Hidden Contender

Despite finishing in the 48–34 jumble of the Eastern Conference last season, the Charlotte Hornets were pegged by preseason oddsmakers as a pseudo contender more in line with the conference’s eighth seed rather than vying to host a playoff series after an offseason that choked their salary cap sheet and forced the departures of Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson.

However, head coach Steve Clifford is still around, and surprise, the Hornets are good once again. Under Clifford’s ardent defensive principles of fortifying the defensive glass, confiscating opponents’ fast break opportunities and limiting bailout hacks, Charlotte is always a solid bet to be nestled in the league’s Top 10 defenses, and with the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the swap of Jefferson for zombie Roy Hibbert, who appears to have returned from the dead in limited minutes this season, the Hornets have the upside to reach the league’s stingiest handful of defenses.

As of now they’re second in the league with a 95.4 defensive rating, trailing only the Clippers, who have defended the basket like a collection of Terminators. They’ve been propped up by the religious practices of Clifford, ranking third in the league in defensive rebound rate, fifth in allowed fast break points and only the Bulls have gift-wrapped opponents less trips to the free throw line. Toss in Kidd-Gilchrist as the ultimate hyperactive elixir to combat elite offensive scorers and the path to a top-notch defensive unit becomes even more clear.

Kidd-Gilchrist does more, however, than just tussle and tap dance with the league’s most qualified playmakers; he’s a malleable piece who can bust things up on the weakside with his effort and athleticism as well as short circuit opposing offenses with his switchability across entire lineups.

With Marvin Williams at the 4 and Cody Zeller at the 5, Charlotte’s bigs aren’t bamboozled by the vogue ideology of switching either, fending for themselves when they have to shuffle their feet laterally to keep up with perimeter players. Zeller even gives Charlotte the flexibility to effectively blitz pick-and-rolls involving an opponents’ center as he has the foot speed to maintain his position and not concede the corner to speedy ball handlers. Trap and force the ball handler to give it up and he has to quickly decipher between hitting the big on a short roll or whip a skip pass over a cheating defender. The hastened decision making under pressure combined with novice playmaking from rolling behemoths when they catch a hot potato, sees the Hornets morph into a different entity defensively, one that prods turnovers from opponents at a top five rate when Zeller is on the floor.

Charlotte’s defense, however, is prone to leaky constructs, such as giving up too many juicy spot up catch and shoot opportunities. The Hornets allow the most spot up opportunities in the league per 100 possessions, and they aren’t the dead zone midrange variety either as opponents are bombing away from the 3-point arc a league-high 31.7 times per game against Charlotte after ranking 23rd in allowed 3-point attempts last season. Those 3-point shots have been converted at just a 31.5 percent clip, fourth best in the league, and, while the Hornets challenge shots at a higher rate than any team in the league, they’re continuing to flirt with explosive material that can only be defused for so long.

Even if marginal regression does ensue defensively when opponents ramp up their shot making, Charlotte’s offense is right at last season’s mark of 105.1 points per 100 possessions despite the team’s offseason personnel moves suggesting a downturn after trading Lee’s off ball spacing for Kidd-Gilchrist’s rickety jumper, Lin’s secondary playmaking for Ramon Sessions and Jefferson’s righty-finish bound post ups for Hibbert’s desolate offensive game.

The Hornets are carving out offense anyway, and Kemba Walker is a big reason why. After addressing his overall efficiency last season, Walker has continued strides this season, boasting a 61.1 true shooting percentage (compared to last year’s 55.4) despite upping his usage rate as well from 26.5 to 30.2. The small sample size stipulation applies to Walker’s early season success, but Clifford is putting his faith in Walker’s ability to create offense, which he’s doing at an All-Star level based on the company he shares. Thus far this season, just four players have accounted for more than 30 percent of their team’s assists and points while on the floor — James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas and Walker.

Walker ripped apart the Pacers with savvy pick-and-roll playmaking in the Hornets’ 122–100 victory, and against Utah Wednesday, he finished off the Jazz in crunch time with an assortment of daggers.

Try to mitigate Walker by shading weakside defenders in his direction, as Thad Young does here and Charlotte will whisk the ball to the other side quickly generating a launch from downtown.

Trap Walker alongside the sidelines and Charlotte will replace Zeller with Williams, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes and slip out the backdoor for 3-point looks.

Walker is the catalyst, but Charlotte has the means of manufacturing offense when he sits or needs a breather playing off the ball — an area where other teams reliant on a high-usage playmakers, such as the aforementioned foursome of Houston, OKC and Boston, plummet.

The Hornets send Nic Batum firing off misdirection ripback screens, where he lulls defenses unaware as he trots to the weakside then quickly reverses blasting off a screen for catch and shoot or handoff going to his right, where he can drive or pull up for the jumper.

And Clifford makes frequent use of designed horns sets with two bigs in the high post and motion circling around them, keeping the Charlotte offense buzzing (pun intended) without exhausting Walker and Batum’s individual playmaking.

Standard pick-and-rolls are easily mapped out and efficient, which is why they are the first-class level of NBA offenses, but ancillary forms of shot creation, such as Clifford’s designed sets, help to stabilize and diversify offenses, planting seeds of an egalitarian system, which has resulted in nearly two-thirds of the Hornets’ made field goals coming off an assist, second only to the Warriors.

Still, it’s unclear if the Hornets’ ceiling is anything more than a second-round exit in the postseason, but even winning one playoff series would be monumental for a franchise that just won its first three playoff games last year, and who knows, if Charlotte gets dealt a few favorable matchups in the postseason and secures a tidy seat on the karma train, Clifford’s group could earn the right at the arduous task of dethroning the King in the East.

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