In a season of mixed results last year, Kemba Walker's overall performance was a more than welcome sight. He followed up his disappointing rookie season with markedly improved shooting across the board. That said, his offense still left a bit to be desired: his shot selection was worrisome and he wasn't a great distributor. But he was also working with perhaps the worst frontcourt in the NBA last season.
In the past month, the Bobcats have retooled their frontcourt. Josh McRoberts and Bismack Biyombo, the starters at power forward and center by season's end, have effectively been pushed to bench roles with the drafting of Cody Zeller and the signing of Al Jefferson. The Bobcats are poised to transition from last year's league-worst scoring frontcourt (43 points per game, which is rather embarrassing compared to the 29th ranked Cavaliers whose frontcourt scored 51.6 points per game) to, well, anything better.
Individually speaking, the Bobcats will assuredly get a huge jump in scoring from Al Jefferson's post offense alone. But from a team perspective, the new frontcourt will help the Bobcats across the board on offense, not just solely that one player. In particular, I think it will help Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo a bunch because Kidd-Gilchrist excels as a cutter and because Biyombo can't create offense to save his life and will need scoring threats opposite of him in the paint to draw defenses away from him to give him better scoring opportunities.
Also, I think it was necessary to bring in frontcourt talent to give Kemba Walker some much-needed help.
This should come as no surprise. When Josh McRoberts is head and shoulders above any other big man on your roster as a scoring threat, or really in any facet of the offense, you are doomed to start every night at a disadvantage. Defenses can shift their focus because the offense is unbalanced, narrowing the scoring windows further for the Bobcats. As a result, Kemba Walker wasn't left with many options besides trying to control the ball and get his own shot in pick and roll situations, which comprised 35.8 percent of his possessions per MySynergySports.com.
Before I discuss this year's frontcourt, let's take a look back at why last year's struggled.
Bless Biyombo's heart, but the guy just hasn't shown to be a threat to be taken seriously on offense. Biyombo's most effective in transition and as a cutter. Basically, he needs to be in motion before getting the ball and have his offense created for him. If I may compare a play to the structure of a joke, Biyombo is the punchline and rarely the set-up or the complete thing. That's not the worst thing in the world, especially if it's a recognized weakness that isn't utilized too heavily. The harm last season was that Biyombo was one of the Bobcats' best frontcourt players and had to be a significant part of the offense that he just couldn't be.
For example, on high screen and rolls when the on-ball defender trails, the big man should roll to the opposite direction. You could see Walker run this play a good bit with Biyombo at the top of the key. Walker penetrates right, but Biyombo would sometimes leave the screen too quickly (which allows for Walker to be trapped) or Biyombo doesn't cut off the screen in the direction that leaves Walker with space. More often than that, Biyombo just rolls and defenses are happy to focus on containing Walker with Biyombo being monitored by the big defender closer to the baseline without necessitating much defensive rotation that would open up holes for the offense to capitalize upon.
Then there's Byron Mullens, who was similarly lacking. His overall points per possession only barely edged Biyombo's (0.83 to 0.79) despite having a more versatile offensive skill set. Mullens struggled in the offense for a bunch of reasons. Despite being a power forward with great length and vertical athleticism, he avoided the paint on offense like it would immediately burn off his facial hair. In fact, 78 percent of his field goal attempts last season were jump shots. Over half of his shots were taken further than 16 feet from the hoop. He made 29.7 percent of his spot-up shots, which made up 22.7 percent of his possessions (Synergy). In short, he took a lot of jump shots and missed a lot of jump shots. Fun times were not had by all. He preferred to pick and pop in pick and roll situations, which is fine, but his 0.82 points per possession as a pick and roll man is rather mediocre. He wasn't great at setting screens and the pick and roll constituted a small part of his offense. Despite the tools to be a decent finisher, Mullens just loved trying to create his own shot.
Thankfully Josh McRoberts arrived at the trade deadline to help out the dearth of talent in the frontcourt. His high basketball IQ helped facilitate ball movement, especially inside out. He also like shooting jump shots, but didn't force it as much as Mullens. In fact, a higher percentage of McRoberts' offense belonged to spot-up shots. The difference was that Mullens used more possessions out of the post (that often ended in contested jumpers or weird runners/hook shots/flailing heaves at the rim). McRoberts didn't use much of his possessions in the post, and instead spread his offense out with his versatility becoming a much more efficient off-ball threat. He excelled finishing in the pick and roll, on cuts and on offensive rebounding opportunities due to his high activity level. Those types of possessions for McRoberts helped keep opposing defenses on their toes, requiring them to keep an eye on him.
If I stopped here, you'd probably think poor Kemba Walker was the new-age Atlas, courageously carrying dead weight in the shape of NBA power forwards and center. Alas, that's not the case. Walker does have some court vision and passing talent beyond what stats have indicated because of lacking frontcourt talent, but he struggles a fair amount on his end, too, which I'll talk about a little bit later. Anyway, simply by lacking an efficient, consistent finishing threat, Walker is forced to try to do more as a scorer, which is a dangerous methodology for the ends to justify the means.
At some point relying on himself as the sole scoring threat would be ingrained into Walker, if the Bobcats were to remain with a subpar offensive frontcourt to complement, or at least supplement, him. And this is why I feel it was necessary to at least get some help for Walker, though I have by concerns about Jefferson and Zeller in regards to their respective weaknesses. However, putting those aside, they will both help Walker
Though I've talked at length about the strengths and weaknesses of the players above in the pick and roll and on cuts, those types of plays are not the biggest part of Al Jefferson's offense. Via MySynergySports, 9.1 percent of his possessions were in the pick and roll and 11.2 percent were on cuts last season. However, he scores 1.01 PPP on the pick and roll and 1.41 PPP on cuts, which are both extremely good numbers. His footwork, scoring instincts and touch make him a decent threat on those types of possessions, even though he's fairly slow.
Outside of that complementary role, Jefferson will help Kemba as an offensive supplement. As we discussed last season, Walker progressively became less effective throughout games, culminating in a struggle towards the fourth quarter. He had his worst shooting percentage of any quarter here, with a low percent of his makes being assisted and it was also by far his worst quarter for dishing out assists. It seemed he tried to force his offense too much. And to be fair, there weren't too many offensive weapons. Gerald Henderson and Ben Gordon were basically the two best options, especially since then-head coach Mike Dunlap didn't trust Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to be in the game late. If you want to get really into it, Walker really struggled when the team was within a 6-to-10 point margin in the fourth quarter, which makes sense. That's the zone when you've trying to get whatever you can to get back into the game by the skin of your teeth. Desperation makes for ugly basketball. The sample size is small, but it makes sense. The Bobcats offense was already strapped for scorers and Walker was undoubtedly one of the best available. Combine that with desperation and you get uncomfortable shot selection.
Jefferson will help in other quarters, too, but he'll especially help in the fourth quarter. When fatigue has gotten to Walker and the defense can key in on him easier than usual, Jefferson becomes a number two focal point because of his scoring potential. His field goal percentage also fell in the fourth last year, but that was without a significant scoring threat in the backcourt, and his drop in percentage wasn't too big -- from 49.4 to 46.9 percent. With our eyes on the offense, Jefferson at least helps in a supplementary role, and a minor complementary one, too.
Though Jefferson isn't as big as a pick and roll or off-ball workhorse, I think that's where the Bobcats are counting on Cody Zeller to come in. They trust him to develop into a stretch 4 (though his midrange jump shot has looked slow and inconsistent in Summer League and in college), but his real immediate potential is as a face-up option out of the triple-threat stance.
Heaven forfend this bite me square in the ass within 6 months, but Zeller has shown supreme quickness both lateral, vertical and otherwise to excel from midrange whether with the ball or without it. With the ball, Zeller is a decent enough ball handler to take a dribble or two and get to the rim and finish with a right hand off the glass. He has solid touch and a clear understanding of the game. He's not the worst passer for a big man, either.
Off the ball, Zeller knows where he needs to be and move very smoothly without it. His footwork is solid and his hands work without any pumps from a tin oil can. A mildly consistent jump shot would be a healthy addition but Zeller's level of comfort with either hand and movement with his understanding of ball movement make him a healthy addition to Walker's pick and roll game.
And now we come to Walker's part of the offense. Though we've seen Walker show more than just glimpses as a threat dishing out the ball, he's shown plenty of weaknesses that players around him cannot be solely responsible for
Walker does show the ability to thread needles with the ball and see openings develop in finding trailing or cutting players, whether with bounce passes or what have you. Yet Walker definitely sometimes tries to force the issue as a corer or distributor, pushing himself into bad shots or turnovers when he should have instead reset the offense. He can also dribble himself into corners or contested shots. Part of this is due to being a major factor of the offense's success and part is due to his own confidence in his shot.
All that taken into consideration, Walker has the tools to become a more well-rounded point guard. I can't say he's a pure point guard or anything like that, but he could certainly increase his distribution especially with a new starting frontcourt helping out. He has exceptional quickness to separate him from his defender, capable of turning the corner on the defense with decent touch on his midrange jumper and at the rim, but has to this point struggled to extend the offense to other players.
Now let's see how his game further develops now that he has a stronger supporting cast to ease the offensive workload.