Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford had expectations this team could field one of the NBA’s top five defenses this season.
Of all the disappointments wrapped up in this dreadful 29-38 season, defense tops the list.
As of now, the Hornets are 15th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency. That is a measure of points per possession (in order to factor out pace). By that metric, the Hornets allow 1.057 points per opponent possession. That might not sound dreadful, but it’s getting worse all the time: That number jumped to 1.167 over the last three games, which is the bottom of the league.
If you watched the fourth quarter of the Hornets’ 122-115 home victory over the Phoenix Suns, that doesn’t surprise you. The Hornets let a 22-point lead slip all the way to two late in this game. It took a 3-point bank shot by Nic Batum to save this one, breaking a five-game losing streak.
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Consider how puny and depleted the opponent was Saturday: A Suns team that lost its previous four, and has the second-fewest victories in the league (19) was missing three core players: Emerging star Trevor Booker, plus rookie Josh Jackson and former N.C. State star T.J. Warren.
The Suns dressed just 11 players Saturday, and three of those had spent most of this season in the G-League. Rookie Shaquille Harrison, playing on a 10-day contract, actually started.
A gimme, right? Uh, no. The Suns made the most 3s in any game this season (18), and Phoenix’s 43 points in the fourth quarter were the most in any quarter this season. Nine of those 3s were made in the Suns’ wild last 12 minutes; in that quarter Phoenix shot 68 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3.
If you don’t recognize this team’s defense, neither do the players. Thursday, after the Hornets gave up 125 points to a lousy Brooklyn Nets team, veteran forward Marvin Williams told me he doesn’t know what to make of this defense. Williams said his first season in Charlotte (2014-15) the Hornets didn’t have the scoring to reach the playoffs, but they were always reliable guarding.
No more. And that drives coach Steve Clifford nuts.
“We’re less consistent with our intensity and we’re less disciplined,” Clifford said post-game Saturday. “I mean, it starts with me.”
He’s right, of course. Clifford reached head-coach status in the NBA by building great defenses. He prioritizes guarding the lane (sometimes compromising the 3-point line to get that done). He says getting back (rather than crashing the offensive boards) is a nonnegotiable. His teams are traditionally low-foul and low-turnover, to minimize cheap opponent points.
Those are all sound principles. But this team isn’t getting it done.
“We’ve always been disciplined with our coverages, disciplined with our schemes, and we’re just not,” Clifford acknowledged.
“(It’s) the coaches’ job to get them to understand what they’re supposed to do, and then have the right connection with the team so that they commit to doing it every time.
“That’s, you know, we don’t do that.”
It’s a strange dynamic, when you consider the two significant veteran acquisitions last summer – center Dwight Howard and reserve point guard Michael Carter-Williams – are both defense-first players.
I don’t know how this turns around; whether it’s new players, new coaches or a recommitment to guarding next fall.
But when you give up 115 points to a bad team with half its best players in street clothes, it’s undeniably a mandate for change.