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What's the buzz with the Charlotte Hornets' defense?

What's the buzz with the Charlotte Hornets' defense?

It's December 14, and Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford has already had enough. 

Normally a willing interviewee and giving orator, Clifford sets the stage early. 

"You don't have to ask questions," he says, before laying down the law for nearly two full minutes. 

The heart of the message: The Hornets won't win games — and certainly nothing of consequence — if they don't nail the little things. And they'll have no shot if they don't nail the big thing: Defense.

"We are playing no defense, not one guy. There's no bright spot," Clifford says. 

"We don't run back on defense. We don't guard the ball. Our pick-and-roll stuff — all stuff that was good. I think we were as high as 12th or 13th in defense about 10 games ago, and we're right back where we started: Ground Zero, where all we want to be is, "Let's try to outscore the other team." It doesn't work that way. "

Quotes don't really do it justice — you can watch the whole thing here — but Clifford was right on all accounts. Well, mostly all accounts. 

Through Dec. 14, the Hornets ranked 26th in half-court defense per Cleaning The Glass. Opponents generated 1.083 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a drive against the Hornets, the worst mark in the NBA. Only five teams allowed more points on a per-possession basis than the Hornets when defending pick-and-rolls.

The lone bright spot was the transition defense, ranking fifth in PPP allowed (1.165) and second in transition frequency allowed (13.7% of possessions). Honestly, it made sense for Clifford to be paranoid overseeing any slippage in that area, considering how woeful everything else had been. 

Fast forward a few months, and we're singing a different tune. 

The Hornets have a 110.6 defensive rating since the All-Star break, making them, statistically, the stingiest defense in the league right now. And it's not like their numbers are juiced by feasting on awful offenses. Nearly half of their games have come against top-10 offenses.

Here are their splits, per Cleaning The Glass:

  • Against top-10 offenses (7 games): 115.3 DRTG (3.6 lower than league average), 8th in the NBA
  • Against middle-10 offenses (4 games): 107.6 DRTG (-9.3), 1st
  • Against bottom-10 offenses (5 games): 106.7 DRTG (-6.5), 5th

It's important to emphasize the "statistically" part. A large portion of what's driving Charlotte's success is opponent three-point shooting. Teams have shot just 31.6% from deep against them since the All-Star break, nearly two percentage points lower than the second-ranked Denver Nuggets (33.1%).

Per Second Spectrum's Quantified Shot Quality (qSQ) metric, teams have underperformed their expected field goal percentage from deep against the Hornets by nearly six percentage points (-5.87) — the largest gap in the league. 

That's not to say the Hornets have only gotten lucky. They've been pretty intentional about limiting fruitful three-point attempts; between their off-ball switching, an uptick in space-limiting ball-screen coverages (more on that shortly) and more aggressive closeouts, teams are struggling to win the math battle in a way they weren't earlier this season. 

You can see that reflected in the actual shot profile. Before the All-Star break, 36% of the opposition's shots were coming from deep against the Hornets, a mark that ranked No. 21 in the league. Since the break, that's fallen to 32.9% (No. 7).

But even when fruitful threes are given up — their corner three rate allowed has remain unchanged (9.6%) — they're at least making those tougher. Their contest rate on corner threes has improved throughout the year, ranking 12th before the break and sixth after it, per Second Spectrum.

The Hornets have asked their bigs — rookie Mark Williams when available, and quietly-solid reserve Nick Richards — to play closer to the level against ball-screens. When trending smaller with PJ Washington or Kai Jones (he's been fun!) at the 5, they're more inclined to (late) switch.

If opponents attempt to target a weaker defender in ball-screens or with a clear out, or are able to force an unfavorable switch, the Hornets are willing to send doubles to get their guys out of perceived trouble. 

Either gambit puts two on the ball, creating openings on the back end. But this is where you tip your cap to the length, athleticism and overall ground coverage this group has. 

Only two players in the Hornets' rotation are shorter than 6-foot-7 — Terry Rozier (6-1) and Dennis Smith Jr. (6-2). Rozier has missed the last two games, and has been replaced by Theo Maledon; Maledon keeps the quota at two, while also offering more size (6-4) than Rozier. 

Smith has been one of the best guard defenders in the NBA on a per-minute basis. He's physical at the point of attack and combines that ruggedness with some real feistiness at the rim. He isn't afraid to challenge shots. He's currently one of 10 players listed at 6-4 or shorter with 25 blocks to his name; everyone on the list has appeared in more action than Smith.

On a team that's willing to send a bunch of help, it's a breath of fresh air to have someone like Smith who doesn't need it all that often. 

To that point: 47 players have defended at least 200 on-ball picks at the point of attack since the All-Star break. At 0.78 PPP, no player has "allowed" a lower clip than Smith. On the year, Smith ranks second in Dunks And Three's Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (dEPM) metric (+3.6), narrowly edging out OG Anunoby (+3.4) and trailing only Alex Caruso (+4.5). 

Beyond him, I've been impressed with the wings. JT Thor and Gordon Hayward have taken turns picking up top-tier elite wing assignments, and have mostly held their own. Hayward's been surprisingly spry chasing dudes around off-ball screens. I enjoyed the work he put in against Luka Doncic over the weekend, even if he got dotted a couple of times.

Thor has used his rare blend of size and mobility to stick with different types of assignments on the ball. He's also provided us with some fun rim-protection flashes; you always have to be aware of where he is. 

As for the bigs, many will point to rookie Williams' insertion into the starting lineup as a real turning point. There's some credence to that; the Hornets rank third in defensive rating since Feb. 10th, the date marking the rookie's first start.

His size is valuable, particularly on the glass. He's had nice flashes of rim protection during this stretch, averaging 1.1 blocks while contesting 13.1 shots per 36 minutes, a number in the range of guys like Jakob Poeltl (13.4), Kristaps Porzingis (13.0) and Rudy Gobert (12.6).

I'd argue they've gotten more juice out of Richards, whose growing comfort on the perimeter has really popped. He isn't the mountain to dribble around or pass over that Williams is, but the gap in mobility and understanding of angles make him a more effective at-the-level defender. He's gotten better at contesting shots vertically, which gives him a chance to alter shots in light of his limitations as a leaper.

Neither big is ready to be a true defensive achor right now, but that's okay. Williams is still trying to navigate space at the NBA level, period. Having to defend multiple actions within a possession can get dicey for the young man.

Richards' attempts at being a late leaper — waiting for the offensive player to leave his feet before challenging the shot, in hopes of avoiding fouls — can end with the ball going in the basket as Richards' hand is slapping the backboard.

On the positive side, Williams has shown enough to be encouraged by his potential to get there. Richards will likely never be an anchor, but he's made enough strides from last season to feel comfortable with him executing multiple coverages. In 24 or fewer minutes — and I'd guess he'd be in the 18-ish range on a better team — that's all that's needed for him to be a valuable role player. 

Are the Hornets actually the best defensive team in the NBA? No, they are not. It is, however, worth celebrating the strides they've made as the season has gone on. With the collective size and mobility this roster has, it's also worth getting excited about the foundation that could be built. 

(And hey, with enough lottery luck, they could be set in the paint for years to come.)

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