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Blogcat's Take, 4/2

This week provided incredible relief for Hornets fans; I felt like I was freebasing Prilosec. Charlotte Bachman Turner Overdrove the Bucks and Sixers twice, taking care of business against teams they should be beating. One side note: I only had the Milwaukee market broadcast of the Hornets-Bucks game, and man, is it weird and sad listening to poor Gus Johnson call a meaningless late-season NBA game in the middle of Wisconsin; it’s like if terrorists kidnapped Jim Ross and forced him to announce a curling match.

Anyway, Friday’s win over Philadelphia in particular was a relief. First, the Hornets triumphed despite an uncharacteristically bad 3-point shooting night (7-for-27). Second, they nearly squandered another game they were controlling (which was totally characteristic) but did survive a late Sixers surge. Third and most important, we saw a return to dominance from Kemba Walker, who led all scorers with 27 points, was the only guy hitting from deep (4-of-9), put nipple clamps down on Ish Smith (4 points, 4 assists, 4 turnovers, -17 plus/minus in 32 minutes), had a season-high 11 rebounds, and detonated a trey like a bomb from Hector Salamanca, killing all drama in the 4th quarter by pushing Charlotte’s 4-point lead to 7 (shortly thereafter he had an offensive rebound and then another 3-pointer, which was your Gus Fring face off moment). Kemba is the one who knocks on this team, and after a string of pretty nondescript performances, I was glad to hear him at the door again.

Prior to last night, Walker arguably hadn’t killed it since the win over Miami on March 17th, a stretch of 6 games. He did have 29 points against Detroit, but arguing that he had a good game that night would be like Warner Brothers arguing that Batman v. Superman’s box office numbers make it a good movie. Walker finished the night -17, was repeatedly run over by irritant par excellence Reggie Jackson, and sat on the bench for the entire 4th quarter—the only time during which the Hornets outplayed the Pistons. In some ways, his performance in the colossal win over the Spurs was even more disturbing, as it was one of the few times I can ever remember thinking that the Hornets won in spite of Kemba. His 6 points on 2-of-11 shooting, 2 assist/3 turnover/-13 performance is an eyesore on an otherwise beautiful portrait of a team box score. Even worse are my memories of him hopelessly chasing Tony Parker around like an out-of-shape husband whose wife had just been seduced by the Frenchman. Kemba’s dropoff hasn’t just been anecdotal, either. Other than turnover rate, the stats show a clear diminution in Walker’s contributions from the first 68 games compared to that 6-game dry-spell (per NBA.com):

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I would sooner question the dedication of Bernie Sanders than I would of Kemba Walker; I’m a million-percent positive there’s no attitude problem. That leaves fatigue as the most likely cause of Kemba’s (small) downward trend (besides small sample size, of course, but that would be boring!), and there’s plenty of evidence to back up that assertion. Kemba has played the 8th most minutes in the entire league so far this year, 2,656, so there’s that. He’s also already logged more minutes than he did in either of the last two seasons, because he’s stayed much healthier this year. Of the 8 players on that list, Kemba’s 26.5% usage rate is below only James Harden (32.5%), DeMar DeRozan (29.7%), and John Wall (28.5%), so you could argue that Walker’s minutes have had a higher “Responsibility Factor” (or something) than most of the the others on that list.

Besides minutes, there’s also distance to consider. Thanks to NBA.com’s player tracking data, we can see that Kemba’s covered 183.9 total miles this year, or 1.839 NWA’s—which, if the NBA had any sense, would be the standard unit of measurement for this stat. Kemba’s total mileage is the fourth-most in the league. And his average speed of 4.14 MPH is higher than everyone on that top-8 minutes list except for Gordon Hayward (4.20). Looked at slightly differently, Kemba’s played at a pace of 97.91 possessions per 48 minutes, which is higher than all but Wall (100.61) and Harden (99.69). There’s also a little thing called effort, and Kemba’s 0.09 defensive RPM outperforms Wall’s -0.21 and—I probably didn’t need to tell you this—Harden’s -0.90. In fact, Kemba defensive RPM ranks 4th overall among that total minutes played Elite 8, behind Kyle Lowry (1.65), Marcus Morris (0.38), and Khris Middleton (0.27), suggesting that Walker is not only racking up the mileage and possessions, but he’s also going all-out on both ends of the floor like few of the others.

To sum up: Kemba’s arguably played the longest and hardest of anyone in the league this year, and the concern that he might wear out is legitimate. Let’s say Kemba keeps up his rough minutes, distance, and speed trajectory over the final 7 games and finishes at 2,900 total minutes, 200 miles, and 4.1 MPH. The total minutes/distance/speed data only goes back to 2013-14, but guess how many dudes have met or exceeded all three of those barriers? Hint: Eminem’s favorite sign language gesture. That’s right, 1 guy has done this, and it was Dame Lillard last year for Portland. Lillard played every game last season, averaged 35.7 minutes per, and contributed a 20.7 PER (PER stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com). His MPG then bumped up to 40.2 in the playoffs (as is customary), his PER plummeted to 15.0, and the Blazers were bounced in 5 games by Memphis. Obviously, the Grizzlies are tougher than your average regular season team, particularly on defense, and we’re looking at a sample size of 1 guy, but it’s as strong an indicator as any that Coach Clifford must do everything possible to manage mighty Kemba’s minutes so that the Hornets don’t run their playoff record to 0-12.

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    Um......so the Thibs/Cliff connection is real......and now it's a tight race for playoffs position and HCA, tough to rest him.  Good that Lin and Lee have picked up their play recently.  Let's hope they can spell Kemba some and that there's more blowout wins coming.

    Yes, to paraphrase Eddie Murphy's now totally-not-cool-and-homophobic-even-if-I-have-to-admit-I-still-chuckle-at-it-anyway bit in Beverly Hills Cop, Kemba might need to get himself checked before things start falling off on the man. 

    Not to dismiss that nipple clamps might have been part of the reason but Ish really has played badly here since entering the league. I'd like to hope it's because it's still novel playing in front of home crowd because he's a guy is like in our team, but this has been his MO.

    Great, that's all we need: another Sixers bandwagoner Ish Smith apologist. And how long have you loved the Sixers? Yeah, I'm sure you've loved them all your life. Right. Sure you have.

    I know, I know, so damned many of us on that bandwagon. The shame, the shame.