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Blogcat’s Season Preview, Part 3: The Guards

This is it: the third and final chapter of my 2013-14 preview trilogy. And I vow that this one won’t be remembered as the Return of the Jedi or even as the Jaws 3-D of the group. That’s because, if nothing else—and I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything else—this preview will cover the best part of the team: the guards.

Now, please bear in mind, that word “best” that I just typed is highly relative. This is a team that finished with the league’s 28th-rated offense and the 29th-rated defense last year, in terms of efficiency. So I’m using the word “best” the way General Custer used it when he thought, “I’ve lost all my men and I’m completely surrounded, therefore it would be best if these oncoming godless savages just shoot me repeatedly rather than slice off my scalp while simultaneously hacking me to pieces with tomahawks.” But from a positional standpoint, the PGs finished 2013 with a net-positive PER (19.1 to 16.4). Meanwhile, okay, yes, the SGs finished with a net-negative PER (14.4 to 16.4), but one that didn’t entirely outweigh that of the PGs! You see what I mean? Best!

So who made this basketball magic happen? Jennaro Pargo, that’s who. Remember how last time I described F Anthony Tolliver as a journeyman? Well, Tolliver would describe Pargo as a journeyman. Now in his 11th season, Pargo’s had more journeys than Natty Gann. He’s played for something like 7 teams. I say “something like” because it’s actually hard to even count the number of teams he’s been on; it depends on how you view multiple stints with the same team (e.g., Chicago from ‘03-‘06, and then again in ’09). Also, do you think he even remembers his 5-game career with Toronto? He, Stephen King, and Antonio Cromartie should have a contest to see who can be the first to name all of his own—respectively—NBA teams, book titles, and illegitimate children.

Anyway, Pargo’s with the Bobcats now—or, more accurately, as I write this—and here’s the deal: he joined up for the final 18 games last year as a fill-in for injured backup guard Ramon Sessions, and he did a pretty adequate job of shooting 3-pointers. In fact, his eFG% was third on the team, thanks to a 3PT% that trailed only Ben Gordon. Unfortunately, Pargo’s ability to get blown away on defense also trailed only Ben Gordon. Pargo surrendered a comical 24.6 PER to opposing guards thanks to a lot of gambling on steals (and also just a genuine lack of effort). With a pretty lousy handle (16.1% turnover rate, 4th-worst on the team) and just a partially guaranteed contract for this year, let’s all hope that Pargo doesn’t drop his suitcases when he’s eventually released or traded to his circa-8th team.

And as long as we’re on the subject, let’s finish off the lousy defenders. Who do you want to do first, Gordon or Sessions? Let’s save Sessions, because he actually has a couple of redeeming qualities—well, one redeeming quality, but that’s still one more than Gordon. Gordon, I should say first and foremost, seems like a good guy. For instance, he runs lots of charity basketball camps for underprivileged youths. Unfortunately, he’s at his most giving when opponents are dribbling in front of him. Though not quite the obscenity that Pargo is on an individual level (16.3 opponent PER), Gordon is plenty vulgar as a team defender. The Bobcats allowed 7.8 points-per-100 possessions more with Gordon than without him last year. Charlotte was also at its absolute, bottom-of-the-toilet worst defensively when BG8 was strutting around on court and admiring all of the dribbling passers-by: 115 PP100P. All this might be acceptable or at least tolerable if Gordon’s 3-point prowess was keeping the Bobcats afloat on the offense, but he was the Somali pirate on the team’s barge of efficiency.  Gordon sported a PER of just 12.7 and a TS% that ranked only one slot ahead of the infamously crooked-shooting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Notoriously one-handed, Gordon hasn’t even been able to effectively use that one hand, as his turnover rate ranked an appalling 47th last year among shooting guards with at least 50 games played. Combine all of this with the fact that Gordon actually led the regulars in usage rate (27.8%), and you actually get an offense that modestly improved (0.5 PP100P) without him. He’s one of just 7 guys in the league with at least 50 games played to finish with negative win-shares last year, he had the second-worst 3-pt shooting of his career, and he’ll be making $13.2M this year. You ask for miracles, Theo, I give you...Ben...Gordon. (On second thought, is it really a good idea that Gordon is running summer camps? He’s quite possibly corrupting an entire generation of kids. Does Kwame Kilpatrick run mayor camps?)

Okay, it was definitely good to do Gordon and Pargo first. Because in a vacuum, featuring Ramon Sessions in a key role on one’s basketball team would look like a disturbingly bad decision; but compared to those two, he looks like Walt Frazier. Sessions is nearly as bad as Gordon and Pargo in nearly every defensive metric (opponent PER, team defensive stats, paltry steal percentage, etc.). In fact, I don’t even feel like detailing them, because it would just be overkill at this point, and the title of this article isn’t “Terrible Defensive Stat Porn.” So let’s get to Sessions’ strength, because it’s an objectively good one: he’s a highly effective scorer, almost entirely because he can get to the rim and get fouled. I hope you’re not eating Fruit Loops right now, but if so, get ready to spit them out: among players with 50 games, Sessions was 15th in the entire league last year at free throw rate (and guess who was 8th? Jeff Adrien! Double spit!), and he hit his freebies at an 83.9% clip. Sessions’ salvageable skills as a playmaker (5.0 AP36M) gave him a 17.7 PER, which trailed only Kemba Walker for team lead. So yes, defenses may shred Sessions like Nabisco does to wheat, but at least he sprinkles one side of his game with the frosted yumminess of effective offense.

This leaves us with our two cornerstones: Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker. Henderson broke my heart by shaving himself bald this summer, thereby crushing my dreams of him one day starring in a Sherman Hemsley biopic. But otherwise he’s done everything right. Henderson surprisingly split his time roughly evenly at the 2 and the 3 last year, and he was capable at both spots, posting an overall PER of 16.4 while holding opponents to about the league average. This continued his 4-year upward trend of overall production. Hendo rediscovered his ability to get to the free-throw line, he uncovered an ability to shoot 3-pointers, and he covered off whenever guys like Byron Mullens and Sessions started gunning harder than Trevor Phillps. The Bobcats re-signed him this offseason at a great price, 3 years for $18M, and as long as he keeps his knees and ankles untwisted, he has a chance to be a borderline All-Star. Wow, you know what’s hard? Trying to write jokes about functional basketball players with rational contracts. Good thing I like the Bobcats!

Finally, this brings us to the soul of the team: Kemba Walker. For us first-generation Bobcats fans, no one will ever replace Gerald Wallace, of whom I vow to someday create a You Tube montage of him driving to the hoop, blocking shots, getting concussions, breaking ribs, and collapsing lungs—all scored to Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” But Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist come the closest. Walker hasn’t missed a game yet in his 2-year career, and he started all 82 last year. His PER jumped from 14.9 his rookie season all the way up to a team-best 18.8 last year, and despite his small stature he kept opposing 1’s to a manageable 16.3 PER while also being a net-positive team defender. Among PGs with 50 games played, Walker was 5th-best in turnover rate, and really, if he could just adjust his 3-pt volume knob a little higher (32.2% last year), I think he’d be an All-Star. Am I crazy for thinking that? No, I’m crazy for urinating in empty Powerade bottles; on Kemba Walker I’m entirely sane. Think about it: who is really ahead of Kemba in the East? Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, and possibly Deron Williams, and that’s it. With Big Al now in the middle commanding double-teams, Walker has a chance to boost both his 3-pointers and his assists, and therefore to possibly be the first Charlotte All-Star since Saint Gerald.

So there we go, we ended on a high note. It’s not really a happy ending, though; it’s more like a 12 Years A Slave ending, because I don’t see this team getting more than 30 wins at the absolute most. In fact, the defense will most likely regress this year, even though there’s not really anything to regress to—it’s an untethered Sandra Bullock spinning frictionless off into the void. Maybe the offense with Jefferson and Zeller (and, more importantly, less Biyombo) will improve so dramatically that it offsets the defensive smoking crater left by the Gordon-Pargo-Sessions (and Jefferson and Zeller) asteroid. But of course, the question is, do we even want it to? The 2014 draft is loaded and we want need some high picks to kick off the Hornets era; being bad might be the only way to get good. On this front, we probably need not worry, because the Bobcats have never proven me wrong by exceeding my expectations. See you Wednesday!

(Reminder: Please don’t forget to check out my e-book at the following link)