Posts Tagged ‘Al Jefferson’

Talking numbers with Steve Clifford


VIDEO: Hang Time with Lance Stephenson

PHILADELPHIA – The Charlotte Bobcats were one of the most improved teams in the league last season. No team improved in defensive efficiency more than the Bobcats, who allowed 7.8 fewer points per 100 possessions in 2013-14 than they did in ’12-13. Their change in point differential (plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions) was just a hair behind that of the Phoenix Suns.

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Offensively, the Bobcats started out horribly but improved every month. They ranked 29th in efficiency in October-November and 13th in March-April.

Head coach Steve Clifford deserves most of the credit for the defense. The Bobcats had nowhere to go but up after ranking dead last in defensive efficiency each of the previous two seasons, but they became just the second team in the last 16 years (the ’02-03 Nuggets were the other) to jump from the bottom five to the top 10 on that end of the floor.

The Bobcats are now the Hornets, and they now have Lance Stephenson. They’ve also swapped Josh McRoberts for Marvin Williams at power forward. Both of those moves could change their offense quite dramatically.

NBA.com spoke with Clifford on Wednesday about his team’s numbers, the addition of Stephenson, the importance of floor spacing, and managing his time as a head coach.

(Most of the questions were asked in a one-on-one setting after Charlotte’s shootaround on Wednesday, while a few follow-ups came in Clifford’s pre-game media scrum before the Hornets’ preseason opener against the Sixers.)

An aside: During the pre-game scrum, as Clifford was talking about the departure of McRoberts, Al Jefferson walked by, heading toward the Hornets’ locker room. When Clifford saw Jefferson, he cut off his own, unrelated sentence to say, “and that’s why we got to get the ball to the big fella.” Jefferson called back, “My man! That’s why you’re the best coach in the game!”

Offense

NBA.com: Last year, your team ranked high in ball-movement stats (passes/possession). Do you see Lance affecting that?

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Steve Clifford: I think so, because watching him on film from last year and also being around him since the beginning of September, his pick-and-roll game … he can score it, but he also hits every option. He hits the roll man a lot. There aren’t that many guys that can hit the roll man, make a shot and also hit the other perimeter players. So I think that will be part of it.

The other part of that, maybe, is that we post the ball a lot more than most teams do, and post-up basketball takes usually more passes, because you got to find a way to get the ball there.

NBA.com: Have you put in new staff for Lance specifically?

Clifford: We’re starting to, now. A week in, we’ve just concentrated on those kinds of things, ball movement, secondary offense when the play breaks down, stuff like that for early in camp. We’re starting now to get more sets in.

NBA.com: What’s the biggest advantage to having a second guy who can create off the dribble?

Clifford: I think it just puts so much more pressure on the defense. When you have more guys on the floor who can play in a pick-and-roll or are good at drive-and-kick or whatever, if you get an advantage on one side of the floor with a pick-and-roll and the ball moves to the other side, the defense is just more spread out. There’s more room to attack.

NBA.com: Last season, your offense got considerably better as the season went on. What was the key to that?

Clifford: Part of it, to be honest, was we made a really good trade, where we picked up Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour. And then we signed Chris Douglas-Roberts as a free agent. If you look at it, where our offense got a lot better was we shot more threes. We didn’t shoot a significantly better percentage, but we shot like 5 1/2 more threes per game. People don’t realize that how many threes you shoot is a big deal, too.

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Also, our offensive rebounding numbers went way up. And that was basically Cody [Zeller], MKG [Michael Kidd-Gilchrist] and Biz [Bismack Biyombo]. Over the last third of the year, we scored almost two points more per game on offensive rebounds. And there were some other smaller things, but those were the two biggest things.

NBA.com: Was the increase in 3-point shots something you were looking for, or was it a benefit of the new additions?

Clifford: I just think if you study the league and what wins, the three things that yield over a point per possession the last, I think, nine years are … the best possession is if you get fouled, the second best possession is 0-3 feet, and the third best possession is a three, in particular the corner threes.

It’s every aspect of offense, but in this league, your shooting is your spacing. That’s why I think Marvin was such a key signing for us. You can see it in practice. There’s a lot more room for all the other guys when he’s out on the floor vs. the other four men. And Cody’s improved shooting has improved our offense too.

So there’s different ways you can do it. But you got to have shooting. Look at San Antonio. Look at The Finals. If you can’t shoot, you’re not out there. In Orlando, the two great years we had … we had four good years, but the two great years we had, we literally never played anybody, besides Dwight [Howard], who couldn’t shoot threes. And it’s hard to guard.

McRoberts vs. Williams and MKG’s new J

NBA.com: But does the ball movement suffer without Josh McRoberts?

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Clifford: It’s different from the standpoint that Josh, No. 1, shot a decent percentage from three, but it’s not his game. It’s not how he naturally wants to play. Josh more wants to drive the ball, so we didn’t have that spacing on the floor, as good as he was. He’s more of a driver and a passer, where Marvin is a spot-up shooter. So what I’m hopeful of is he will create as much offense in a different way.

NBA.com: Going back to “If you can’t shoot, you’re not out there,” how much has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist increased his value to you or raised his ceiling just with the work he’s done on his jump shot this summer?

Clifford: I want to make sure [to clarify], I think if you can’t shoot, it’s tougher to play in those games. If you look at it, there’s really nobody out there that couldn’t shoot.

Now, I think that he, potentially, has changed his future in this league, with the work that he did with Mark [Price]. He’s one of the few guys that has real value for a team, even when he wasn’t shooting, because he’s an elite defender. To me, he has instincts, both in individual and team defense, that not many guys possess. So he has the ability to guard the best scorers and make it hard on them. Not many guys can do that. But this, to me, potentially changes his whole future.

NBA.com: Defenses are still going to challenge him, though.

Clifford: Absolutely. The other challenge, and he knows this, it may be 60 games, it might be a year, because these guys play one way their whole life. The biggest part of the game is when the ball’s coming to you, shoot-drive-pass and how quick you do it. And he’s always driven it or passed it. Now, he’s got to, when he’s open, be able to shoot it, and do it without hesitation.

And that’s going to take time. You can’t play one way for 21 years and then all of a sudden work hard over the summer to add this component to your game, and then have your decision-making be easy. The only thing I know is that when he didn’t play last year, we weren’t nearly as good. He’s a good player no matter what.

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Balance and priorities as a head coach

NBA.com: Do you put more emphasis on offense in camp, knowing that you already have a top-10 defense, or do you feel like you still have to start with the D?

Clifford: We’ve actually done a lot more offense, but since we came back from Asheville, the last three or four days, we’ve really gotten back to defense. Obviously, you can’t take anything for granted. We’ll have two new starters. We worked hard at our defense last year. We’ll have to do the same if we’re going to play that well again.

NBA.com: Is there enough time to do everything you want, both offensively and defensively, in camp?

Clifford: Never.

NBA.com: You always have to make sacrifices somewhere, right?

Clifford: That’s coaching. You never feel like you’re spending enough time on everything. Those are the choices you have to make. I’m fortunate I have such a veteran staff. We talk every morning about what are the most important two or three things for today, because ultimately, you can’t be good at everything. You got to be sure you’re zeroed in on the right things for your team to play well.

NBA.com: How much can you add in as the season goes on?

Clifford: Quite a bit, especially if you have the veteran teams who’ve been around and done a few things. Last year, we added a lot of offense as we went along. We didn’t mess around a lot with our defense.

NBA.com: What did you learn from your first season as head coach?

Clifford: The time management part of being a head coach vs. being an assistant is much different. That was one thing that I struggled with last year.

NBA.com: In what way?

Clifford: Things seem to pop up all the time. So you get to late afternoon and you had those three or four things that you needed to do, this film, that film, whatever. And man, it seems like some days, you get to like 4:00 and you haven’t done any of it.

And then, I feel like I have more of a comfort level. Last year, I always felt like I was swimming upstream, always behind. I think I’m more organized this year, simply because I have a way to do it on game day that I’m comfortable with. And again, I have such an experienced staff, I rely on them so much and they help me a lot. That helps in all those areas too.

Clifford’s assistant coaches: Patrick Ewing, Stephen Silas, Bob Weiss, Mark Price and Pat Delany.

NBA.com: Is there a balance between working on strategy and managing the players and their personalities?

Clifford: Definitely. To me, that [managing the personalities] is the priority.

NBA.com: So some of that film work might take a back seat to making sure you’re on the same page with one of your guys?

Clifford: Absolutely. I would say that the communication piece, so that we’re all trying to be on the same page and knowing roles and all that stuff, that’s always the priority.

Getting out of NBA’s ‘Ringless of Honor’

Steve Nash's teams have been to the playoffs 12 times, but he's never been in The Finals. (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Steve Nash’s teams have been to the playoffs 12 times, but he’s never been in The Finals. (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Rings still are the things, even if it didn’t necessarily seem that way in June.

Because The Finals of 2014 were a rematch of the 2013 Finals, there wasn’t any chatter about stars who needed to win a championship. Both the Miami and San Antonio rosters were full of decorated performers, their “ring” box checked and re-checked through multiple title runs.

That wasn’t the case in many previous postseasons, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh (2011), Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd (2010), Pau Gasol (2009) and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (2008) chased the validation that seems to matter most in the NBA. Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant had won nine rings in 12 years, so unless someone was a teammate of one of them — or broke through like the ’08 Celtics, the ’06 Heat (Dwyane Wade on the rise) or the ensemble ’04 Pistons – he had his nose pressed against the window at title time.

The Duncan-Bryant era was a legacy blocker as surely as the Jordan era, back when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were winning six titles in eight years with two different supporting casts in Chicago. By dint of competing during one or both of those consecutive eras – the Bulls last won in 1998, the Spurs first won in 1999 – an entire generation of All-Stars and Hall of Famers exited this league without jewelry, including Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Chris Mullin and Reggie Miller.

With 15 of 20 titles hogged by three franchises – and Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston teams grabbing two more – vying for the leftovers was a game of musical chairs. Gary Payton and Clyde Drexler managed to grab rings on their way out the door. The old-warhorse-to-the-Spurs-or-Lakers-seeking-his-ring became an annual tale of spring.

Guys like Pierce, Garnett and Nowitzki would be on the brink of joining that club to which no NBA star wants to belong – the Ringless of Honor – if not for the Celtics’ and Mavericks’ one-and-done peaks in 2008 and 2011.

Meanwhile, the waiting list gets refreshed, not erased. Here are the stars who – by virtue of their status and their career trajectories – are most on the clock as the 2014-15 season approaches (with each’s level of urgency noted):

Carmelo Anthony, Nov. 2013

Carmelo Anthony, Nov. 2013
(Michael Bernstein/NBAE )

Steve Nash, Lakers (****) – Nash is about out of time, and might have been before he got to L.A. two years ago. At this point, his best shot at a ring will require a trade by the February deadline because the Lakers will have trouble even qualifying for the tournament next spring. The once-dazzling playmaker left Dallas too soon and got to Bryant too late.

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks (***) – If Anthony’s Hall of Fame career gets discounted for the lack of an NBA championship to bookend his NCAA title splash with Syrcause, he’ll have the man in the mirror to blame. He pushed out of Denver before the Nuggets’ plan had a chance to come to fruition, and he couldn’t capitalize in New York despite the Knicks’ monstrous payroll. Now, rather than choosing as a free agent to contend with Chicago or Houston, Anthony has re-upped for what clearly is a New York rebuild. He’s a strong candidate to find himself facing the Tracy McGrady fate in a few years, the scoring star latching on in twilight for a final shot or two.

Kevin Durant (**) – He’s young, so the ticking of the clock still is muted. But Durant has accomplished almost everything else he can – scoring titles, an MVP – which makes the open space on his trophy shelf more conspicuous. He doesn’t want to become Garnett, the constant around whom insufficient parts get haphazardly placed. Russell Westbrook fits in here, too, by association, though he still has individual awards to conquer.

Dwight Howard, Rockets (***) – The big fella seems destined to head into the sunset and five years later to Springfield with a big smile and no Larry O’Brien trophy. He plays at the mercy of his coaches and his point guards, yes, but Howard has yet to show the leadership skills or the passion – as in downright, focused orneriness – to carry his team when it matters most. James Harden is younger but he’s facing the same onus, especially with Houston’s relative whiff in free agency this summer.

Chris Paul, Clippers (***) – The Clippers’ playmaker might be in the most urgent now-or-never situation of all on this list. He has the coach, the teammates, the reset ownership and his best opportunity yet to be on a podium shaking Adam Silver‘s hand in mid-June. Injuries are always a concern with Paul, however, and at 29, so is the clock.

Joakim Noah, Bulls (**) – Noah is here because he’s older than his oft-injured and more esteemed teammate Derrick Rose. Rose’s overarching storyline is all about health, with championships way down the list. Noah had a breakthrough individual season in 2013-14, though, and has been the guy enduring all the comings and goings in Chicago (coaches, Rose’s layoffs, Luol Deng‘s ouster). A dervish of emotions on the court, Noah doesn’t hide how important winning is to him. But he hasn’t been able to achieve it yet, largely because of James in Miami and now, again, in Cleveland.

Zach Randolph, Al Jefferson, David West, LaMarcus Aldridge (*) – These are all top-tier NBA power forwards for the Grizzlies, Hornets, Pacers and Trail Blazers, respectively, still seeking their first rings. With the exception of Aldridge, who still has time, they’re not quite at the marquee level of the other names on this list. They’ll need help chasing down hardware.

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson (**) – It’s not so much that fans notice the holes in these Brooklyn stars’ resumes; they haven’t achieved that level of reverence yet. In fact, it’s more what a ring would do for each of them, perhaps elevating opinions and removing criticism.

Summer Dreaming: First-time All-Stars

The regular season will only be a few weeks old when the ballots will go out for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Most of the voters won’t even have to think about the first handful of names they’ll fill in:

LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony. Kevin Durant. Kobe Bryant.

Everybody wants to see the marquee stars. Nothing at all wrong with that.

But with only 24 roster spots in a league with 450 players, a few deserving players get overlooked. Sometimes for an entire career. It happened over 17 seasons, 1,199 games and 19,202 points for one of our all-time favorites, Eddie Johnson.

So in honor of Eddie, here in the Summer Dreaming headquarters, we’re going to pour a frosty drink and raise a toast to the players most deserving to make their All-Star debuts at New York in February:


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard’s top 10 plays of 2013-14

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs – Go figure. He’s got the Bill Russell Trophy for being named MVP of the NBA Finals sitting on his mantle, yet Leonard has not yet been named to an All-Star team in three years in the league. Of course, a big part of that is the cap that coach Gregg Popovich puts on the minutes of all of the Spurs. That doesn’t allow for those eye-popping stats that get the attention of voters. But you’d think the coaches would recognize all the things he does at both ends of the floor and add him as a reserve.


VIDEO: DeMarcus Cousins puts up 29 points, nine boards and six steals on Suns

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings – Let’s just admit it. The 2014 All-Star Game was played in New Orleans and that was what got the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis the Western Conference substitute nod over Cousins. You don’t have to dive into advanced metrics. Just know that Cousins outscored Davis 22.7 to 20.8, out rebounded him 11.7 to 10 and ranked third in the league in double-doubles with 53. Of course, Boogie hasn’t gotten the respect because he hasn’t always had his head in the game, or been the best of teammates. But if he just goes back to work, it will be time to end the Kings All-Star drought that goes back to Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller in 2004.


VIDEO: Mike Conley has grown into a solid leader for the Grizzlies

Mike Conley, Grizzlies — He’s been flying beneath the radar for far too long, playing at an All-Star level for at least the past two seasons. The No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft has steadily grown from a tentative young player into a solid quarterback that can run the show, get to the hoop and hit 3-pointers at a respectable rate. The trouble is a numbers game. For one, he plays in the Western Conference, which is teeming with top flight point guards — Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard. For another, his rep takes a backseat to the 1-2 front court punch of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. It’s about time Conley got some love.


VIDEO: Al Jefferson spends time with Dennis Scott

Al Jefferson, Hornets — If only the voters who gave Jefferson’s spot on the Eastern Conference team last season to Roy Hibbert could have known that the Pacers center was preparing to do a swan dive down the stretch. Much credit to first year coach Steve Clifford for giving the former Bobcats an identity and to Kemba Walker for delivering, as usual. But it was Big Al who set himself up in the middle in Charlotte and went to work, toiling and scoring and rebounding the way he has for 10 seasons. He averaged a double-double (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds). Sometimes the guys who carry their lunch buckets to work every day should be invited to the banquet and given a chance to sit at the head table.


VIDEO: ‘The Serge Protector’ turns away eight shots against the Pelicans

Serge Ibaka, Thunder — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It’s almost like they’re a single entity, because you rarely hear one name mentioned without the other. Meanwhile there’s that jumping jack just out of the spotlight who is deserving of All-Star billing, giving the Thunder the “Big Three” punch to be a top title contender year in and year out. Until the Thunder break through and win a championship, it’s not likely that fan voters or the coaches are going to give Ibaka much respect. They should. The Spurs did in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals. He’s led the league in blocks twice, is a three time All-Defensive First Team member, dunks like he’s mad at the rim and, oh, there’s also that jumper.


VIDEO: DeAndre Jordan’s top 10 plays of 2013-14

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers — It’s funny how your numbers and value to the team can go up when you simply get more minutes. Coach Doc Rivers came to town and got in Jordan’s ear and his head and demanded more. The former part-time highlight reel star delivered with a solid 35 minutes a game. Maybe the All-Star voters and the coaches still questioned whether he could keep it up at the midway point of last season. He did, leading the league in rebounds (13.6), finishing third in blocked shot (2.48) and eighth in double-doubles (42). Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the engines in the Clippers’ machine, but it’s Jordan delivering consistently as a defensive stopper that can fuel a rise to a championship.

Morning Shootaround — September 6



NEWS OF THE MORNING

Monroe signs qualifying offer | Irving ’100 percent’ for Mexico | World Cup knockout round starts now | Charlotte rebrand is buzzing | Celtics: Rondo didn’t ask for trade

No. 1: Monroe will be unrestricted free agent next season — Unable to reach a long-term deal with the Detroit Pistons and skittish about the team’s future considering all the past upheaval, Greg Monroe signed the one-year, $5.5 million qualifying offer. If he produces this season, he’ll no doubt have plenty of big-spending suitors knocking on his door next season. Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News has the story:

Monroe, a restricted free agent, will be paid $5.5 million this season after not being able to agree to terms with the Pistons on a long-term contract. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent next July, free to sign with any team.

Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy has said Monroe was his first priority since taking over basketball operations this spring, and all indications were the Pistons were prepared to match any prospective offer sheet a suitor would’ve signed Monroe to, even a max contract.

But according to a source, Monroe’s first preference was to facilitate a sign-and-trade for a fresh start, after four years of missing the playoffs and constant upheaval on the sideline. The Pistons’ crowded frontcourt didn’t produce positive results last season, and Monroe had doubts about agreeing to sign up for more years of uncertainty.

The News reported weeks ago Monroe would “definitely” sign the qualifying offer, and although he had until Oct. 1 to do so, he formally did it Friday. Many believed he wouldn’t turn down the Pistons’ offer, which was in the neighborhood of four years and well over $50 million, but he turned it down, preferring to bet on himself and the idea of unrestricted free agency next summer.

Because he signed the qualifying offer, Monroe can’t be traded without his consent, and if he does it’ll likely be to a team he wants to be with for the foreseeable future, making him a hot commodity for other teams, fodder for trade rumors until February and possibly a tricky situation when the season does begin.

If Monroe is traded, he’d lose his Larry Bird rights, which enables a team to go over the salary cap to re-sign its own players.

The Pistons and Monroe could still form a long-term partnership, presumably if things go better than expected this coming season. But the odds are Monroe is likely playing his last season in Detroit, the franchise that drafted him in 2010.

***

No. 2: Irving ready to roll — Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski declares point guard Kyrie Irving “100 percent” healthy as Team USA begins the Round of 16 this morning against Mexico. NBA.com’s own Sekou Smith has that story and more:

That spill he took late in the U.S. National Team’s final group play win over the Ukraine didn’t keep him out of practice here Friday and won’t keep him out of the starting lineup for Saturday’s Round of 16 showdown with Mexico.

“I’m fine,” Irving said. “I’m a little more sore than I thought I’d be, but I’m good.”

National Team coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving is “100 percent” and he also indicated that Derrick Rose is fine, too. There have been requests for daily health updates on Rose, for good reason given all of the time he’s missed the past two seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

Coach K, however, would appreciate it if we could all move on to a different line of questioning where Rose is concerned.

“He’s great,” Coach K said of Rose. ” I think at some time people should stop asking about him physically and just say, ‘how’s your game? Do you think we’re gonna win? How did you like that pass?’ It sometimes, although it’s nice when people say how do you feel, when that’s the only thing they say, you say, ‘come on man’ let’s have a more in-depth conversation, and I think he’s ready for that.”

Rose knows the questions are coming and has done his best to smile while explaining over and over again that he is fine and ready to go for the remainder of this competition, however long it lasts.

“It’s gonna be the whole year, probably until I retire, so I can’t get sick and tired of it,” Rose said of answering questions about how he feels. “I just got to be immune to it and just know that the question is always going to be in the air. Don’t worry about it.”

***

No. 3: Four big knockout games — The U.S. begins its quest for gold against Mexico and co-favorite Spain stars with Senegal later today. NBA.com’s own John Schuhmann sets the scene:

It’s fine to assume that the United States and Spain will face off in the gold medal game of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup on Sept. 14. But it wouldn’t be wise to wait until then to pay attention to the action in Barcelona and Madrid, because there’s plenty of good basketball to be played between the 16 remaining teams.

The knockout rounds get started with eight games on Saturday and Sunday, and there will be at least four good teams packing their bags before the weekend is done. It’s win-or-go-home time, there are still 47 active NBA players in the tournament, and the games are only 40 minutes long. Anything can happen, including an upset of one of the two favorites.

Don’t be looking for that this weekend, though. Appropriately, USA and Spain play two of the worst teams remaining. But there are four games – three in Madrid and one in Barcelona – that could go either way. And for NBA fans, there are more reasons than that to watch.

***

No. 4: Buzz City is alive — When Charlotte received the go-ahead to dump the Bobcats nickname and reclaim Hornets, the franchise set forth on a total rebrand that included new logos, uniforms and perhaps the most unique court in the league. It’s also stirred great interest among the fan base and corporate sponsors. NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan has the story:

Out of the burial of the doomed Bobcats and the resurrection of the beloved Hornets, one of the most unique and exhaustive rebranding efforts in all of sports has been born. At the heart of the campaign is a revitalization of the old team’s sleepy, half-empty Time Warner Cable Arena. The showstopper is a dazzling new court featuring a one-of-a-kind “cell pattern” design that will help Charlotte be recognized as Buzz City.

Buzz is the word, all right. The Charlotte community is reveling in the return of its long-lost Hornets. New season-ticket sales, the team reports, are soaring (north of 3,000 and renewals are around 90 percent), second only to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Merchandise sales are breaking team records (and replica jerseys, they note, went on sale only this week). Blue-chip corporations disinterested in partnering with the Bobcats suddenly want in. McDonald’s and Mercedes-Benz are first-time sponsors.

“It’s crazy down here,” Hornets chief marketing officer Pete Guelli said. “We went from being an afterthought to all of a sudden being relevant in little under a year. I’m not complaining. It’s almost hard to put the success that we’ve had into words. Every metric that we measure our business by has exploded.”

I’m happy the Bobcats chapter is closed and the Hornets chapter is beginning.”

It helps that the team is actually becoming respectable. Al Jefferson chose to join the beleaguered franchise last season. Lance Stephenson is on board this season, and expectations are heightened after second-year coach Steve Clifford managed something of a miracle last season, taking a 21-win team the previous year (and just seven wins in 2011-12) to the playoffs for only the second time in the franchise’s 10 seasons as the Bobcats.

The buzz really started early in 2013. New Orleans, where the Hornets moved in 2002 after former owner George Shinn‘s failure in Charlotte, announced it was dropping its inherited nickname in favor of Pelicans, a name more representative of the city and state of Louisiana. The Bobcats jumped at the opportunity to re-capture their past.

***

No. 5: Celtics president says Rondo didn’t ask out — The Rajon Rondo trade rumors might never stop. But as for this latest round, Celtics president Rich Gotham says the point guard did not ask to be traded. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the story:

Celtics president Rich Gotham told the Globe during a community appearance in Jamaica Plain on Friday that the club has not received any trade demand from four-time All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.

ESPN reported that Rondo “wanted out” of Boston and had requested a trade. Publicly requesting a trade would draw a fine from the NBA, but Gotham said the club has no idea about any demand or Rondo’s reported unhappiness.

“You know if he has made that demand, it hasn’t been directly to the Celtics,” Gotham said.

“I have not heard that. Rajon’s been working out all summer [in Boston]. He’s been here. This is his home. He’s been working hard. Everybody’s happy with his progress and everything he’s told us is he’s excited to be here, taking on a leadership role with the team.”

Rondo is entering the final year of his five-year, $55 million contract, and has been the center of trade rumors the past few years. He and Danny Ainge helped co-owner Steve Pagliuca participate in the ALS Challenge two weeks ago; Rondo did not look like a player demanding to leave the Celtics.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Austin Rivers says this is going to his breakout yearLeBron James encourages the Suns to sit down with still-unsigned point guard Eric Bledsoe on Instragram … Meanwhile, Bledsoe’s agent is holding firm to a max contract or no deal … Scout says Utah’s No. 5 pick Dante Exum isn’t ready for the NBA, but his future is bright … Lou Williams is happy to be wanted in TorontoMichael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid fly to Spain to watch future teammate Dario Saric in World Cup.

The buzz is back in Charlotte


VIDEO: Hornets unveil new court

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The NBA has Rip City, Motor City, Lob City and Loud City.

Now get ready for Buzz City in Charlotte.

They’re back. Out of the burial of the doomed Bobcats and the resurrection of the beloved Hornets, one of the most unique and exhaustive rebranding efforts in all of sports has been born. At the heart of the campaign is a revitalization of the old team’s sleepy, half-empty Time Warner Cable Arena. The showstopper is a dazzling new court featuring a one-of-a-kind “cell pattern” design that will help Charlotte be recognized as Buzz City.

Buzz is the word, all right. The Charlotte community is reveling in the return of its long-lost Hornets. New season-ticket sales, the team reports, are soaring (north of 3,000 and renewals are around 90 percent), second only to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Merchandise sales are breaking team records (and replica jerseys, they note, went on sale only this week). Blue-chip corporations disinterested in partnering with the Bobcats suddenly want in. McDonald’s and Mercedes-Benz are first-time sponsors.

“It’s crazy down here,” Hornets chief marketing officer Pete Guelli said. “We went from being an afterthought to all of a sudden being relevant in little under a year. I’m not complaining. It’s almost hard to put the success that we’ve had into words. Every metric that we measure our business by has exploded.

“I’m happy the Bobcats chapter is closed and the Hornets chapter is beginning.”

It helps that the team is actually becoming respectable. Al Jefferson chose to join the beleaguered franchise last season. Lance Stephenson is on board this season, and expectations are heightened after second-year coach Steve Clifford managed something of a miracle last season, taking a 21-win team the previous year (and just seven wins in 2011-12) to the playoffs for only the second time in the franchise’s 10 seasons as the Bobcats.

The buzz really started early in 2013. New Orleans, where the Hornets moved in 2002 after former owner George Shinn‘s failure in Charlotte, announced it was dropping its inherited nickname in favor of Pelicans, a name more representative of the city and state of Louisiana. The Bobcats jumped at the opportunity to re-capture their past.

The Charlotte Hornets joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1989, built a strong fan base and had a pretty good team that made the playoffs seven times from 1993 to 2002. After the franchise left for New Orleans, the NBA awarded Charlotte another team and the new owners christened it the Bobcats. Actual bobcats are found in North Carolina, but it was often said that the “Bob” in Bobcats was a self-tribute to then owner Robert L. Johnson. Unfortunately, the new team was bad and interest in the Bobcats never materialized. Michael Jordan became majority owner in 2010. Even the game’s greatest player couldn’t pump life into franchise or the fan base. The Bobcats were perennially in the bottom 10 in attendance, sometimes in the bottom five.

Once the Hornets name became available, Charlotte officials immediately began internal discussions about reclaiming the team’s lost identity.

“We embarked on an extensive research project to really find out what that name meant to the marketplace, and then not only that, how actionable would it be?” said Guelli, hired away from the Buffalo Bills in 2009. “It seemed like it was the right thing to do to bring the name back. But how would people respond to it?”

Harris Research was brought in to conduct an extensive survey of the greater Charlotte area.

“The point was to find out how did they feel about the existing name, what kind of an attachment did they have to the previous name, what were their attachments to the colors, how about the history around the players,” Guelli said. “And then a lot of actionable data, like, ‘How does that pertain to how many games you might attend? How much more likely would you be to watch a game? How much more likely would you be to purchase merchandise?’

“That data was so strong. I’ve been involved in a number of research projects in my career, but to see 80 percent in favor of bringing the name back was pretty strong. And as you drill deeper into the data you found out that not only did people want it back, that they would respond to it once it came back.”

They were convinced. The name Hornets had to come back. Charlotte quickly announced its intention to pursue the name, and soon after the league’s board of governors stamped their unanimous approval.

A four-person team was assembled, kept small purposely to better keep their plans and designs confidential. The group included Guelli, team president Fred Whitfield, senior vice president of marketing Seth Bennett and vice president of marketing Josh Kramer. They would work closely with Brand Jordan and the NBA on all elements for the rebrand.

It was a full-on sprint to design new logos, primary and secondary marks, new uniforms and the pièce de résistance, a court that epitomized their entire effort.


Gallery: New Floor, New Buzz (Photos courtesy of Robbins Sports Surfaces)

“We probably had 10 or 12 iterations of the [floor] design, various looks, and we probably incorporated elements of many of them to get to the final result,” Guelli said. “There just were a number of different elements that we wanted to incorporate to get that final feel: How strong should the cell pattern be? What should the border colors be? What are the logos that should be on the court? What brand do we want to use in the center of the court?

“What was important to us was to really kind of create this DNA of a new Hornets brand and have it integrated into everything we do, and that’s where the discussions around the cell pattern on the court started. There’s a lot of iconic courts out there, courts that you would recognize even if you took the logos off. We started to think about what we have as an asset that could help us do that, and that cell pattern was consistent through a number of our other design elements.”

Once they settled on a final version, it had to be TV-approved by the NBA. A court’s no good if its shades and colors detract from the TV product. Using a sample portion of the court and a few employees recruited to don Hornets uniforms, the NBA turned on the cameras. The Hornets had a fallback strategy, a “little less aggressive” court design, but crossed their fingers the honeycomb court would pass with flying colors. It did, and the NBA gave the green light to get it done.

Robbins, Inc., out of Cincinnati, was commissioned to build the floor. The company boasts that it has built basketball courts for 21 out of the past 25 NBA champions and for more than 90 percent of the league’s 30 teams. But it had never taken on a task quite like this. The intricate nature of the cell pattern made it a uniquely painstaking process. More than 250 honeycomb-shaped stencils were used to create the stain pattern which was manufactured and finished at the Robbins flooring mill in Ishpeming, MI.

The 7,000-square-foot court, which is made up of 200 sectional panels, each of which are 4-feet by 8-feet and weigh approximately 175 pounds, took nearly three weeks to manufacture, and once set up, the honeycomb graphics took three more weeks to complete. Buzz City logos are painted at each end of the floor.

The Hornets unveiled the court to nearly 6,000 fans in late June. A video of the unveiling went viral. But before that, when the final honeycomb was stained and the arena was empty and quiet, Guelli walked up to the suite level nestled between the lower and upper levels and peered down. And smiled.

“I was just thrilled. I don’t think it could have come out any better,” Guelli said. “What we were really trying to accomplish is when people walk into the building for our home opener October 29, they need to realize that they’re walking into a completely different place. It’s not what the building was before. This is the new era of the Hornets and we knew the court was going to be the centerpiece of that, so it had to be something very special that people would identify with our brand. I think we accomplished that.”

It’s been a long time coming, but Buzz City is alive.

‘Melo says Knicks are a playoff team

Carmelo Anthony is putting in the work this summer to back up his words about the Knicks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Don’t count the New York Knicks out of the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference.

Not yet.

So says the face of the franchise, Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony is not only talking the talk, insisting that the Knicks will rebound from last season’s dismal 37-45 finish and return to the playoffs this season, he’s putting in the work to prepare himself physically and mentally for the rigors to come during the first full season of the Phil Jackson-Derek Fisher regime.

Fred Kerber of the New York Post caught up with ‘Melo and delivers the goods:

But the playoffs are another matter. In fact, Anthony on Monday asserted his belief the Knicks “absolutely” will be back in the playoffs after missing out last season.

“Yeah, I think so for sure. Absolutely,” an impressively slimmed-down Anthony said of the Knicks’ playoff chances before entering a Midtown gym for a late morning-to-early afternoon workout with a group of NBA players.

Anthony snuffed an attempt to establish any goals for the revamped Knicks, who will enter their first full season under team president Phil Jackson and new coach Derek Fisher.

“I can’t wait to get started,” said Anthony, who missed the playoffs for the first time in his career when the Knicks stumbled to a 37-45 record last season. “No goals. Not setting any goals, but I just can’t wait to get it back on.”

Whether this is just a star player exhibiting the expected confidence in himself and his situation or ‘Melo channeling the power of positive thinking is irrelevant. Knicks fans should love what they are seeing and hearing from ‘Melo. He’s either all in with the new program in New York or a better actor than anyone on Broadway.

There are plenty of factors in the Eastern Conference conspiring against ‘Melo and the Knicks.

LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, who are expected to add Kevin Love to their mix in the coming days, have forced a complete reshuffling of the playoff deck. If what we’ve seen from Derrick Rose this summer is any indication, the Chicago Bulls (with Pau Gasol now on board) will also force changes at the top.

The Indiana Pacers are expected to tumble a bit with the losses of both Paul George (injury) and Lance Stephenson (free agency). But the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Stephenson’s Charlotte Hornets are poised to move up in the standings. The East’s defending champs, the Miami Heat, have Chris Bosh, Luol Deng and Dwyane Wade ready to hold the line sans LeBron and remain in the projected playoff mix.

That leaves a narrow opening for the handful of teams (led by the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Knicks) vying for those final precious playoff spots. I don’t know that Anthony’s confidence is warranted, especially given the 2013-14 season he and the Knicks endured.

But the bravado is good to see and should be welcomed by folks who like to see the best players embrace the super-sized expectations that come with playing in New York. Whatever the Knicks do this season rests on Anthony’s re-sculpted shoulders. If his personal transformation is any indication, and if his confidence has infected the locker room, the Knicks could very well find their way into the playoffs.

It won’t be easy, of course. And it’ll take some luck of some sort along the way.

It’s the offseason, everybody … well, almost everybody believes deep down that this is going to be their year. Even if they are completely delusional, they believe in August.

‘Melo is no different. And he’s got a 54-win season from two years ago as a reminder of what the Knicks can do when they are clicking. Some of the faces have changed and the system will be different from what the Knicks operated when coach Mike Woodson was calling the shots.

But if ‘Melo says the Knicks are “absolutely” headed back to the top eight mix in the Eastern Conference, I see no reason to dismiss the notion now.

It’s like Kevin Garnett once famously said: “anything is possible!”


VIDEO: Knicks.com highlights the top matchups for the 2014-15 season

After pocketing a free-agent payday, these players must prove their worth

Will Chandler Parsons run with a new, All-Star, crowd this season?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You are what your salary says you are in the NBA.

There’s no way around it. All the stats, traditional and advanced, in the world won’t change that fact. An All-Star playing on a rookie contract is a bargain. That same player with a max contract, or something in that neighborhood, suddenly become overpaid and a burden on his team.

The expectations change when the compensation increases, even if the player’s game doesn’t change. With most of the dust settled from this summer’s free-agent frenzy, we can see a clear picture where the marquee players are concerned.

Guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were going to get max dollars wherever they decided to play. That was a given, just like the pressure that comes along with being at the top of the superstar food chain in the league.

It’s the other guys, those guys who are making the transition from bargains to paid handsomely for their services, who will be in the crosshairs as the 2014-15 season draws near.

Five free-agent pick ups who have to live up to the hype this season, now that they compensation and expectations have reached franchise-player levels:

Luol Deng, Miami Heat


VIDEO: Luol Deng talks with Heat.com about his goals in Miami

Chris Bosh got the No. 1 option money (five years, $118 million) from the Heat this summer, but it’s Deng who has the biggest shoes to fill. He’s the replacement in the starting line up for LeBron, an unenviable task if ever there was one. The Heat got Deng for a relative bargain (two years, $20 million), given the money that was flying around in free agency this summer. Deng, however, will not get a pass from anyone. Heat boss Pat Riley needs a player who can become an instant impact player and Heat fans, fair or not, are going to compare Deng’s immediate contributions to what James delivered the past four seasons. Deng has shown throughout his career that he’s more than capable of being a solid contributor, All-Star caliber even, on an elite team. So while Deng’s compensation hasn’t changed dramatically, the expectations have soared.

Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards


VIDEO: Marcin Gortat put on a show in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals

Gortat was the first big-money free agent to agree to terms this summer, signing on for five years and $60 million to anchor the middle for an up-and-coming Wizards team. He’s facing the crucible of increased individual expectations as he’s on a team that enters 2014-15 with an entirely new set of expectations. The Wizards have all the pieces in place for a continued ascent in the Eastern Conference standings. They’ll need Gortat to play his part, though. He and Nene looked like a dynamic 1-2 big man punch in the 2014 playoffs. They’ll have to do it nightly with the Wizards’ dynamic backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal drawing tons of attention from opposing teams from now on. There can be no off nights for Gortat now that he’s being paid like the elite big man he appears to be. (more…)

T’Wolves need a king’s ransom for Love


VIDEO: Relive the Timberwolves’ top 5 alley-oops from 2013-14

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – At this point in the process, if Kevin Love doesn’t end up trotting out for the starting lineup with LeBron James on opening night this season, it’ll be a true shocker.

We’ve crossed that threshold in this summer’s ongoing Love-to-Cleveland saga. The news that the Minnesota Timberwolves are dealing exclusively with the Cleveland Cavaliers shouldn’t come as a surprise.

We’re all agreed that the potential addition of Love pushes the Cavs over the top in the Eastern Conference, at least on paper, when you have a three-man All-Star core of James, Love and point guard Kyrie Irving.

But what does Love’s departure mean for the Timberwolves? Losing Love doesn’t put them in any more of a precarious position than they are in right now. They didn’t make the playoffs with him and won’t be considered a playoff factor without him in the rugged Western Conference. Not with Ricky Rubio leading a young cast that better include Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, along with their own youngsters (including HT faves Gorgui DiengZach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III) in yet another rebuilding effort.

It took a while, but I’m on board with this deal getting done, and sooner rather than later. LeBron gets what LeBron wants. And if he wants Love on his side, it shall be. (My golden rule on players remains, though. So Love comes with a clarification sticker: If you cannot take your team to the playoffs as the No. 1 option, you’re either a No. 2 or a No. 3 option.)

All that said, Timberwolves boss Flip Saunders would be wise to hold out for a king’s ransom for Love, given what the franchise has gone through since the last time they traded away the face of the franchise. Oh yeah, today is the anniversary of the 2007 trade that saw Kevin Garnett relocate to Boston where he joined Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to win a championship and help revive the Celtics.

It’s been that long, and more, since the Timberwolves were involved in the playoff discussion in the Western Conference (they haven’t made the postseason since 2004). They traded Garnett to the Celtics for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff and two first-round draft picks (one of which was acquired in a trade with Minnesota a year prior). The deal marked the largest NBA trade ever for one player, and in hindsight it still wasn’t enough.

Jefferson, an All-Star caliber big man and franchise building block now in Charlotte, wasn’t ready to step into Garnett’s shoes back then. For all of his spectacular skills, Love hasn’t been up to that task either. Timberwolves fans have had to suffer through numerous restarts and regime changes since Garnett’s departure and none of them have worked.

Anyone who tells you they are convinced Wiggins, Bennett and that future first-round pick Saunders will get from the Cavs for Love will spark the revival the Twin Cities have been waiting on is delusional. It won’t happen anytime soon, and certainly not in time to take the sting off of seeing Love compete for a championship as soon as his first season away from Minnesota.

And if Love is the transcendent talent so many believe him to be, his presence alongside LeBron and Kyrie should result in the Cavs being the cream of the Eastern Conference crop immediately (above or at least alongside Indiana and Chicago).

The Timberwolves, on the other hand, will have to endure yet another round (or two … or three) of blueprints for what has turned out to be a seemingly never-ending franchise rebuild.

This isn’t news to Saunders, whose roots in the organization (and Minnesota overall) run deep. He knows better than anyone the pressure the Wolves will be under until Love is dealt … and then again after Love is gone. One dreadful, non-playoff season blends into another and before you know it, a decade (or more) has passed without the postseason.

And that’s why Saunders should squeeze every ounce of whatever he can from the Cavs in this deal. Make them pay for the right to add Love. A king’s ransom isn’t too much to ask for now.


VIDEO: Check out the Timberwolves’ top 10 plays from last season

Morning shootaround — July 22


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played July 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Carter says LeBron made own decision | Jefferson excited about Hornets’ roster | Report: Turner, Celtics reach deal | Report: Van Gundy reassures Smith of Detroit future

No. 1: Carter: LeBron wasn’t pushed to pick Cavs – When LeBron James‘ letter was posted on SI.com detailing why he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent, some skeptics emerged about why he made that choice. Was it made to make his various handlers and such happy? Was it done to make Clevelander’s happy and restore his legacy and standing in his home state? James’ longtime business partner, Maverick Carter, spoke on an ESPN.com podcast and explained that James’ decision was exactly that — his decision:

Maverick Carter, LeBron James’ business partner, says he didn’t push James to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor did anyone else in the NBA superstar’s inner circle.

“This was a decision that LeBron made in his heart,” Carter told ESPN.com’s Jason Whitlock on the Real Talk podcast. “We didn’t push him to do it. We don’t push him to do anything. If he asks our opinion or what did we think about the pros and the cons, we help him think through it. We don’t push him.”

James decided to return to the Cavaliers on July 11 after spending four years with the Miami Heat. He opted out of his contract with Miami and signed a two-year deal to return to Cleveland, where he spent his first seven seasons in the NBA.

“Listen,” Carter said, “LeBron’s a 29-year-old man with lots of money, got a wife, two kids, one on the way. He makes his own decisions. He doesn’t need anyone pushing him any way, and a guy like that, you’re not going to push him either way. We’ll help him think through things and help him see through things, but he makes his own decision in his heart. Because, ultimately, he has to live with it. I’m not the one who has to show up and play games for any team.”

He also said that James and Dwyane Wade will be “friends for life” and that James told Wade before the Sports Illustrated article was released of his decision. Carter did not know exactly when James told Wade.

“Their friendship goes beyond basketball,” Carter said. “It’s bigger than basketball.”

He also said that he, as well as James, has nothing but good things to say about the Heat or their management.

“The Heat run a first-class organization,” Carter said. “They have one of the best organizations in all of sports. Just being around that organization, I think LeBron learned a ton about what it takes to be a championship organization and how it works.”

Hayward must grow with new salary

Utah Jazz v Golden State Warriors

While much will be given to Gordon Hayward, much will be required, too. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Now that Gordon Hayward has the max offer sheet — four years, $63 million — courtesy of the buzzing Charlotte Hornets, there’s no reason to debate whether he’s worth such big bucks that will top $14 million in Year One.

The 6-foot-8 small forward/shooting guard will be one of just seven players at the wing positions under contract (at the moment) for next season to make at least $14 million: Kobe Bryant, James HardenJoe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon and Kevin Durant.

But it hardly matters if Hayward is worthy of such a deal or not. It’s what he’s getting. A lot of teams have a lot of cap space to fill and the Hornets, who nabbed free agent Al Jefferson from the Jazz last summer and are eager to add more scorers after finishing 24th in offensive rating (101.2 points per 100 possessions) last season, didn’t see a better option so Michael Jordan green-lighted his front office to go all-in for Utah’s restricted free agent.

Hayward can’t sign the offer sheet until Thursday and then Utah will have 72 hours to match. The club has consistently sent signals that it plans to do just that. Hayward would then return as the face of the Jazz, a club that won 25 games last year and one he apparently would prefer to leave behind for the further-along Hornets, a surprise playoff team last season in the inferior Eastern Conference. (Hayward reportedly was in discussions with other teams including Phoenix, but chose Charlotte.)

If Hayward indeed returns to Utah (and our David Aldridge details why the Jazz are well-positioned to match), any personal disappointment must be kept private and dismissed quickly. A contract of this size must be owned.

Hayward, 24 and entering his fifth season in the league, will have to be motivated to lead a quick team buy-in with new coach Quin Snyder, and establish himself as the voice inside the locker room. Hayward is admittedly the quiet type, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that — it took Dirk Nowitzki time to turn up his volume — but on such a young team that includes second-year point guard Trey Burke and incoming rookie Dante Exum, Hayward is the player to which all eyes will turn.

An encouraging attitude and positive body language on the court will be essential, too. The youthful Jazz are going to struggle this season, there’s no way around it. For $63 million, Hayward will be expected to keep the team moving forward through tough times. He can’t hang his head or appear disengaged when things go wrong, as he did at times last season. He’s got the baby-face look, and there’s not much he can do about that, but he’ll be playing on a man’s contract, and expected to perform as such.

As for his production, hopefully Hayward will be spending the majority of the summer in a gym shooting thousands of jumpers. Each season his scoring average has increased and, in fact, he put up career-best numbers last season in scoring (16.2 ppg), assists (5.1) and rebounding (5.2).

However, his overall shooting percentage (41.3) hit an all-time low and his encouraging 3-point shooting from 2012-13 (41.5) dropped to a career-worst 30.4 percent last season as his attempts increased to a career-high 280.

Alongside Burke and Exum, especially as the rookie gains his footing as the season progresses, and Derrick Favors down low, the 3-point shot should be on high on Hayward’s menu on most nights. Utah last season finished 25th in the league in 3-point percentage (34.4) and 23rd in 3-point attempts per game (6.6). Hayward is capable of giving both categories a significant boost.

With the big pay day, come bigger responsibilities. Hayward must be prepared.