David Aldridge, NBA.com
He insists he’s not pissed. The question had been put to Kemba Walker Friday: who is more mad that he didn’t make the All-Star team: himself or Portland Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard?
“It’s whatever to me,” Walker said. “It doesn’t really matter, no big deal. I know I’ve been playing great. I just want to continue to play well, just try to make the playoffs. For me, (the All-Star team is) all about notoriety, it’s all about popularity. I’m not as popular as the other guys. It’s whatever. If we make the playoffs, hopefully the world will see what we’ve been doing out here in Charlotte, and the way I’ve been playing. Maybe it’ll help me for next season. I just want to continue my good play. That’s what I’ve been focused on, just keep on getting better and trying to win.”
It is a puzzlement, the lack of buzz (see what I did there?) around the Charlotte Hornets this season. They have gotten with the league-wide program and put a team together that embraces 3-pointers and looks for those shots whenever possible. They have a charismatic star in Walker, the requisite flavoring (Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin) and they’re extremely well-coached and play defense under coach Steve Clifford. So they’re in a smaller market … Lord knows the NBA Twitter-verse is in love with the Utah Jazz.
Maybe it’s just whatever. The Hornets, hardly a finished product, just keep playing, having overcome the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a torn labrum, ending his season last month. They’re sixth in the Eastern Conference, within striking distance of a top-three finish especially if Walker continues his torrid play of late. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 24.1 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 47.4 percent. “On the off days, you have to come in and try to maintain your rhythm, just try to keep everything together,” Walker said. “I sometimes come by myself, or some of my boys, get up a few shots, not too much, before or after practice. I always find time to get some shots up.”
Walker is better because his jumper is better. Teams didn’t respect his perimeter skills, sacrificing open looks to keep guards in front of him and not let him get to the rim. But after altering his mechanics in the offseason with shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer, who replaced Mark Price Price took the coaching job at UNC-Charlotte. The 6foot1 Walker has always been able to score in the paint, using a collection of floaters and his strength to get his shot off over bigger defenders.
“Making the tough shots and leaning in a certain way and a fade-away and stuff like that, those are tough shots, but those are shots you have to learn to make in this league,” Walker said. But his jumper needed work. Kreutzer moved the ball on Walker’s jumper from right in front of his face to off to the side. It took a while for Walker to get used to it, but now he swears by it. After shooting 30.4 percent on 3-pointers last season, Walker is shooting 37 percent on them which changes the whole calculus of his offensive game. The evolution was not televised. But it was real.
“It opens up everything,” Walker said.
“Now I’m just a threat. I’m a threat out there. Guys are running out at me, and I’m able to either give them a pump fake or let it fly. Guys are going over the screens and I’m able to get into the lane and find my teammates a lot better. It just makes things a lot easier for me.”
It hasn’t been as easy getting recognition. Not only were the Hornets the only current Eastern Conference playoff team not to have an All-Star, Charlotte was one of just two teams Memphis being the other that didn’t have a representative in a single event during NBA All-Star 2016 in Toronto. The Hornets haven’t had an All-Star player since 2010 (Gerald Wallace during the Bobcats days). The franchise’s biggest star remains its owner, Michael Jordan, who continues to have both hands involved with the franchise, and is visible from his courtside seats often, but keeps a relatively low profile otherwise (including declining comment for this piece).
“He’s here a lot actually, which is great,” Walker said. “We always enjoy seeing him. We always enjoy talking to him. I know I do. I love talking to him for the years I’ve been here. I’ve had the chance to get pretty close with him. It’s been a really fun five years here. We’re getting better as the years go. It’s been really cool. He’s done a great job with the team, giving us advice when we really need it.”
Jordan surely had advice for the front office after last season, when the Hornets fell to 3349. The team’s decision to sign Lance Stephenson was a disaster, but that wasn’t the half of it. Charlotte finished 30th last season in 3point percentage (.318) and 14th in True Shooting Percentage, which factors in the impact of 3-pointers, and 12th in offensive rating. Only one of the Hornets’ regular players, backup center Bismack Biyombo, shot better than 50 percent from the floor. Kidd-Gilchrist, a great perimeter defender, attempted no 3-pointers. Walker shot 38.5 percent, as defenses gleefully went under every screen and roll and dared him to shoot jumpers. Al Jefferson had multiple defenders in his lap who could tell him the flavor of the gum he was chewing on a given night. So the Hornets worked to diversify their roster.
“In the offseason, we made a concerted effort to try and improve a lot at the offensive end in particular, our shooting as well as improve our overall skill level,” General Manager Rich Cho said Sunday. “And when we tried to do that, we tried to find some guys with some versatility. We brought in Batum, [Jeremy] Lamb, Lin, [Frank] Kaminsky they can all play more than one position. And we think they complement Cody [Zeller] and Mike, who can also play more than one position.” Charlotte moved Stephenson to the Clippers for center Spencer Hawes, and traded Gerald Henderson and its 2014 firstrounder, Noah Vonleh, to Portland for Batum, the sinewy three who’d flashed during his years with the Blazers, but was never going to be a primary contributor on a team with LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard. And the Hornets signed Lin to a team-friendly two-year deal. They’ve frequently paired him with Walker in the backcourt. With Batum also on the floor, now Charlotte had three ball-handlers, allowing the Hornets to constantly attack defenses from multiple angles. That’s created a lot more open shots, and this year, they’re knocking them down particularly power forward Marvin Williams, shooting a career-best 39 percent on 3-pointers this season.
And Charlotte has risen from last to 12th in 3point percentage (.354). “That’s the difference, man,” Walker said. “We’re making them now. It’s not hard because of the guys we have on our team. We have guys who can really, really penetrate and get into the lane, like Nic, who’s one of the better passers in our league, Jeremy Lin, guys who can make plays off the bounce, and draw and find the next man. That’s all we’ve been doing. The only difference is making the shots. Me, I’m at a high percentage now. We have big Al, who can get going and draw defenders. That helps a lot. We just have other guys who can get to the basket and drive defenders as well.” And even if Charlotte doesn’t always make shots, it gets them. The Hornets are tied for fourth-best in the league in turnovers (just 13.1 per game).
“I’m pretty used to those guys now,” Walker said. “We’ve been playing a lot together. When I come off the ball screen I’m always trying to draw another defender so where I can get my teammates open, and if not, I can score the basketball. But if I do draw two defenders, my job is to move the ball and find the next man. Nic is such a great playmaker as well, where I can draw his man, get him open, then he draws another defender and he finds another man as well. We’ve been playing with each other really well.”
But the Hornets had to change more than personnel. They had to alter their philosophy. As the Golden State Warriors run the NBA now, everyone is looking for pace and space. But the Hornets are trying to create a hybrid offense one that has plenty of threes, but also still finds ways to utilize Jefferson, who remains one of the league’s best post players. Jefferson has been out of the lineup for long stretches of the season and because of injuries. He missed 11 games early in the season with a strained calf, then missed six weeks after undergoing knee surgery for a torn meniscus. (He also served a five game suspension from the league for violating the NBA’s banned substances program.)
With Jefferson out, the Hornets have used Zeller in the hole much of the season, with good results at both ends. Nor has Charlotte dropped off significantly defensively when playing first-round pick Kaminsky at center. The Celtics, you may recall, offered up to four future Draft picks for the Hornets’ ninth pick overall in last year’s Draft, and were shocked when Charlotte said no in order to take Kaminsky, the all-American center. “I gave an analogy,” Cho said. “Somebody says, ‘okay, I’m going to give you three or four coins for your quarter, and you don’t know if it’s going to be four quarters or four pennies, or two nickels and two pennies.’ We chose to keep the quarter. We’ll see what happens, but we’re very happy with Frank.”
Jefferson struggled to defend screen-rolls in past seasons, which was one reason he came to camp lighter this year and which he and the Hornets hope is helped by the knee surgery. Zeller’s individual defensive rating is better than Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Marcin Gortat and other highly-rated defensive big men. And the Hornets’ best five-man offensive unit, per NBA.com/Stats, has Zeller at center, along with Walker, Lin, Batum and Williams. But Charlotte didn’t want to abandon Jefferson, now 31. When healthy, as he finally is now, he’s still a beast on the low block. The dilemma was getting the most out of Jefferson while remaining committed to playing fourout, one-in. It meant Jefferson would have to get off of the block, where he’s set up shop for more than a decade, and do more things on the move. It’s an adjustment that bigs around the league have had to make, which begs the question of whether there’s still a role for a low-post guy in a 3point heavy NBA world. “I just feel like my game will always help,” Jefferson said. “It’s not like you’ve got a bunch of guys like me around that do what I do. You don’t have many guys like me. You look around the game, it’s not like we’re here and they just don’t want us; it’s just not that many of us that can actually do it. And I just think that certain teams are going to want that lowpost presence, because the other team’s not able to defend it, because they’re not used to seeing it as much. My game will always have a place.”
Jefferson has been in a lot more screen and roll sets this year. “Our goal, and he agrees with this, is he’s not just running to the block any more,” Clifford said. “He is setting a lot more pick and rolls. And it’s a couple of things. One, he understands that he has to create more action for his teammates. He’s so good down there that when you play the better defensive teams, the play call is just a double team. That’s all it is. So it can be good for our team, but he’s not going to score. So we worked hard in preseason at him initiating pick and rolls, and then using the roll game to set up his post-ups, where there’s no play call, and where it’s more difficult for teams to get the ball out of his hands. And he’s much better at it.” Jefferson says he’s comfortable with his new responsibilities. He can dive to the basket, or look for highlow passes, and then go back to the post if nothing else is available. And on a multiple pick-and-roll action, he can duck in for quick hitters. There are multiple ways to get the ball.
“It’s more setting the action for the offense,” he said. “I’m not able to just go right to the post no more. You’ve got to set the action, set pick and rolls and dive and stuff like that.” He leaves the 3point shooting to his teammates. “When you have a low-post presence, and you have shooters all around, even with the fours, I just think it opens up more for me,” he said. “If they double team, they gotta pick and choose their poison, because we have guys now who can knock down those shots on a consistent level.” But the Hornets will need to get themselves back up to speed playing with Jefferson; their continuity has slipped a little. “I’m pretty used to playing with Big Al,” said Walker, who insists the Hornets will have to lean on Jefferson down the stretch and in the playoffs. “This is my third year playing with him,” Walker said. “Other guys have to get used to playing with such a presence in the low post. It’s pretty difficult for some guys, because a lot of guys haven’t played with such a great low-post scorer. It’s definitely a different game. Guys aren’t used to throwing the ball in a lot, which I am. As far as the pick and roll with me and Al, we’ve always been pretty good with the pick and roll. I’m pretty used to it.” Clifford said Jefferson is getting his conditioning back, and the Hornets will limit him, especially on back-to-back nights.
“We’re trying to play him the right amount of minutes,” Clifford said, “…but this is really October for him. You know how October is. You’d usually play him and then give him a night off, and we’re just not in that situation. But I think his skill, his ability to pivot off of his leg, is the best since his first year here. His mobility is good. It’s just his conditioning and his timing.” Yet the Hornets haven’t sacrificed defense, their calling card under Clifford, with their improved offense, as other teams have. Charlotte is still ninth in defensive rating, just as it was last season. The Hornets have dropped slightly in points allowed this season. They were sixth in the league last season (97.3 per game), they’re 9th (100.5 per game) this season, and they’ve only allowed two of their last 13 opponents to score more than 100 points. But they defend the 3pointer better, improving from 22nd in the league last season (when opponents shot .357 on 3-pointers) to 15th this season (.352). The Hornets will have work to do after the season. Batum will be an unrestricted free agent, and he’ll be one of the top wings in demand. Courtney Lee, acquired at the trade deadline from Memphis, will also be unrestricted as will Williams, who has had one of his best all-around seasons at the four, and will also have lots of suitors. As for Jefferson also unrestricted at season’s end he believes that no matter how things work out in Charlotte, the NBA worm will ultimately return to the paint. He does not think himself an endangered species.
“It’s good to have that experience and just watch the league change before your eyes,” he said. “And I really believe it’s going to change back. It’s just like clothes. Clothes always come back in style. I really believe the league is going to get back big again. I might be long gone. I might be watching in my La-ZBoy, but I really believe it’s going to go back big again, like when I first got in the league. It’s a cycle. It’s going to take one team to go big and do it. It’s a copycat league. Watch me. You’re going to remember when you talked to me today. It might be 10 years, but you’re going to remember, ‘he said it!’ “