy that might be a tough matchup for them, they’re going to battle with them and we have a chance.”
Charlotte’s still trying to figure out its bench. Ramon Sessions was brought back for a second tour with the Hornets, and he creates space by getting into the paint early and often -- he’s fifth on the team in free throw attempts, despite having played just a fraction of the minutes of the starters, and fewer minutes than Belinelli and second-year big man Frank Kaminsky. But he’s just shooting 31 percent from the floor.
Belinelli’s Belinelli-ed behind the arc (48 percent) but hasn’t been so great when opponents can get him off the line (35 percent). Jeremy Lamb has, again, been too injured to contribute much.
Kaminsky has had some moments, displaying the versatility that had Jordan so intrigued before the 2015 Draft that he famously turned down four picks from Boston, which was trying to move up to take the former Wisconsin Badger -- picks that can be gold for a small-market team that could control costs using the rookie wage scale. And Jordan’s belief hasn’t wavered as Kaminsky’s multiple abilities on the floor have adapted to the NBA game, including the ability to cover the screen and roll defensively, a gift from former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.
What happens to Zeller when Hibbert is back full-time? That’s probably not settled law just yet.
Clifford, though, remains a big believer in the former Hoya, who’s close with Hornets associate head coach and fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak vouched for Hibbert, who spent an otherwise unproductive season in L.A. last year. And Hibbert is also held in high regard by Hornets assistant Pat Delany, who watched Hibbert at his best in Indiana when Delany was in Miami as a video coordinator and scout, and the Pacers and Heat met in three straight playoff series, including back-to-back Eastern Conference finals.
“When we started talking about him, (Delany’s) thing was, Steve, look: all I’m telling you is, people don’t realize, he can play at a fast-paced game,” Clifford said. “If you look at those playoff series, that one year he averaged 22 and 12 and was guarding (Chris) Bosh a lot. He’s much, much more agile than I realized. And the other thing is he’s such a great worker. He keeps himself in great shape. He doesn’t play at the pace Cody plays, but he’s a huge target and he’s a good basketball player.”
Walker was coming off a national championship at UConn when he came to Charlotte as a lottery pick in 2011. The Hornets went 7-59, setting an NBA record for fewest victories in a season (though there were only 66 games played that lockout-shortened year). It was brutal, and it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.
But the changes that would help Charlotte survive were being put in place. It took some time. But the Hornets are now in position to not only survive, but possibly thrive -- just like the Bucks did three decades ago, for more than a decade.
“Me, Nic, MKG and Marv and Cody now, we’re all kind of locked in for about the same amount of time,” Walker said. “We are getting the opportunity to grow with each other. It’s a great start. We all love playing with each other. We know how to play with each other very well. We all know each other’s spots and how each other plays and things like that. As far as more pieces, I think we’re good right now. We’re going to grow. The best thing about it is how hard we all work. We work extremely hard. The guys around us, they see that. Hopefully over the years, whoever comes here to our team, they see how hard we work, and they follow.”
… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER
Trade Secrets. From Jon Duke:
Apart from the unprecedented spike in the salary cap (Thanks Turner/ESPN Disney), which saw a tremendous number of players changing teams in free agency, player movement in the area of trades has been fairly quiet over the last two years. Some of this could be due to a reliance on free agency, but I wonder how much can be attributed to the future of the CBA. With reports that a new CBA may be settled in the next few weeks, does that mean the floodgates may once again open on player movement via trade?
Selfishly, as a long time Celtics fan, the possibility of getting that cornerstone All-NBA talent has seemed too remote as team after team has chosen to hold on to their prized talents. I'm rather hoping a certain financial future will give General Mangers and ownership the confidence they need to make systemic changes in Sacramento, Indiana, and maybe even Golden State. Maybe that's wishful thinking, but player movement via trade has to rebound at some point, doesn't it?
Very wishful thinking in the Dubs’ case, Jon. The cap spike clearly was the driving force for player acquisition last summer; almost everyone had tens of millions of bucks and had to spend it. But it’s not just the cap spike, though. More teams are committed to player development, and if they have to take a risk, they’re more comfortable doing it for their own guys as opposed to someone they don’t know. So that puts the brakes on deals, too. Also, Draft picks are more valuable than ever, as they attach fixed costs to the players they’re used on for up to five years, which is gold in this era. So, teams are extremely reluctant now to deal picks, too.
Do you think we are at the dawn of a golden age of bigs? Reading your article on Draft class of 2013 contract extensions, it occurred to me just how many players in that article were promising young bigs. Teams once considered themselves fortunate to have even one star or promising young big, yet it seems most teams can now make that claim, with quite a few having more than one. The 76ers are the best example, as I can't recall any team ever having such a glut of promising young bigs. The 76ers may be the prime example, but the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Thunder, Bucks, Magic, Jazz, Raptors, Kings and Trail Blazers can also claim at least two promising young bigs. Of course not all will fully realize their potential, but it seems many won't have to in order to still end up with the largest amount of quality big men the league has ever witnessed.
If you agree with my assertion, what impact do you think this will have on the way the game is played over the next ten years, especially considering many of them bring athleticism and shooting not previously common at this position?
Sure. But talented bigs never go out of style, Kelly. What has changed over the years is that very few teams still play inside-out basketball or rely on their bigs to score. Given the rules changes that make it almost impossible to guard ballhandlers in space, that shouldn’t be a surprising development. Today’s offenses requires bigs to be adept screen-rollers more than hulking post players, and able to switch onto guards and contest shots defensively more than blocking shots -- though rim protection remains very important. A guy like Gorgui Dieng, to whom you referred, can get paid handsomely for those very skills. It will be interesting to see what happens with players like Jahlil Okafor and Greg Monroe in future years. Their skill sets on offense still have value, but will teams be willing to build around them and get them 15-20 paint touches per game?
We will find out, I guess, if three really is a magic number. From Ethan Austin:
Your thoughts on Russell Wilson's involvement to build Sonics arena & be a part owner?
Couldn’t be happier for my Seattle folk. Wilson’s name and cache as a Super Bowl winning quarterback can do nothing but help the effort out there. From what I understand, it was Wilson who approached Chris Hansen and his group, and Wilson is going to do more than just talk about it; he’s putting some $cratch into the deal. Having a diverse set of investors will make the Seattle pitch that much more compelling in the years to come. We are talking years, unfortunately. But if Seattle continues to get its ducks in a row, and Hansen will indeed pay for a new building without local financing, that city will be at the top of the list when the next team becomes available, either through relocation or expansion. And that will be a happy day for those of us who miss the Emerald City.
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(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)
1) LeBron James (24.5 ppg, 6 rpg, 8.5 apg, .655 FG, .615 FT): Cavaliers are now 4-16 when he sits out a game; the latest loss came Wednesday in Indiana.
2) Kawhi Leonard (22.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 4 apg, .438 FG, .842 FT): Brandon Armstrong, Impersonator of the Stars, strikes again.
3) Kevin Durant (28.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 6 apg, .608 FG, .714 FT):Stay in your lane, Drake.
4) Russell Westbrook (31 ppg, 11 rpg, 11.3 apg, 479 FG, .848 FT): Most praise from on high from His Airness, who presented Westbrook for induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame last week. Of course, last year, Westbrook presented Kevin Durant into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Memories.
5) DeMar DeRozan (25.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4 apg, .388 FG, .805 FT): Credits grueling offseason workouts, including 5:30 am sessions while in Rio with the Olympic team, for this incredible start to the season.
BY THE NUMBERS
$2,500,000 -- Donation by LeBron James to help fund an exhibit on the late Muhammad Ali that will open at the Museum of African-American History in Washington, D.C.
49 -- Career four-point plays, the most in league history, by the Clippers’ Jamal Crawford, who got his latest one Friday night against the Kings.
0 -- Remaining unbeaten teams at home after the Celtics beat the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills Saturday night. Detroit had won its first five games in a row at home for the first time since the start of the 2002-03 season, when the Pistons won six straight at the Palace to open the year.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) Keep the week of Dec. 5 open. Barring significant last-minute snags in negotiations, that’s when I’m hearing it’s likely there will be an official agreement between the league and the union on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Nothing will happen before Thanksgiving, and the two sides will probably use the post-Thanksgiving week to inform their respective constituents about the highlights of the deal. After that, the new deal replacing the current one is likely to be ratified, ensuring labor peace for the next several years.
2) When you know the Chief of Police …’cause she gave birth to you.
3) This is how three decades of awful ends -- with a whimper, not a bang.
4) My kids know way more about NASCAR than I ever will. But I know enough to know that Jimmie Johnson winning a seventh Sprint Cup Series championship is a very, very big deal, and congrats to him on the accomplishment.
NOT FEELIN’ …
1) Don’t have a hot take on whether Phil Jackson’s “posse” comments were racist or not. I certainly don’t believe Phil to be racist; even a cursory examination of his life shows a person who has always sought out and embraced people from different cultures and backgrounds, and has been especially connected to and learned from Native American culture. What it sounded like here was an old man being dismissive of the accomplishments of younger men -- and being tone deaf to how that would come across from an old white guy talking about young black guys. Yes, Maverick Carter and Rich Paul and many of LeBron James’ other friends have gotten opportunities in business that they may never have gotten solely on their own. So has Phil Jackson, a journeyman player who was hired by Jerry Krause out of relative obscurity to be an assistant coach in Chicago, then got the chance to coach the greatest player of his generation and one of the four or five greatest players of all time, and six NBA titles. And that led to coaching two more transformational players in Los Angeles, and five more championships. We all can get a boost from our associations, some more than others. (Equally troubling, to me, as his posse commentatus: you haven’t voted in a presidential election since 1980? Dude.)
2) No problem with the Cavs or any other team sitting LeBron James or any other star players if the teams’ medical staffs see the players’ stress levels in the red. That’s where measuring player outputs through Catapault and other biometric devices is a positive. But: if a player is going to have a scheduled day off for a road game, that player should be available pregame somewhere in the arena so that fans can get autographs and/or pictures in some sort of contained setting. It’s the least you can do for people who may drive 2-3 hours and spend a lot of time and money expecting to see a star perform.
3) I don’t know what to believe in anymore.
4) Said last spring that the Wizards should trade for the Kings’ Omri Casspi. Still think the Wizards, or someone, should trade for the Kings’ Omri Casspi, who seems to have fallen out of Dave Joerger’s rotation in Sacramento.
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