Following dramatic improvement, Bobcats look to take next step

Bobcats center Al Jefferson was one of the most productive free agent signings in the NBA this season.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — During his end-of-year press conference, Bobcats coach Steve Clifford began unsolicited to list the factors that went into why his team went to the playoffs this season. To no surprise he listed Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Josh McRoberts as the first three reasons, in that order. Then his list went to the "good, good play that we got from our role players — (Anthony) Tolliver, (Chris) Douglas-Roberts, (Jannero) Pargo." He concluded by talking about how his team began playing its best basketball as Cody Zeller showed improvement after the All-Star break.

Noticeably missing from that list? His starters on the wing — Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

That slight may not have been intentional, but it’s no secret that the Bobcats won’t be able to take the next step unless they substantially upgrade their wing scoring.

True shooting percentage measures a player’s shooting efficiency based on field goals, 3-pointers and free throws, and both Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist ranked in the bottom third among qualifying NBA players at their position. When your offense works inside-out, starting a shooting guard that made 40 3s on the year (34.8 percent) and a small forward that made just one outside shot all season (1-of-9) isn’t a workable model if you want to win games in the playoffs.

There are things both players do extremely well, no doubt. Clifford praised Henderson’s intelligence and the way he communicates. He’s above-average defensively on the wing, too, and when he’s out there they "have a chance to play with a purpose." But his lack of confidence shooting the ball forces him to frequently pass up open 3-pointers on kickouts, electing instead to drive to the basket, and he said Tuesday that he has to develop his 3-point shot into more of a weapon this offseason.

"To give himself a chance to have a better year individually next year, does he have to improve his range shooting? Yes, he does," Clifford said. "And I think if you asked him, he’d say the same thing."

Kidd-Gilchrist is no different. He possesses strengths that allow him to contribute, but his shot is painful to watch at times and throughout the Miami Heat series, they aggressively sagged off of him — essentially begging him to shoot a jumper while they doubled Jefferson. Clifford acknowledges that he’ll never be a knockdown shooter, but he has to be respectable enough to keep defenders honest enough that he can play to his strengths.

It’s easy to forget that the former Kentucky star is only 20 years old, but he shot 56 percent this season inside the restricted area (inside eight feet) and only 27 percent outside of it. He made just 29 shots outside of that restricted area in 1,500 minutes of action — about one field goal every 51 minutes of game action. By comparison, Andre Iguodala, another non-scorer who he has said he models his game after, knocked down a shot outside of eight feet every 18 minutes or so and finished the year around 65 percent in the restricted area and around 35 percent on 3-pointers.

"Well, see, OK, he has to and he knows this: he has to be able to make open jump shots in order to become a more consistent offensive player," Clifford said. "The difference with him is this right now, today, as we speak, he has a way to play that helps our team win. He’s not a non-offensive player, who is a pretty good defender. He’s an elite defensive player. So, to me, he’s an exception because of the fact that there aren’t many guys like him."

That’s true. Kidd-Gilchrist is a major part of the reason the Bobcats were fourth in scoring defense. They were almost three full points per 100 possessions better with Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor and it’s no coincidence that their December defensive lull came when he was injured.

That’s part of the problem, though, with the roster the way it is currently constructed: Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist are strong defensively but they struggle in the same area. And it’s the one they need the most to complement their best player’s skill set and each other’s.

It’s why Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien were sent away in a midseason deal for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour, which Clifford praised as a "great trade" that "instantly allowed Al to play better."

"The more shooting you have on the floor, the more space there is for your best players. You’re seeing it now in the playoffs, and it’ll be more and more prevalent as the series go on," Clifford said. "Your shooting is your spacing, that’s it. It’s hard to have guys out there — particularly with the game on the line — that they don’t have to guard out to the 3-point line. It just makes offense hard for everyone."

And offense is what’s ultimately holding this team back. The Bobcats were fourth in scoring defense, but only 24th in scoring offense in 2014.

In Jefferson, they know what they have: a free agent steal a year ago that’s going to give them 20 points and 10 rebounds on an average night. He’s a known commodity and an elite frontcourt weapon that totally transformed the way they are able to play offensively. In Walker, they have a franchise point guard that took a step forward in Year 3 and one they think can be the starting point guard "on a really, really good team," according to Clifford, with even more room for growth.

But outside of those two, the Bobcats’ offensive production is spotty at best and they desperately needed someone to step up as that third option.

The Bobcats’ other three starters — Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, and McRoberts — combined to shoot just 44 percent from the field and average just 29.7 points per game combined for the season. Kidd-Gilchrist and McRoberts only went for 20 points or more in one game each.

You can live with that if you have scoring help coming off the bench, but they didn’t. Only six times all season did a player off the bench go for 20 points or more, and two of those were by Ramon Sessions, who is no longer in Charlotte. Charlotte’s bench was 19th in the league in points per game (30) and did it at the eighth-worst clip in the league (42.6 percent), according to HoopsStats.

That’s a substantial offensive burden for Jefferson and Walker to carry each night. The Bobcats are aware of that and aren’t shy about the areas they need to address to improve on a 43-39 record and first-round playoff exit.

"You go against a team like Miami, which has so many of the things that we need in terms of perimeter shooting. I think that’s something that’s vital for us," team president Rod Higgins said. "We’re going to have to address our second unit in terms of scoring off the bench. Our backup point guard situation is something we have to address as well and just trying to find good all around players that will help us continue to improve our team. I’m always a fan of any time you can find a shooter at any spot, you look for him."

They’ll have up to $19 million in free agency to play with in the offseason, depending on if Detroit’s top-eight protected draft pick owed to Charlotte falls outside of that range after the draft lottery. The wildcard in that is whether Josh McRoberts uses his player option, and Ridnour, Tolliver, Douglas-Roberts, Pargo, and D.J. White are all unrestricted free agents and will take up some of the cap.

Either way, Higgins and general manager Rich Cho said they’re not opposed to another Al Jefferson type offseason splash if they find the right player. They think Jefferson’s success, a motivated owner, Walker’s emergence and the new found playoff relevance makes Charlotte a more attractive offseason possibility if they do attempt to spend big this offseason.

The major question mark, though, is how many of those free agency dollars do you splash around knowing that you have an owner Michael Jordan that’s never gone into luxury tax territory and Kemba Walker becoming a restricted free agent next summer. Jordan did swallow the bill for amnestying Tyrus Thomas, which allowed the Jefferson signing, so maybe he would venture above the luxury tax threshold — especially under the new more favorable collective bargaining agreement for owners — if it’s a piece that could get the Bobcats into the Eastern Conference elite.

"We’re going to have some cap room this summer. We also have some assets to play with in a future pick. If we don’t get the Detroit pick this year, we’ll have protected it to (No.) 1 (overall) in 2015," Cho said. "You always have to balance short term versus long term. We’ll have a nice range of cap space."

They give away their first-round pick to the Bulls from the Tyrus Thomas trade (the gift that keeps on giving), but they do receive Portland’s 24th overall pick.

Higgins and Cho can’t talk about individual free agents on the market, but there are some shooters on the market that could fit. Nick Young and Jodie Meeks are both unrestricted shooters at the guard position. Lance Stephenson is available, but will carry a heavy asking price and is the type of ego the Bobcats have tried to avoid bringing into their locker room.

There are options at small forward, too. Gordon Hayward could provide the shooting they need and is better and more efficient when he doesn’t have to shoulder the offensive burden he had to in Utah this season. He’s exactly the type of lethal third scorer that could play either wing spot, but he’s a restricted free agent and Utah could match any offer. It probably won’t help Hayward’s cause that Cho is extremely analytics-based and Utah’s putrid defense (last in defensive efficiency) was actually worse when he was on the floor.

Trevor Ariza’s another offseason free agent whose game would fit this roster well and the Wizards may not have the space to resign him and Marcin Gortat. Luol Deng will be mentioned, too, but the Bulls were better once he was traded (coincidence or not?), his numbers were down in every category and he’s a career 33 percent 3-point shooter, so it’s doubtful Charlotte throws the money necessary there. Rudy Gay, who was substantially better in Sacramento than he was in Toronto, will be available, too, but carries a heavy asking price and is an inconsistent shooter.

Regardless of whether they try to find that wing scoring in free agency, internal development or the NBA Draft, a year has tremendously changed this franchise’s story. They now have one of the league’s elite coaches in Clifford — that’s the only way you can explain a jump from 29th to 4th in scoring defense over the course of the year. In addition, they might have the second-best duo (Jefferson and Walker) in the Eastern Conference and only 1.5 games separated their seventh-place finish from a fifth-place finish in the East this season.

In other words, they are close to their stated goal of becoming a top-four team in the conference.

"I don’t know if I can put a timeframe on it, but if you think about this season, the way the East was set up, we could have been a top-three team (in the conference) this year. We’re not far," Higgins said. "I would imagine that there are going to be some teams that get better in the East, and hopefully we’re one of them."