Has the team met expectations so far this year?
Projected win totals from Yahoo's 2013 season predictions
Going into the year, I don’t think anyone in the front office had officially decided on what the expectations were for the upcoming season. It seems like the only thing for certain, was that they expected Improvement. After signing Al Jefferson, drafting Cody Zeller, bringing back Henderson and McRoberts, and another summer of development from the young draft picks (Kemba, MKG, Biyombo, and Taylor)… the only acceptable direction was UP. How much, as always, was going to be hard to predict. And as you can see from the picture above, most "experts" were predicting Charlotte to improve by one to six games over the previous season. Not only that, but with the 2014 draft looming, some wondered how much better Charlotte SHOULD get. Owing its 2014 pick to Chicago if outside the top 10 only complicated matters further.
After an ankle injury put Al Jefferson into rehab mode for the first 14 or so games of the season, the team got off to a pretty rocky start. Going from two completely different offensive styles from game to game was difficult, and even when executed properly with Al in the lineup, his injury was obviously limiting his finishing. Although not mentioned often, the same adjustments were likely necessary on the defensive end, where perimeter players had to consider two completely different centers behind them from game to game.
Once Big Al got healthy, the team started clicking. At that point in the season the team was 8-11 with a 97.9 Defensive Rating, but only a -3.8 Net Rating (good for 23rd in the league).
However, the good times would soon come to an end when MKG broke his hand in early December. The team held up pretty well due to strong play from Jeff Taylor, who despite shooting poorly, contributed with perimeter defense that allowed the team to play their preferred system. Then of course he went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon. What followed were some pretty dark times for Charlotte. During the entire MKG injury, the team was 7-12 with a 104.1 Defensive Rating and a -4.4 Net Rating (or 22nd in the league). There were a couple blow outs that left the fans wondering what direction the team would go. Should they look for an early season trade? And if so, should it be to improve their outlook for this season, or for future seasons?
Instead of making any moves, the front office stood pat, and in hindsight, this appears to have been the right decision. Since MKG’s return, the team is 12-7 and has the 11th best Net Rating in the league over that time span. Also, the team is one of only nine teams in the league with an above average league offense and defense in that same span (ranked 15th and 4th respectively). That puts Charlotte in some elite company, as only OKC, Houston, Phoenix, Toronto, Brooklyn, San Antonio, Golden State, and Minnesota can say the same thing about their balanced performance.
If you feel the 19 game sample size is too convenient, Hollinger actually uses a smaller sample in his rankings. In the last 25% of Charlotte’s games (15 to be exact), they’ve faced a .519 SOS and produced an average scoring margin of +2.53. The only teams with an equal or better strength of schedule and an equal or better scoring margin are the Clippers, Heat, Warriors, Suns, and Wizards. And if you think that sample is too small, Hollinger’s ranking has Charlotte at 16 for the year.
So there is no arguing that Charlotte, through 57 games, has already achieved their primary goal for the entire 82… Improvement. And now that they’ve accomplished that goal, the rest of the season can be put into a new perspective.
What are the expectations for the rest of the season?
Charlotte is currently the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. Now it goes without saying that any team that wants to host more than two home playoff games come May, should finish sixth or better in the standings in order to avoid Miami and Indiana. At this point, I’d say the MINIMUM expectation is to make the playoffs. Even with a tough schedule over the next 15 games (@SA, @OKC, @MIA, IND, CLE, @MEM, DEN, @WAS, MIN, @MIL, ATL, @BKN, POR, HOU, BRK), if Charlotte keeps up its recent level of play, the team should be able to come out of this gauntlet with somewhere near a 6-9 record, putting the team at 33-39 on the year. One of the fringe teams would have to win about 10 to 11 games in that same stretch to tie Charlotte’s record. Also, with the way Atlanta’s been playing, they could fall out of the race altogether, giving Charlotte even more cushion for making the postseason. After the previously mentioned upcoming 15 games, Charlotte’s competition eases up drastically: @ORL, WAS, @PHI, ORL, @CLE, @WAS, @BOS, PHI, @ATL, CHI. Going 7-3 here sounds feasible, with a projected record of 40-42.
So after peaking at the remaining schedule, is the correct expectation for Charlotte to be a 6th seed or better? Personally, finishing as the 6th seed is my expectation (and it matches up with Hollinger’s playoff prediction). With the addition of Ridnour and Neal, the bench is much more flexible and potent, which was likely the team’s largest weakness. The potential to play a true 2nd unit of Ridnour, Neal, Tolliver, Zeller, Biz (well rounded unit with three 3pt shooters and good length), will allow Clifford to play his starters together more, which is what happens in the playoffs. Rotations shrink and starters creep towards 40 minutes+ a night. This bodes well for Charlotte especially, considering their starting lineup is top 10 in the league based on +/- (looking at only lineups that have played at least 150 total minutes on the year).
Despite what appears to be a manageable last 25 games for Charlotte, the competition for a top six spot in the East will be pretty stiff. Brooklyn and Toronto are two of the eight other teams that have been playing at above league average on offense and defense over the last 19 games. When it's all said and done, Charlotte will have to beat out one of Brooklyn, Washington, Chicago for the sixth seed. Despite a close race, I think Charlotte’s end of season schedule will allow the team to solidify its spot as the 6th seed and earn the right to play a true first round playoff series.
An easy third question…
Can Steve Clifford coach? Putting this season into perspective has me thinking about how much of the success can be attributed to Charlotte's first year head coach. I’m not going to get too far into this one, because I think it’s pretty obvious that this question is quite easy to answer. But what sticks out most to me, and I assume his players, is that he sticks to simple, core principles. Let’s review what is literally posted on the wall in Charlotte’s practice facilities from the picture above:
Anyone who has watched the team all year will see these "Musts" come through on the floor night in and night out. However, the proof is in the pudding as they say. The stats back up ALL of the measurable "Musts" with the exception of opponent 3pt Field Goals. However, I'd argue most nights we still close out despite the poor results.
Clifford is doing exactly what he said he would do, and his principles are leading to wins as Charlotte is 12-7 since MKG returned from injury.
Despite the team's proficiency in Clifford's core principles, Charlotte has some rather strong weaknesses. Those who have watched the team most would likely say that Charlotte fails to get offensive rebounds, lacks shooting, and fails to protect the rim with their starting unit. I'd agree these are all big issues, however I'd counter with the lack of offensive rebounding is due to scheme, as Clifford demands proper floor balance to combat fast break points (defensive must). Also, the shooting has improved as the offense has become more crisp. Still, Charlotte is prone to very ugly stretches on offense and I sometimes get the feeling that missed mid-range jumpers can lead to missed rotations on the other end. The rim protection issue is also concerning, especially against teams with a solid offensive player at PF. Small teams and big teams alike have been going after Josh McRoberts early in games with good results. However this doesn't worry me half as much as how the team typically defends the PG/C pick and roll in crunch time. To me this is the flaw that is most likely to get exposed down the stretch in important games. But based on what Clifford has done so far to build upon the team's strengths, I think he's up to the challenge to remedy some of this stuff if the situation demands it.
So hopefully before the season next year, the question becomes... "What can Clifford do next year after adding about $14MM in free agent talent and potentially two first round draft picks?" No one knows for sure, but I’d bet on one thing: Improvement.
Stats from NBA.com and ESPN.com.