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Blogcat's Take, 6/20


Lance Stephenson is perhaps most famous to casual NBA fans for blowing in LeBron James’s ear, but for Hornets fans, he’ll be most remembered for simply blowing. Still, it brought me no joy to hear that he’d been traded to the LA Clippers this week. In fact, I feel more like Cameron Crowe probably feels about Aloha: there were early warning signs that it might not go well even if it looked okay on paper, then everything went disastrously worse than I ever could have imagined, and although I’m relieved to quietly end it, there’s still a part of me that thinks it would have worked had just a few things gone differently. I’m also bummed out because at least 75% of my hopes for Lance’s success were related to the fact that too many beat reporters are allergic to analytics and thus base their opinions on extraneous bullshit like “body language,” locker room gossip, and how cooperative a player is for their useless interviews. By those metrics, Stephenson had no media pulling for him whatsoever, so to see them all eat it would have been tremendously satisfying. Instead, they’re going to have the last laugh, even though Stephenson never had a single juicy off-court incident with the Hornets, no matter hard the media tried to conjure one. That’s the really weird part of the entire Stephenson administration: it was a complete on-court failure with zero off-court spillover, which was the one scenario that nobody predicted.

Anyway, that’s enough about Stephenson, because he’s an easy shoo-in for First Team, All-Depressing, joining Primoz Brezec, Tyrus Thomas, Adam Morrison, and Sean May. Let’s instead look ahead to what we’re receiving for Stephenson: Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. Then let’s look slightly further ahead to just Spencer Hawes by himself, because reports are everywhere that the Hornets will be waiving Barnes faster than a white flag. Perhaps the best news about the Hornets taking Spencer for hire is that he’s only owed $5.6M next season, as opposed to the $9M we would’ve owed Lance. Subtracting out the $1M we’ll burn in sacrifice, Shireen Baratheon-style, to Matt Barnes, and that’s an extra $2.4M we’ll have to sweeten our mid-level exception. Sold! Great move!

Oh, I guess we should also discuss Hawes’ abilities as a basketball player. A recent article in the Charlotte Observer, titled “Hornets’ Clifford Intrigued by Spencer Hawes’ Shooting and Passing,” is interesting for two reasons. First, note the choice of words in the headline: not “mesmerized,” “awestruck,” “captivated,” “rendered speechless with anticipation,” or “weirdly aroused.” Not even “exhilarated,” “excited,” “enthused,” “thrilled,” “delighted,” or even “moderately pleased.” Nope, Hornets coach Steve Clifford is merely “intrigued” by Hawes, as though Hawes had suggested to Clifford to try putting a dab of applesauce on his slice of pizza. Second, in the actual article, the only thing Clifford explicitly says about Hawes is that he “will improve our range shooting and he’s also a very good passer.” So even a term as blasé as “intrigued” might be exaggerating Clifford’s emotional level, which in turn means that if I were to write a headline about my own feelings over Hawes, I would use words like “uneasy,” “concerned,” or perhaps “filled with a familiar sense of dread.”
Let’s face it: if it weren’t for Lance Stephenson, we’d probably be talking about Spencer Hawes as the worst free-agent acquisition in the NBA last year. Hawes went dry before the ink did on his new 4-year, $22M contract. He put up career worsts in PER (9. 8), TS% (.478), and Total Rebounding Percentage (11.4%). Note these are rate-based statistics (and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com), so they don’t even have anything to do with the fact that he played only 17.5 MPG after the Clippers shoved him to the end of the bench like an incontinent Forrest Gump. More disturbingly, the Clips were a net -2.8 points per 100 possessions with Hawes on the court, and they were a net +11.4 points per 100 possessions when he sat, per NBA.com. This is despite the fact that about 37% of Hawes’ minutes were played with Chris Paul or DeAndre Jordan, and 25% were played with both (via 82minutes.com). Paul’s an elite point guard who can win with almost anyone, and Jordan is an elite stay-at-home big man who allows Hawes to play his ideal “stretch-5” role. If they couldn’t drag Hawes to a net-positive, how will the Hornets do so with Kemba Walker, a league-minimum backup point guard, Bismack Biyombo, and Al Jefferson’s one functioning kneecap? It’s like throwing Kourtney Kardashian’s son into a South Bronx public school and expecting him to improve his grades.

The most encouraging news is that Hawes isn’t quite the bloodbath on defense that I expected (which is to say, I was expecting The Shining-levels and I only got Carrie-levels). ESPN.com actually gave him a +0.92 defensive RPM and 82games.com had him holding opposing 4’s to a 14.2 PER, both values that are slightly better than average. The catch here is that we’re talking about when the 7-0” Hawes plays power forward rather than center; put him against a center and he gives up a 19.2 PER. Still, this is tolerable with Big Al and Big Biz holding down the 5.

So it was really on offense that Hawes fell apart last year. And his apart-falling appears to be mainly due to his three-point attempts, which sky-rocketed to a career-high 42.4% of all his shots in 2014-15. This was up from 35% the year before, which was up from just 10.7% during his previous three seasons in Philadelphia. Hawes was clearly not ready for that level of responsibility, because his 3PT% subsequently cratered from 44.8% to 31.3%. This puts the Hornets in an awkward position, given that the team is craving a credible long-distance threat like Republicans crave a credible minority candidate. While it’s good to try to address weaknesses, if the Hornets push Hawes too hard to deliver 3-pointers next season, I might start labeling his 0-for-5 nights “Carly Fiorinas,” and his 0-for-6 nights “Ben Carsons.”

In conclusion, Hawes is actually manageable on defense, has a chance of bouncing back offensively, and costs less per year than Stephenson, all of which makes me feel good. And even if Hawes merely duplicates his career-worst .478 TS% and 9.8 PER from last year… that will still be WAY better than Lance’s .419 and 8.8. That makes me feel simultaneously good and terrible. The team just needs to think of him like a sweet housebroken cat: he can help you get over a painful breakup, but that doesn’t mean you should go out and adopt another 20 of them. Therefore, maybe coach Clifford’s intrigue is the perfect emotional response to Hawes—it’s not inspiring, but anything more would make me nervous.

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