For years zone defense wasn’t allowed in the NBA; however, a rule change in 2001 made it permissible for teams to invoke their inner-Boeheim and zone-up. I’m a fan of said shift which, coupled with the hand check rule of 2004, has opened the lane up, and created an entertaining slash-and-kick style of play. Obviously iso-ball is still a huge component of pro hoops in America, but overall the change has been a beneficial one for the league. By this stance, a zone can be good. The same, however, can’t be said for the territory the Charlotte Hornets find themselves trending towards, currently. It’s a zone of danger, Lana.
The Hornets have a Southeast Division matchup tonight in Orlando against the Magic; you should stay off the roads and watch the game. I hope the Hornets win — they kind of need it. Charlotte is 2.5 game back of the No. 8 spot in the surprisingly frisky Eastern Conference (13 of of the East’s 15 teams have won at least 19 games). And make no mistake, this team entered the season in Win Now Mode — and the playoffs are certainly in striking distance. However, this recent losing slide (they’ve won just five of their last 20 game — yikes!) is deeply problematic if you want the right to get swept by Cleveland in the first round. Right now, that’s the ceiling, which is far from optimal.
It’s unfortunate that in this space a month ago we were celebrating a fun team who was playing some really good basketball, and now look where we are. The NBA’s trade deadline is less than a month away — February 18th — and this franchise’s front office will be faced with some tough decisions in the near future. I don’t want to hit the eject button on this season just yet, especially with the awesome news that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been cleared for full-contact practice earlier this week. But this is a #DangerZone type of area for the organization; jobs in the front office could be on the line if they fall short of the postseason. This is something that could also put a hold on looking for trades — if it’s going to further worsen Charlotte’s chances of making the postseason this year. Don’t be buyers when you should be sellers.
The Hornets, if they continue to backslide, may have to look to unload one or two of their expiring contracts: Jefferson, Marvin Williams, or (far less likely) Batum, and plan for the lottery. It’d be a bummer to see any of these dues go, but another top-14 pick would be far from the worst thing in the world. Jeremy Lin — the team’s backup point guard — has a player option for next season, which means he could be palatable to move as well.
Charlotte has Batum’s Bird rights, and I assume they’ll make resigning him a priority this offseason, which will get pricey as he plays his way into max contract status. The Hornets will be able to offer the former Trail Blazer more years and money than any other team. Batum and Kemba have paired well together, and along with MKG, they could form a nice, young perimeter trio. However, if Marv and Al aren’t going to be a part of the team’s plans in the years to come, than they should be moved for assets prior to that mid-February deadline, especially if the playoffs become more of a distant possibility.
I’m not sure what the trade market will look like for an offensive-minded center who has slow feet and is coming off knee surgery in December — and whose health status may not be known right up until the deadline, but Jefferson is less than two years removed from being an All-NBA player, when he averaged 21.8 points and shot 51 percent from the floor. Obviously he’s regressed the past two seasons, thanks in part to multiple injuries, but he just turned 31 and is a low-post scoring hub. As you can see from his shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com, he’s still an efficient scorer around the rim:
According to NBA.com: among players with at least 130 post-ups this season, Jefferson is tied with Greg Monroe — another back-to-the-basket bully — at No. 16 in the league in points per possession: 0.81. In that same sample of players, Big Al is tops in the percentage of his possessions that result in a post-up — nearly 52 percent. Could a team looking to juice up their second unit’s offense turn to Jefferson as a remedy? Could Charlotte get a first round pick in return? I feel good about the former, but far less so about the latter.
Williams is an intriguing chip, too. A month ago, I detailed why he’s has been so valuable this year for Charlotte. Williams can bounce between both forward spots, and hits nearly 38 percent of his threes — pretty damn good for a small-ball stretch four. Marv’s having a nice season in a contract year; he could be quality trade fodder.
Including tonight’s meeting with the Magic, the Hornets have just 11 games prior to the deadline, and six of those will be on the road. Charlotte will match-up with seven teams that are either definitely making the Eastern Conference playoffs or will seriously contend for one of the eight spots: Orlando, New York, Cleveland, Miami, Washington, Chicago, and Indiana. This isn’t the most daunting of schedules, but it’s not easy, and it will have an impact on what Charlotte — and some of these other teams — will do leading up to February 18th. Also of note: the Hornets will play five straight games on the road after the trade deadline.
Look, I’m in no way saying I hope Charlotte moves Al, Marv or someone else. These two are both good players and seemingly awesome guys, too. You should want an entire roster filled with players like Jefferson and Williams. It would be fantastic if Jefferson came back, the roster healed up, and the Hornets started sharing the sugar and playing like they did the first six weeks of the season, but what I don’t want to see is a front office that has too narrow of a focus on winning now this season. If you can flip dudes for assets, make the deal. It would be less than ideal if they just walked, after the season, for nothing in return. Because as the salary cap rises to a projected $90 million in 2016, having cap space isn’t as valuable if everyone has it; Jefferson and Williams will combine to make a little over $20 million this season. This is something to monitor.