Charlotte Hornets: Wing Shooting and Playoff Contention


Last season’s 2013-14 Charlotte Bobcats took significant strides as a team toward NBA playoff relevancy.  Under the leadership of new head coach Steve Clifford, the team jumped from dead last in defensive rating to fifth in successive seasons.  The team showed marked improvements in defensive efficiency with a core of players relatively similar to the previous year.  Furthermore, improvement under Clifford was also apparent on the offensive end, where the team jumped four places in offensive rating to 24th.

However, these improvements were not significant enough for the team to make a splash in the 2014 playoffs.  Thus, the logical next step for the upcoming season is for the team to transform from a relevant team, to a relevant contender.  Rich Cho recently stated in an interview that the team’s goal is to win “one or two” playoff series this year.  In order to make this transition, the team needed to acquire certain missing components.  In the case of the Hornets, one glaring missing component was a lack of perimeter shooting from the wing positions.

The past twenty NBA championship teams’ top two wing players (in terms of total minutes played) have averaged an aggregated 2.3 three pointers made per game.  The lowest figure of three pointers made by the top two wing players on any championship team is 0.9 per game, Rip Hamilton/ Tayshaun Prince of the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.  The next lowest figure is 1.2 per game, Wade/James of the 2011-12 Miami Heat.  These teams also featured the second and fourth best defenses in the league, respectively.  It is apparent that the typical NBA playoff contender usually features at least one reliable wing shooting.

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In the 2013-14 season, Charlotte starting wings Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist aggregated for a total of 0.5 three pointers made per game.  This figure was substantially worse than any other tandem in the league.  Memphis, with their top wings Tayshaun Prince/ Mike Miller were the second worst pair of three-point shooting wings at 1.6 per game.  This statistic suggests that Charlotte had arguably one of the worst perimeter shooting tandems in the league last season.  Thus, Steve Clifford himself has identified perimeter shooting as the most important element to improving their offense moving forward.

It is particularly essential to have good spacing in the Hornets inside-out style offense, where on almost every possession the ball is fed to Al Jefferson on the block.  Ideally, Charlotte would use their wing shooters to draw defenders away from an isolated Al Jefferson.  If the perimeter defender is caught cheating inside, Jefferson should punish them by kicking the ball to the wing for an open shot.  Thus, the perimeter players shooting ability is accountable for keeping defenders from double teaming Jefferson inside.  A few weeks ago Grantland writer Zach Lowe similarly touched on how this lack of perimeter shooting could also be affecting Kemba Walker’s shooting percentages.

Overall this lead to a clogged up inside between Al Jefferson, MKG, and Henderson all not having reliable outside shots.  Poorer overall shooting percentages could be attributed to all of these bodies hanging out inside.  The addition of a reliable outside shooter should vastly improve this spacing issue, and arguably increase shooting percentages and efficiency of all players.

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This hypothesis is supported by the insertion of Chris Douglas-Roberts.  The above chart actually suggests that, in terms of advanced statistics, CDR was Charlotte’s best shooting guard last season.  This is interesting because when CDR is compared to Henderson per 36 minutes, CDR is actually the poorer overall scorer, passer, and rebounder.  This information would suggest that Henderson is the better offensive player.  However, CDR’s offensive real plus/minus suggest that he provided more offense to the team than Henderson providing less actual scoring.

Furthermore, when CDR replaced Henderson in the starting lineup last season the team saw a significant jump in points per 100 possessions and three-point attempts.  This of course happened over a limited sample size, but it does seem to suggest that Charlotte’s offense does in fact improve with improved spacing.

The Hornets realized this deficiency last season, and attempted to improve it by trading for shooting guard Gary Neal.  This pattern of thinking would suggest that Neal is the best option for the Hornets offense because he makes more threes at higher percentages relative to his two teammates.  However, Neal is such a defensive liability, -4.92 DRPM (worst in the league among shooting guards), that he typically would not be considered to play serious starter minutes.  Regardless of this, as Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer recently pointed out, the team’s offense significantly improved last season following the Neal trade.  In fact, Bonnell points out, their overall scoring per game jumped from 95.3 to 104.3 following the trade.  This improved number would have qualified the Hornets as a top ten offense last year.

During the offseason the Hornets originally tried to address this problem by replacing small forward Michael-Kidd Gilchrist with outstanding wing shooter Gordon Hayward.  This fit was ideal for the Hornets because Hayward can play at either wing spot; thus allowing them to pair him with Henderson for more potent offense or MKG for more size and defensive situations.  However, the Hornets lost Hayward to the Jazz, and the next best fit was shooting guard Lance Stephenson.

Enter Lance Stephenson, the Hornets answer to a lack of perimeter scoring and defense.  Stephenson provides the Hornets with one player to fill all of the roles that they had to use multiple players to fill last season.  He combines perimeter shooting, ball handling, and defensive ability that the other players can only provide in pieces.  Furthermore, Stephenson is also efficient: he has a low usage rate, high assist rate, and high shooting percentage.  He’s one of those rare NBA guards that has the ability to shoot 50% from the field as a starter (only three guards accomplished a higher field goal percentage than Lance last year).  He nearly accomplished the 50% mark last season even though he was playing in Indiana’s relatively poor offense.  Due to these factors, he should certainly help improve the Hornets’ offense.

Stephenson is arguably a better all-around player than Hayward, who was offered more money.  However, he is not the ideal fit with the Hornets that Hayward could have been.  A Hayward/Henderson pairing would have provided the hornets with a respectable 1.7 3PM/36.  This combination would have provided ideal spacing for the offense, and Hayward and Kidd-Gilchrist also have enough size to play significant minutes next to each other.  Thus, he could have provided the team with more lineup flexibility.

The likely Stephenson/Kidd-Gilchrist starting tandem only provided 1.1 3PM/36 last season, a definite improvement, but the figure would still have been a league worst.  Stephenson and Henderson are both listed as 6-5, and probably do not have enough size to play significant minutes together in most match ups, especially in the playoffs.  Steve Clifford has suggested that he is still considering starting Henderson alongside Lance, but this would contradict his previous statements on the importance of size.

The X-factor will be Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.  There is a great article breaking down his offensive game here.  Each year little teaser videos are released on the internet showcasing his improved jump shot.  If Kidd-Gilchrist was to develop just an average outside shot the team’s offense could significantly improve.  It’s possible they could even develop into a recognized championship contender if Kidd-Gilchrist was to do so.  Clifford has recently praised Kidd-Gilchrist’s progress, but the results are still yet to be seen.  Therefore, the results cannot be counted on.

Even if MKG does not develop his outside shot, Stephenson’s perimeter shooting and ball handling should help the Hornets progress offensively in the upcoming season.  His abilities complement the existing core, and should help bolster what was a relatively mediocre offense last season.  Considering the teams existing defensive ability, Stephenson should be enough to push Charlotte towards real playoff contention.

Since this is my debut post with Swarm and Sting, I would like to introduce myself.  My name is Alex, and I am from Charlotte.  I have no previous professional writing experience, but I am prepared for the opportunity to prove myself.  I am particularly interested in advanced statistics (Dean Oliver, John Hollinger), and how the performance of an individual player influences the performance of a unit overall (as you will see in this article).  I am very much looking forward to covering my favorite team with in depth analysis, commentary, and interactions with readers.  Feel free to drop comments or criticisms on my articles; I’d be happy to improve, clarify, or debate my points.