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Blogcat's Take, 3/7

Despite the Hornets’ 3-game winning streak and rise to 7th place in the Eastern Conference playoff standings, I’m not quite ready to let my emotional guard down just yet. For one reason, all three wins came against teams—the Lakers, Nets, and Raptors—whose mediocrity is best described as “relentless.” For another—or maybe it’s just a sub-reason of the first—none of these three teams can shoot 3-pointers. The best of the three sucketeers is Toronto, who ranks just 15th in the league in 3PT%. If you’re a basketball team (and let’s assume you are), and you can’t shoot 3’s, the Hornets have a chance against you, no matter how proficient you may be in other areas of your assumed embodiment of a basketball team in this thought experiment.

The biggest reason that I’m poking at this playoff race monster to confirm his death, rather than going on my merry way, is that despite the poor competition, the Hornets only felt really impressive against the Nets—and even then not so much. For starters, they beat the Lakers by 1 goddamned point at home. Even conceding that a Jeremy Lin 3-pointer at the buzzer made it look closer than it was, Charlotte had to work waaaaay too hard for that win. And the Hornets’ victory over Toronto last night had much less to do with stellar play on our side than with an epic Toronto cold streak to close out the game. If you do a deep-dive on NBA.com’s stats (which is what you do if you’re a sadomasochistic real-life Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, except dedicated to a semi-obscure professional basketball team), you’ll see that in the fourth quarter alone, Toronto missed 4 shots in the restricted area, another in the paint, all 5 of their mid-range attempts, and 2 wide-open corner-3s. That used to be Gary Neal’s line for an entire game. For both the Nets and the Raps games, the Hornets benefitted from some of the most inaccurate shooting I’ve seen since the Hornets themselves. Toronto made just 13 of their 29 uncontested shots, while the Nets did them 5 worse, making just 8 of 32, including an amazing 1-of-7 from Jarrett Jack. There’s a big difference between assassinating your enemy yourself rather than witnessing him dying through an unwitting bystander, a dramatic tension beautifully rendered onscreen in the 1988 classic, The Naked Gun. In this case, the opponents were Queen Elizabeth, the Hornets were Ricardo Montalban, and the rims were Reggie Jackson. And that analogy just crashed into a missile launcher and then into a fireworks factory—nothing to see here.

Anyway, my main question for today is, how disastrous was the Noah Vonleh pick? Vonleh, you may recall—or more likely you don’t recall, considering how little he has played so far—was the Hornets’ 9th overall pick in this year’s draft. He’s played a total of 96 minutes, or roughly the length of the movie Men at Work, which is appropriate because most of Vonleh’s minutes are garbage time. Because his entire career has been a tiny sample size, it’s pointless to even try to evaluate his stats. But that in itself is the main problem, because unless you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, you normally expect more from a lottery pick. At the very least you expect him to play. Vonleh hasn’t even played enough to suck. So in that sense the answer to my question is “very.”
However, there are more caveats to that answer than a Chuck Klosterman footnote. First of all, I have to give the Hornets spin-doctors mega-props for whitewashing history in order to hold down expectations; conversely, I have to give the Charlotte Observer anti-props for swallowing the team’s propaganda so unquestioningly that it might as well have been covered with a creamy topping. Here’s a quote from Hornets GM Rich Cho back in June, shortly after the Hornets drafted Vonleh: “(Vonleh has) a unique game because he’s a big man that can play inside and out, he can post up, he can shoot from outside, he’s got a perimeter game, he can hit the occasional 3 … He’s also a very, very good ball-handler for his size.” Wow, that sounds fantastic! That sounds like a guy who’s at least going to challenge living legend Marvin Williams for backup time at the power forward spot. Fast-forward several months later, though, after Vonleh has barely entered a game unless there’s 2 minutes left and we down 20, homey, and you get quotes like this from Rick Bonnell in the Observer: “The Hornets drafted Vonleh ninth overall in June. The team made it clear back then that selecting him was more about long-term value than any expectation he’d have a significant role as a rookie.” Huh? Where was that made clear at the time? Look at the articles at the time and all you see are excited, sweaty yelps of joy from executives that Vonleh fell to us as the 9th pick when he was projected to go much higher. In fact, the Hornets were so joyful that they took him without even working him out. Hmmm.

Anyway, here are the unbrainwashed reasons for why it’s not catastrophic that Vonleh is often barely visible even from the bench. First, he had hernia surgery, which cost him about two months and all of training camp, which is the NBA rookie equivalent of feeding your newborn Mountain Dew Code Red—it definitely stunted his growth. Second, this draft was weaker than near-beer, especially where the Hornets picked. The guy Charlotte probably would’ve taken had they not picked Vonleh, Doug McDermott, has accomplished barely more with the Bulls than Vonleh has with the Hornets. Per BasketbBall-Reference.com, Mickey-D is putting up a PER of 5.5 and a -0.1 win-share in 250 total minutes, which is basically what you’re awarded if you manage to get on the court without slipping on toilet paper that’s stuck to your shoe. And if you look at the next 10 or so picks after Vonleh, other than Jusuf Nurkic, who went 16th to Denver (ironically/tragically from a pick that was originally Charlotte’s), these guys have collectively accomplished less than Brad Pitt’s character in True Romance. When graded on this curve, Vonleh really hasn’t been a disaster; he’s just another quiet, anonymous failure. Doesn’t that feel better?

But the main reason Vonleh hasn’t been a disaster is because of sophomore Cody Zeller, who in the context of the Hornets’ dismal draft history, has been a relatively huge success story. His PER is only a 14.2, but it’s an encouraging step up from last year’s 13.1. And as I happily mentioned a few weeks ago, his defensive RPM is 11th-best in the entire league. The Hornets are a satisfying +1.5 points-per-100 possessions with Zeller on the court, which ties for fourth-best on the team (and, let’s face it, is positive, full-stop). The Zeller Propeller has played in all but one game at a robust 24.4 minutes per, and while he’s occasionally gotten into foul trouble, his personal foul rate has dropped from 6.2% of possessions to 5.3%. And I have to say that from aesthetic standpoint, he’s pretty damned fun to watch, even though it’s often just as frustrating. If there were a statistical category called Highly-Athletic Failures (HAFs), which accounted for plays such as getting an extremely difficult rebound but then falling out of bounds with the ball, Zeller would be among the league leaders. Nevertheless, Co-Zel’s overall play has diminished the need for another big, even a supposedly “very good ball-handler” who can “play inside and out.”

So to sum up: Noah Vonleh is an objective disaster but not a subjective one, although not because this was all to be expected, if you follow me. In other words, he might be a burning fireworks factory, but at the same time, there’s nothing to see here.

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