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Filling the Josh McRoberts void

Josh McRoberts provided a unique blend of skills for Charlotte last year — outside shooting and passing. Now that he's gone, where should the Hornets look to compensate for the loss? Are guard/guard pick and rolls the answer?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

NBA free agency is a funny thing. This summer, the entire basketball world waited and waited for LeBron’s decision: stay with the Heat or go back home? Both sides — the Heat and the Cavs — were making hard pushes to LeBron and his circle. One of those pushes for the Heat was signing good veteran players to make another title run. And one of those veteran players was an important Charlotte piece: Josh McRoberts.

If LeBron had announced early on that he was going back to Cleveland, would McRoberts have re-signed with Charlotte? From what he has publicly said about playing there, that seems like a very plausible scenario. But there are a million what-if’s in the history of the NBA; we could play this game all the day. The reality is that Charlotte lost a very valuable piece to last year’s playoff roster.

Just how important was McRoberts to Charlotte? Last week, I put this table in an article about Clifford’s attention to stretch bigs. It shows the effect of McRoberts on Al Jefferson – which, as you can see, was significant.

PPP PPS FG% USG
Al Jefferson without Josh McRoberts 1.09 1.05 49.7% 31.2%
Al Jefferson with Josh McRoberts 1.13 1.07 51.4% 28.2%

Or what about McRoberts’ effect on the entire team? It’s very significant as well.

PPP PPS TS% %A
Bobcats without Josh McRoberts 1.01 1.01 50.3% 56.9%
Bobcats with Josh McRoberts 1.07 1.06 53.2% 61.5%

(Stats courtesy of nbawowy.com)

A lot of what made him so valuable to Charlotte was his shooting, which unclogged the lane and helped space the floor for a not-so-great shooting team. But McRoberts was also one of the best passing big men in the NBA last year, and the combination of the two skills will be where Charlotte misses him the most this season.

Charlotte would run this play last year, which started with a Henderson down screen for McRoberts, who would pop out to the elbow and face up.

From there, Henderson would get a screen from Jefferson and immediately curl towards (or he could pop out to the corner if the defender went under it) the hoop.

And here's a good example of why McRobert's combination of shooting and passing is deadly. This play absolutely hinges on McRoberts being a legitimate shooting threat. Against a non-shooting big, Monroe could have sagged off and helped clog the lane, which would've given Singler time to fight through the screen. Shooting big men are commodities. Ones that can pass as well are invaluable.

McRoberts was also a relentless screener on the perimeter for the guards. He also knew when to re-screen and when to roll. Take a look at this play, starting with McRoberts at the top of the key with the ball.

Instead of a traditional pick-and-roll with the guard dribbling, McRoberts initiates with a dribble hand-off. And just as both defenders anticipate the screen, McRoberts slips it into an open lane.

McRoberts was also very valuable because of his ability to pass once he's in the middle of the defense, as he does here to a wide open Bismack Biyombo, who slams it home.

So what will happen to the Hornets offense with McRoberts gone? Well, that's a very good question.

The Hornets brought in free agent Marvin Williams this summer, who head coach Steve Clifford already slotted into the starting lineup. While he is not the high-post operator that McRoberts is (and admitted such at Media Day), he is a floor stretcher. Part of the battle in creating an efficient offense is just getting defenders out of the lane and away from the basket. Williams' shooting will do that.

And while Williams isn't the same passer, Lance Stephenson is a good one. It will be interesting to see how Clifford uses Walker and Stephenson together. The Hornets had a unique advantage on the court last season, as their two best passers were a guard and a big man. This year, it's two guards.

McRoberts was their primary screener and roll guy and it remains to be seen who will be that player this year. It will most likely be Williams and Cody Zeller, but Clifford could get creative and use Walker and Stephenson together, as Stephenson has the size to be an effective screener on the perimeter.*

Teams without a shooting big man can get into trouble with guard on guard pick and rolls, as the lane is clogged with two defending big men. However, Williams and Stephenson can be inverted in this set, with Williams taking the shooting guard role — spotting up in the corner if his man cheats down — and Stephenson, as the superior passer, taking the forward role. To put it simply, Williams makes up for McRoberts' shooting and Stephenson makes up for his passing.

Of course it was nice to have both of those assets combined in a single player, but Stephenson and Williams can pick up the slack. What happens when Stephenson or Williams is on the bench? Well, that will be another important question for the Hornets this year.

(Screenshots courtesy of NBA.com)

*Coach Nick of bballbreakdown.com made a good point to me on Twitter, here. Also, readers gave me some examples of this happening last year. Lin/Harden, Williams/Livingston, and Chalmers/Wade were the big ones.