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:
"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
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
Fast forward a few months, and we're singing a different
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
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
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
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
(And hey, with enough lottery luck, they could be set in the
paint for years to come.)