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Charlotte Hornets have to up offensive weapons to widen margin for error next season

By Rick Bonnell
rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com
182407693JD00058_Charlotte_
Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images
CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 18: Cody Zeller #40 of the Charlotte Bobcats rebounds over teammates Michael Kidd Gilchrist #14 and Jeff Adrien #4 and Nazr Mohammed #48 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on November 18, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Bobcats 86-81. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Cody Zeller; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; Jeff Adrien; Nazr Mohammed

Last season, Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford frequently said it was imperative his team play a “clean” game, as in minimizing mistakes, because they didn’t have the talent to survive sloppy execution.

The end-of-season statistics bear out Clifford’s point: Despite not out-shooting or outscoring their composite opponent, the Bobcats went 43-39 and reached the playoffs. They won the most overtime games in the league (six) and played the second-most overtime games (nine).

So, yes, they overcame a thin margin for error.

With that in mind, the Observer reviewed where the Bobcats ranked among the 30 NBA teams in every statistical category. The contrast between strong and weak was dramatic.

They were best in the NBA at minimizing turnovers (12.3 per game) and fouls (18.2 per game). They were also best in defensive rebounding, grabbing nearly 78 percent of opponents’ missed shots, and had the league’s second-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.76-to-1.

That was the good news. Now the bad: They finished in the bottom third of the NBA in every significant offensive category. They were also 29th in steals, 24th in 3-point defense and 26th in offensive-rebound percentage (.219).

Some of those apparent flaws were functions of Clifford’s coaching priorities. Others were simply flaws, things that might need addressing in the June 26 draft, where the Hornets hold the ninth, 24th and 45th picks, or via free-agency, with the Hornets having at least $13 million in space under the salary cap.

A look at where the Hornets lacked

The gap in offensive firepower: Even with center Al Jefferson’s low-post scoring (he finished 11th in the league at 21.8 points per game), this team struggled by every offensive measure. They were no better than 23rd in points, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and 3-point percentage.

The Bobcats’ only primary scoring option beyond Jefferson was point guard Kemba Walker, and he shot just under 40 percent from the field. Neither of two starters – shooting guard Gerald Henderson and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – had the shooting range to stretch defenses and make things easier for Jefferson in the lane.

The Bobcats had one 3-point shooter in the league rankings, with Anthony Tolliver 13th at 43.3 percent. However, Tolliver’s difficulty guarding small, quick forwards meant he played only 20 minutes a game.

The Bobcats tried to address this situation at the trade deadline by acquiring Gary Neal from the Milwaukee Bucks. Neal helped, averaging 11.2 points and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, and he’s under contract for next season. However the Hornets need more.

It seems almost inevitable the Hornets will use one, if not both, their first-round picks to upgrade their wing shooting. Three viable candidates for the ninth pick – Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Michigan State’s Gary Harris and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas – all shot 40 percent or better from the college 3-point line last season.

Former North Carolina player P.J. Hairston could be available with the 24th pick. He averaged 21.8 points in the NBA’s Development League last season, shooting 36 percent from the NBA 3-point line.

Steals: The Bobcats averaged 6.09 steals per game. Only the Portland Trail Blazers averaged fewer steals at 5.54.

That is in part a function of the way Clifford coaches. His defensive priority is defending the lane. So he’s not entirely comfortable with the risk/reward balance of players constantly going after steals. When a player gambles and misses on a steal, it jeopardizes the other defenders closer to the basket, leading to fouls.

Offensive boards: The Bobcats had the fourth-lowest offensive-rebound percentage in the NBA last season at 21.9 percent. Again, that’s more about Clifford’s priorities than some flaw in Charlotte’s big men.

Clifford’s non-negotiable with his players is getting back in transition defense. Kidd-Gilchrist is the only player who is encouraged to chase after his own team’s misses. Others are told to concede second-chance opportunities to make sure the opposing team doesn’t end up with a fast-break layup or dunk.

Three-point defense: Charlotte’s opponents collectively made 36.9 percent of their 3-pointers last season. Only six teams allowed a higher 3-point percentage.

This was partially a function of Clifford’s protect-the-lane-first priority, but this area needs improvement. It’s a matter of the perimeter players learning a better balance between helping in the lane and getting back out on shooters when the ball rotates to the 3-point line, particularly along the baseline, where the corner 3 is a shorter shot.

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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