2014 NBA Free Agency: Lance Stephenson and the Future of the Charlotte Hornets

The newly minted Charlotte Hornets have proven this offseason that they are serious about turning the franchise around. After 10 painful seasons as the Bobcats, they are putting a plan together to rebuild the team’s image. After signing Al Jefferson to a big deal last summer, the Hornets are back at it again, attempting to sign restricted free agent Gordon Hayward to a max offer sheet. When the Jazz matched, the Hornets turned to plan B, signing Lance Stephenson to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal with a team option for the final year.

There was a time in the recent past when no player would consider signing with the Hornets, but after making the playoffs this year perception of the team has changed. Now it has become a question of how high this team’s ceiling is. Exactly how far can their new young core take them, and when could they conceivably get there?

Before projecting the Hornets going forward, it’s important to ask exactly how good they were last season. They won 43 games, but there’s a lot that goes into that number when trying to analyze how it could change next year.

Last season the Hornets (then the Bobcats) relied mostly on their defense to win games, ranking 6th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Without an elite rim protector, it’s safe to credit first year coach Steve Clifford with much of their defensive success for a few reasons.

First of all, the Hornets finished at the top of the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 77.6%. Ending possessions is extremely important in the long run, and that was a major contributor in their defensive success. They also did a great job of forcing the right types of shots and protecting the rim.

The Hornets were top-10 in shots allowed inside 5ft, and they were 5th in FG% allowed inside 5ft (56.3%). They also led the lead (by far) in FG% allowed from 5-9ft at 34.9%, and forced the 5th most shots from 15-19ft.

Basically, the Hornets protected the rim effectively and forced teams into mid range jumpers while also preventing corner 3s and offensive rebounds. Pretty good strategy. They didn’t necessarily have elite defensive talent, but they executed very well.

Unfortunately, the Hornets weren’t nearly as good on the other side of the ball, finishing 24th in offensive rating. Their offensive fingerprint is interesting for a few different reasons. Breaking down the numbers, it’s clear that their offense is extremely dependent on Al Jefferson.

Their most efficient shooting zone in comparison to the rest of the league was from 5-9ft where they were 5th in shooting percentage at 42.1%. Predictably, Al Jefferson attempted 311 of the teams 679 shots from this zone and made 50.5% of them. That’s really, really good.

Outside of that though, there’s really not much to brag about. They attempted a decent amount of shots in the restricted area but they only made 58.5% of their attempts, 23rd in the league. The main problem here was point guard Kemba Walker, who is now entering the last year of his rookie deal and is due for a big extension.

Walker took 287 shots inside of 5ft, but made only 49.5% of his attempts. He was high usage, extremely low efficiency close to the rim. Walker took a lot of shots last year but shot only 39.3% overall and 33.3% from 3.

The Hornets did a great job of forcing other teams into mid range jumpers last year, but they ended up falling into the trap themselves all too often. They were 25th in efficiency from 15-19ft at 37.5% while also attempting the most shots from that range by more than 100 attempts. Bad news all around for offensive efficiency.

The Hornets didn’t make up for their woes inside the arc with 3 point shooting, ranking 23rd in 3pt% at 35.1% while ending up in the bottom five in attempts. Low usage, low efficiency.

The Hornets were top 10 in AST% and had the lowest turnover rate in the league, but neither of those things really mattered in the grand scheme of things. It shows some offensive creativity and good ball movement, but they simply didn’t make enough shots to have a good offense. Al Jefferson could only do so much.

The Hornets’ problems only got worse in crunch time. There were some serious issues at the end of games that they really need to correct.

They were 24th in crunch time offense (5 minutes or less, 5 point difference or less) with their offense dropping by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. Their 39.7% EFG% (an 8.4% drop) was a disaster. They don’t turn the ball over, but they just can’t create offense.

The problem in crunch time starts with Kemba Walker. In these situations his usage rate ballooned to an absurd 36.4% while his EFG% dropped to a brutal 37.4%. The Hornets were actually better in crunch time when Walker didn’t play, although it’s a small sample. Walker simply needs to be better if the Hornets want to play well offensively at the end of games.

Al Jefferson has also struggled at times to create his own offense at the end of games, using 29% of the team’s possessions while shooting just 42.5% from the field. He does make up for it on the defensive end though with a monster defensive rebounding percentage of 32.1%.

The bottom line is that Walker and Jefferson eat up an enormous chunk of Charlotte’s crunch time possessions and they aren’t efficient. The Hornets need a plan at the end of games so they don’t end up relying so heavily on their two stars in low efficiency roles. Steve Clifford was fighting an uphill battle last year as a first year head coach of an inexperienced team, so hopefully their end of game strategy will improve going forward. An infusion of ball handling from Lance Stephenson should allow them to be a little more dynamic next year, but we’ll see if the numbers improve.

The last important thing to look at from a big picture perspective is various splits from last season.

First off, their defense was much worse on the road. Their 98.7 points allowed per 100 possessions at home would have ranked them 3rd last season, while the 103.6 points they allowed on the road would’ve ranked 13th. Obviously teams are going to play better at home, but ideally the Hornets would still play above average defense on the road.

Secondly, the Hornets were an absolute disaster in January when their defense completely fell apart without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Their 106.7 defensive rating during the month would have put them at 24th in the league last season.

Another possible explanation for their poor play may have been the fact that 5 of their 16 games during the month were played on the second night of a back to back, they went 0-5 in these games. It was likely a combination of these two factors that led them to have such a bad month, but it is somewhat alarming that they played so badly.

The last split is somewhat surprising on the surface. In the games before the All-Star break, the Hornets had a net rating of -2.4 points per 100 possessions; on par with perhaps a 35 win team. After the All-Star break, their net rating jumped to +4.7, a mark that would potentially suggest 55 wins.

The best possible explanation I can see for this is the play of Al Jefferson. Jefferson missed a bunch of games in November, and never really got his offensive game on track until January, which coincidentally was the team’s worst month. From this we can conclude that basketball is weird sometimes. Once MKG and Jefferson came back healthy after the All-Star break the team dominated the rest of the way.

Of course there was the Gary Neal trade and a couple other factors that could have caused this weird gap, but I think it was just a combination of injuries, adjusting to a new head coach, and a new best player who didn’t hit his stride until the new year. This bodes well for their odds heading into next season.

So to sum it all up, the defense was really good, the offense needs a lot of work, and someone needs to be able spell Al Jefferson if they want to take the next step.

The biggest problem when translating last year to next year is the loss of starting power forward Josh McRoberts to the Miami Heat. McRoberts was a staple for the Hornets last year, and losing him will end up costing them.

When it comes to replacing him, they have three options. Newly signed forward Marvin Williams, second year forward Cody Zeller (the No. 4 pick in last year’s draft) and No. 9 overall pick Noah Vonleh from Indiana.

For my money, all three are a significant downgrade from McRoberts, but one of them is going to start, and the others may end up playing significant roles.

Williams was signed away from the Jazz this summer on a 2-year, 14 million dollar contract. Ultimately, I think he will easily win the starting job because of his experience, and mostly because of his ability to stretch the floor from the power forward spot.

The Jazz mostly used Williams at the 4 last season, and I think he’s capable of playing that spot due to his length and rebounding ability. They may not be able to use him as much against certain teams (Memphis, Portland), but I think he’s the most qualified of the three to start, especially considering the shooting woes of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who will start at small forward. At this point, I think it’s pretty safe to write MKG off as a shooter, at least for the time being.

When it comes to comparing Williams to McRoberts, I’m not sure it’s close despite the fact that they got similar money this offseason (what was Charlotte thinking?!?). McRoberts is a true power forward who is a much more effective shooter and a more skilled player overall than Williams.

McRoberts moves the ball better than almost any 4 in the league and is dynamic out of the pick and pop. He doesn’t set hard screens but he puts pressure on the defense by sliding out to the three-point line and making quick decisions once he catches the ball. He’s quick on the trigger if the defense doesn’t respect his jumper but he is a great passer who punishes sleeping defenders, making cutting a lucrative proposition for Charlotte’s wings. Lance Stephenson would have loved playing with him.

Williams isn’t even close to McRoberts as a passer and offensive cog, but he can spot up around pick and roll and give the other players room to operate offensively while holding his own defensively. He’s actually a better defensive rebounder than McRoberts (17.9% vs. 14.1%), although McRoberts edge in AST% is probably more significant (21.5% vs. 7.5%).

At the end of the day, McRoberts is a dynamic offensive player that brings an interesting skill set to the table while Williams is just a guy. Williams won’t cripple your offense, but there’s no doubt it’s a clear downgrade.

Despite this, Williams is the clear choice over both Zeller and Vonleh, mostly because neither player has an NBA jump shot.

Last season Zeller shot just 42.6% from the field and 30.5% on spot up jumpers without making a single 3 per synergy. He only finished in the restricted area at 54.5%, clearly showing his overall inefficiency as a scorer.

Zeller is a solid rebounder on both sides of the ball but he’s just not a very skilled player and his lack of shooting means he probably hurts the offense more than he helps it at this point. The jury is still out on Zeller. Stay tuned.

Next season Noah Vonleh will be an above average rebounder, but will probably be bad everywhere else as a rookie. Vonleh has a ton of potential, but he’s also extremely young, and he’ll most likely be a net negative on both sides of the ball next season.

Vonleh shot 48.5% from 3 on limited attempts at Indiana last season, flashing some potential as a shooter. However, after going 1-8 from behind the NBA arc in 7 summer league games it seems like it will probably take at least a few seasons for him to adjust to shooting NBA 3s.

Vonleh is just too raw and unskilled to contribute to an NBA team right now, meaning the Hornets are going to need to strike a balance between developing him as a prospect and putting their best possible lineup combinations on the floor.

This is where it gets tricky for Charlotte. Internally, the Hornets think they are competing for home court advantage in a weak Eastern Conference playoff race. This means that if Vonleh doesn’t show promise right off the bat (he will struggle), he may end up spending most of his time on the bench or even receive a D-League assignment at some point.

If Vonleh ends up spending too much time on the bench during such a critical stage of development (he’s still only 18) it may hinder his development as a player going forward. This is a situation to keep tabs on as we get into the season.

P.J. Hairston, the Hornets’ second first round pick, is possibly a little more ready for NBA action after his stint in the D-League last season, especially considering his 35.8% shooting from the NBA 3 point line. However, the Hornets already have three quality NBA shooting guards so Hairston may end up spending more time in the D-League next season barring injury.

The two main players infront of Hairston on the depth chart next year will be new signee Lance Stephenson and incumbent starter Gerald Henderson.

Henderson was decent on both sides of the ball last season, but he’s a mediocre spot up shooter (35.8% on limited 3 point attempts per synergy) and he just doesn’t have an elite offensive skill set.

Stephenson should represent a significant upgrade over Henderson on both sides of the ball. Coming from an elite defensive unit in Indiana, Stephenson’s transition to Charlotte’s schemes should be a relatively easy one, although it will probably only amount to a negligible impact on the bottom line.

Offensively, Stephenson’s presence is much more intriguing. Stephenson is a hard player to evaluate on face because there is a wide range of outcomes for his performance. Even last season his play was pretty inconsistent.

If you look at Stephenson’s Pre and Post-All Star break splits you see a couple discrepancies. After the break, Stephenson shot way more jumpers (especially 3s), and his assist rate took a big hit. He stopped taking the ball to the rim and started settling.

Stephenson is not a bad long range shooter by any means, but the Hornets would benefit much more from the Stephenson we saw in the first half of the season.

Kemba Walker is a pretty good playmaker but there’s no question he could use another ball handler to ease the burden, especially in crunch time. The question is, can Lance be the reliable secondary ball handler the Hornets are looking for?

For all of Stephenson’s skill, he is still developing a decision making compass at the NBA level and can be prone to lapses in judgment.

Off the court, Lance is equally unpredictable. He may or may not have pushed his girlfriend¬†down a flight of stairs in 2010, and questions of his past have followed him throughout his NBA career. This is Stephenson’s first big payday, and it’s impossible to know for sure that he will be a reliable personality to build around.

Indiana was a great place for Stephenson to start his career, and it’s hard to know how he will adjust both on and off the court in Charlotte.

Stephenson barely got off the bench during his first two years in the league, and this past season was his first putting up big time numbers. He showed significant improvement from year 3 to year 4 in almost every important statistical category, including substantial improvements in his efficiency in both isolations and pick and roll situations per synergy.

At just 23, it’s possible that Stephenson still has a lot of room to grow as a player. On the other hand, it’s also possible he regresses outside of Indiana. Maybe he’ll simply stay around where he is.

I’d say it’s reasonable to expect a similar player that we saw in Indiana, but like I’ve said; there is a wide range of outcomes. We won’t truly know what Charlotte is getting from Stephenson until we have an 82 game sample to draw from.

Assuming his production is similar to last year’s, he will be a huge help as an offensive cog in Charlotte. However, a huge determinant of exactly how much Lance will help is how Steve Clifford uses him.

Indiana ranked just two spots above Charlotte in terms of offensive efficiency so it’s not like the Hornets are getting a player that can carry even a top-15 offense by himself.

Stephenson’s presence alone will improve Charlotte’s offense-the bottom line is he was 8% better than Henderson in the restricted area last season on almost twice as many attempts-but how Clifford uses Stephenson will determine the magnitude of that impact.

Considering Kemba Walker’s impending second contract, the Hornets would appear to be capped out for the foreseeable future if they plan on keeping their core intact. With that said, the play of Stephenson, as well as the development of the young talent on the roster (Jeffery Taylor, Zeller, Vonleh, Hairston) will determine the team’s future.

In terms of next season, with Henderson likely moving to the bench, the team will be much deeper on the wing. This will definitely have a positive impact while allowing the team with more flexibility in case of an injury. Gary Neal and P.J. Hairston (and possibly Jeff Taylor) will be useful next season, giving the team a lot of options.

The frontcourt is a different story entirely. If either Al Jefferson or even Marvin Williams misses significant time this team is in trouble.

Obviously any team struggles when its star player misses time, but Charlotte is particularly vulnerable because of its dependence on Jefferson’s low post scoring and overall offensive skills. In addition, if Jefferson misses time, it will probably be a combination of Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh soaking up his minutes. That is a disaster for Charlotte’s already mediocre offense.

It would be the same crew replacing Marvin Williams’ spot, which is problematic considering Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s inability to shoot from the outside. None of those players can complement the likely starter at small forward, crippling spacing on both the pick and roll and Jefferson’s post ups.

The Hornet’s need a complementary player next to their other starters, and 3 point shooting is a requirement for that role. This could lead to some experimentation with small ball lineups featuring Kidd-Gilchrist at the 4 in certain matchups; the Hornets would have to find a way to get creative.

The Hornets had relatively good health last season, with their starting five averaging about 73 games played. And the reality is that every team is only as good as their relative health that season.

With that being said, there’s no question this year’s Hornets team has much more upside than last year’s team, and with quality young players on the roster, Charlotte could be a contender in the East going forward.

In the worst case scenario, Charlotte tops out as a lowly seeded East team that suffers through injuries and can’t hang on to their talent.

In the medium case scenario, the Hornets end up as the Joe Johnson-era Hawks, and top out as a consistent, quality playoff team that never quite pushes the top teams in the conference.

The best case scenario is hard to discern. This scenario most likely involves Noah Vonleh developing beyond what his consensus “upside” would dictate, and Lance making significant improvements as well. I think the best outcome for this team is losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cavs. As long as LeBron is there, they are going to be damn hard to beat.

Realistically, this team can only go as far (or as long) as Al Jefferson can take them. With Big Al turning 30 this season, the team has a closing window to reach their peak. Jefferson is a player that relies more on skill than athleticism, but everyone declines with age, and he is nearing the end of his prime. The Hornets have to make the most of the next few years before they will have no choice but to reload.

Any of these outcomes could be in the team’s future, or it could be completely different, no one can say for sure. Injuries and luck play a huge hand in every team’s fortune. But for a team that was in the league’s cellar not too long ago, there is hope on the horizon.

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted

Follow me on twitter for basketball related thoughts @The_Reversal

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