Here we go: eight up, eight down. Let’s get right into it: the latest on the slumping Charlotte Hornets, and a look around the league, including LeBron, the Ghost Hunter.
Get better, Coach Cliff
We usually start this out by quickly going into some numbers and video on the Hornets. However, all of that stuff takes a backseat. After missing the win Monday against Orlando, word came out earlier on Wednesday that Hornets coach Steve Clifford would miss an undetermined amount of time away from the team with a health issue. Stephen Silas, one of the top assistants in the NBA, is the team’s acting head coach.
First off: get healthy, coach. Steve Clifford is one of the best and most respected minds in the NBA; he’s a wealth of knowledge, and a damn good coach, too. This team/organization isn’t as good or as fun without Cliff.
On a personal note, I’ve dealt with Clifford a few times over the years, and he was always incredibly nice and down to talk ball — my kind of guy.
When it rains, it pours
Charlotte is verging on free-fall mode: 9-14, No. 12 in the Eastern Conference. The Hornets rank 18th in offense and 14th in defense. So not great, right? Well, things are about to get worse.
In the loss to Golden State, backup center Cody Zeller — one of the team’s most valuable players — went down in the third quarter with a knee injury. A day later, news trickled out that Zeller tore the meniscus in that left knee. He’s out indefinitely; the team is mulling surgery options. The upshot: He’s going to miss time, and possibly the rest of the season.
This is a massive loss. As we’ve discussed in this space before, Cody plays with endless energy, and makes plays on both ends of the floor.
But he’s much more that an energy magnet, though. Zeller is one of the best screeners in the league, and an excellent pick-and-roll player.
Cody, who is shooting 50 percent as a roll man this season, clever at changing the angles of his screen at the last second to free up his teammate; watch this drag screen against Tyus Jones. Malik Monk has room to roam.
Zeller ranks fourth in the NBA in screen assists per 36 minutes — screens that lead directly to a made basket from a teammate.
He’s a big reason that Kemba Walker has become one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NBA. With Zeller on the floor, Charlotte’s offense flowed so much better. His midrange shot (50 FG%) improved the spacing and the ball moved side-to-side better with Zeller’s hustle and brainy screens. The numbers tell the story, too.
— Spencer Percy (@QCHspencer) December 7, 2017
This now makes Dwight Howard more important to Charlotte, which isn’t exactly a good thing for the offense. The Hornets will likely need to knock the dust off Johnny O’Bryant (just 78 minutes of game time this season); don’t be surprised to see some Mangok Mathiang — one of Charlotte’s two-way players — and Frank Kaminsky, once his ankle heals, may need to absorb minutes at the five, too.
Michael Carter-Williams: A man without a plan
The Hornets took a risk this summer when they signed free agent Michael Carter-Williams to bet he backup point guard. Charlotte coveted his length and defensive upside. So far, the defense has been adequate, but offensively, this is a player that’s lost. It was relatively cheap bet — one year, $2.7 million — but it simply hasn’t paid off.
Carter-Williams is pressing and over-driving the basketball; it’s caused issues in several recent games. MCW has a turnover rate near 18 percent — much too high for a franchise that avoids those things like the plague. Charlotte’s getting nothing from him out of the pick-and-roll: 0.47 points per possession, according to the NBA’s tracking data.
According to Cleaning The Glass, MCW is shooting a lowly 41 percent on attempts at the rim. The further away from the rim he gets, though, the worse things go. MCW is just 4-of-31 (13 percent) on midrange attempts; that’s one of the worst numbers in the NBA for a guard.
What’s clear: it’s time to give the backup point guard minutes to Malik Monk, again. Defensive headaches be damned; time to let the rookie learn.
Time to pay the bills
As I stated last week, these are interesting times for Charlotte’s front office. Zeller’s injury applies even more pressure to a team that entered the season in Win Now Mode. FiveThirtyEight may be fake news to some, but Nate Silver’s site still gives the Hornets a 43 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number seems high to me, especially with the Zeller injury now, but there are some opportunities on the horizon.
Eight of the team’s next 11 games are at home, featuring some favorable opponents: Bulls, Lakers and Knicks. By the time Charlotte exits that tunnel, buddy, could alter the next few years for this franchise. By the end of the month, it may be time to come correct.
Let it Wayne: DEEP in the corner
Former Tar Heel Wayne Ellington is enjoying the hell out of his second season in Miami. If you buy into the Heat culture, know your role, then Erik Spolestra will help you flourish.
The Heat have struggled on offense this season, but they score about two more points per 100 possessions with Ellington on the floor. Like his days in Chapel Hill, Ellington’s range shooting is a game-changer. Over 90 percent of his attempts from the floor have been triples — a historic rate. No player has ever had a three-point attempt rate above 90 percent for a full season. He’s made 42.6 percent of those launches, which is sizzling.
Ellington is absolutely bombing off the catch: 43.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes (65 eFG%), on nearly five attempts per game. He’s at his best for the corners. In Miami’s go-go slash-and-kick system, Ellington plants himself so damn far in the corners (45 3P%) — it opens room for everyone else.
Miami is one of the top dribble handoff offenses in the NBA, too. Ellington has a new partnership with James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk in this action. He gets a crack of daylight, and it’s (Gus Johnson voice) rise-and-fire time.
Al Horford: Making all the right reads
LeBron James and Draymond Green split the crown for best passing frontcourt player; however, Al Horford is totally worth of recognition, too. No way in hell is Boston — with the NBA’s No. 1 defense — blitzing the rest of the league without Horford.
Splitting time between power forward and functioning as the NBA’s most-deadly small-ball center, Horford is averaging a career-best 5.4 assists, and assisting on 27.2 percent of his teammates’ made field goals while on the floor — also a career high.
Boston can run their split action sets through Horford, and let him pick out cutters all night. Or when he fades out after screening for Kyrie, it warps defenses. Teams have to respect his three-pointer (45.6 3P%). This is where things get fun.
His ball reversals add life to Boston’s weak-side offense; this is where Jayson Tatum excels. He’s shooting 55 percent on catch-and-shoot triples — No. 2 in the NBA.
Tatum is shooting 57 percent on threes after a pass from Horford; Kyrie is shooting 50 percent from the field, on nearly seven attempts per game, once he receives a dish from Horford.
Rediscovering Portlandia, With a Twist
The San Antonio Spurs have targeted Saturday as the much-anticipated return date for All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard. This is great news for the franchise, obviously, and fans of the league. It’s less good, however, for the Western Conference.
The Spurs, despite missing their best player, are third in the West; this is thanks in large part to the league’s No. 3 defense. On offense, San Antonio has is passing the ball a little less less this season (307.5 per game), but still zipping it around. They’re also using LaMarcus Aldridge more than ever before since he arrived.
Aldridge is averaging a shade under 23 points, and using nearly 29 percent of the team’s possessions when on the floor. LMA has traded some of the long 2s for attempts at the bucket and three-pointers. He’s shot 72 percent at the rim, and has splashed seven corner threes this season, too.
Plus, In a throwback to his Trail Blazer days, San Antonio is also clearing out one side of the floor, and letting Aldridge cook. This is action you will see a good deal of, especially in the first quarter.
The question now, though: What happens when Kahwi returns? Will LMA buck against a lesser role? If not, the Spurs have quietly maintained superpower status once more.
LeBron: Chasing Ghosts
As The Goat closes in on his 33rd birthday (I’m old), it’s time to check on some of what James is doing this season.
LeBron James is playing 37.2 minutes per game — tied with Giannis, who just turned 23, for first in the league. He’s currently averaging 28.2 points, 8.6 assists and eight rebounds. There have been only eight seasons in NBA history of players averaging 28/8/8. Oscar Robertson did it five times; Michael Jordan hit those benchmarks once, too. Last season, Russell Westbrook and James Harden did the same.
LBJ is on pace to do that, and more.
If LeBron keeps this up, he will become just the fourth player age 30 or older to play at least 35 minutes, score 25 points and shot 55 percent from the field. The other three guys to do that: Shaq, Wilt and Kareem.
Oh, also, LeBron is fourth in the league in assist rate, ninth in usage rate, and he’s shooting 80 percent inside of four feet. Enjoy this while you can…or maybe it will never end. Long live the king.