Blogcat's Take, 4/9
The Cavaliers, Heat, Raptors, Hawks, Bucks, Bulls, and Wizards are all locks to make it, in my opinion, and I’m pretty confident the Celtics will make it, too. Even if one of those teams drops out, we’d have to step over the Pacers, Magic, and Pistons to grab that last spot. It was going to be a challenge even with MKG. To do it now, we’d need serious injuries and/or catastrophic collapses from a couple of teams, plus epic contract year overachievement from Jefferson and Batum, plus huge leaps from Hairston and Cody Zeller (who admittedly DID take a huge leap in his rookie-to-sophomore year), plus a coming out performance from Jeremy Lamb on the level of Caitlyn Jenner, and probably at least one other random miracle, like Tyler Hansbrough accidentally severing one of Chris Bosh’s arms while fighting for a rebound. In other words, we’re going to need a Walter White-level of skill and luck, which we’ve never, ever, ever, ever had before.
Holy moly. I’m looking back on that paragraph the way Marcia Clark must be looking back on The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. I don’t even get six words into that screed before stepping on gigantic landmines of wrongness. Three of my supposed “locks”—the Bucks, Bulls, and Wizards—couldn’t secure a trapper keeper right now, let alone a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Hornets did step over the Pacers and Pistons—and in the case of the Pacers, did it Iverson-style over Tyronne Lue by sweeping them convincingly in the regular season. Meanwhile, the young, impressionable Magic players shockingly failed to embrace Scott Skiles’ warm, fatherly ways, and also committed a pair of suicidal late-season trades to complete the euthanization of their playoff hopes. I thought that, at most, one of those playoff spots would open up, and the Hornets would most likely still be 3-4 slots out of the running. Everywhere you look: wrong.
To be fair to October Me, I was absolutely right about the Celtics, who towards the end of last year had begun descending on opponents like ninjas. This season the trend accelerated; it’s like they collected enough experience points to level up their armor and weapons and are now a legitimate threat to knock-out one of the top seeds. And I was also “right” in the sense that injuries were what wiped out the Bulls and Wizards—at least to a large extent, if not “catastrophically.” But I have no excuse for the Bucks, for whom I’m starting to sound like an end-times Christian; I constantly predict the Bucks are a year away from happening. They remain terrifyingly young, big, and athletic, but so are a troop of orangutans, and I need to learn that those traits don’t automatically translate into a coherent basketball team.
Continuing on with my Coogi sweater of ugly predictions, even the scenarios I laid out for how the Hornets might make the playoffs were mostly wrong or irrelevant. First, there’s that throwaway line about Chris Bosh; as we know, he did have something of a freak health problem, but it was a serious, life-threatening illness, not a Tyler Hansbrough-related injury. But I was wrong anyway, because the Heat just kept relentlessly plowing ahead without him, pulling randomly awesome players (e.g., Josh Richardson) seemingly out of Pat Riley’s tub of hair product. Or, to take another example of my astounding inaccuracy: Al Jefferson, who ended up having the contract year of a Cleveland Browns quarterback. First he got badly injured, then busted for weed in one of the more underrated WTF moments of the season, and then he couldn’t even win his starting job back from Cody Zeller. To be sure; Big Al’s been fantastic off the bench, but his PER has shriveled to 17.6, down from 19.7 last year, and barely visible from the heights of the 22.7 he put up in his All-NBA season in 2013-14 (stats per Basketball-Reference.com); he’s not even the 6th or 7th most important ingredient in the Hornets’ secret playoffs sauce.
For his part, Zeller did take a leap forward, although his figurative leap was exactly like his actual leaps in games, the ones in which he makes an amazing rebound grab but then loses it out of bounds, leaving you simultaneously impressed and frustrated. Zeller’s PER improved from 14.1 to 16.2, making him officially above-average, and he’s got the best defensive box-score on the team. The Hornets are a solid 2.1 points better with Cody on the court than without him (for comparison’s sake, the net difference is 2.7 for Kemba Walker), and he’s allowing just a 47.5% shooting percentage when defending the rim—only 2.6 percentage points worse than what Bismack Biyombo is giving up in Toronto (stats per NBA.com). But on the other hand, Zeller’s stunted his offensive growth like a toddler guzzling Code Red Mountain Dew, using just 15.5% of his possessions, getting no plays run for him, utterly flatlining on any signs of life of a postgame, and narrowing his shots overwhelmingly to broken plays, transition buckets, and whatever miscellaneous detritus he scavenges for around the rim (albeit, very effectively—he’s finishing his shots at the rim at a .637 clip, up from .574 last year). He’s mostly just doing more of what he did last year and better, and in my preseason hypothetical, I was envisioning an improvement that was transformational (specifically, a blossoming 3-point game). Didn’t happen.
And of course, most infamously, PJ Hairston also took a giant leap, but this one was right off a cliff and into a drone-fired missile. His level of play was nearly Stephensonian in its widespread self-destruction, detonating a horrific -5.0 net rating with him on-court that promptly shot up to +5.8 once coach Clifford inevitably banged the gong on him. The rubble left in the wake of Hairston’s powerful blast radius at least created the conditions for the shrewd acquisition of the highly-serviceable Courtney Lee, whose 6.1 on-court net-rating is tied for the team lead with Jeremy Lamb (one of the few other scenarios I correctly mentioned). Lee’s averaging 3.2 catch-and-shoots a game, trailing only Marvin Williams and Nic Batum in attempts, and he’s making them at a better rate than both of them. The spacing Lee provides has had a positive trickle-down effect, as the Hornets’ 110.9 points per 100 possessions with Lee on the court is the best on the team. To be sure, the rest of Lee’s game leaves a lot to be desired, but by simply being anyone other than PJ Hairston, he’s been a critical piece to the Hornets’ ascension. And I called none of it.
I did mention Nic Batum in passing, and he did have the prototypical contract year, and the Hornets would definitely be nowhere without him. Nevertheless, while Batum’s bailed us out of more crises than Ben Bernanke (last week’s Nets game being a primary example), his stats are coming in surprisingly identical to or even lower than his last healthy season with Portland two years ago, which was fairly anonymous (2016: 15.8 PER, .548 TS%, .099 win-shares per 48 minutes; 2014: 15.8/.589/.128). So even in Batum’s case, I can’t conclude that he’s “epically overachieved” in order to get us to the playoffs as I imagined he might in the preseason.
The sad/happy truth is that practically everything I wrote was wrong. And what I didn’t write was even wronger, because I didn’t predict or even speculate on the two biggest reasons why the Hornets are now sitting on a big ol’ pot of gooey playoff honey: Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams. Both of them simply massively outperformed what their career trajectories would suggest prior to the season, which is why I made the case for both of them to be on the Most Improved Player nominee list a few weeks ago. The two of them have combined for 17.4 of the Hornets’ win shares, which equals the total contribution of the next highest four players. Who knew that basketball—supposedly the sport with the least variance—could be so hard to predict? Clearly not me, and so my takeaway is to simply enjoy whatever happens in the playoffs and hope to be pleasantly surprised even further.
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