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How much can Steve Clifford's defense cover up?

The Hornets might be looking to solve their shooting woes with their first round lottery pick, and the talent will be there, but how much could Clifford's defense cover for their defensive problems?

Eric Francis

The most stunning part of the Charlotte Bobcats' turnaround from the Mike Dunlap season to last year had to be the incredible about face in defense. Ranked dead last in defensive efficiency, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions, the prior Bobcats were a defensive mess. They gambled a bunch in an attempt to push the pace and generally didn't have the talent to punish teams for going to the rim.

But with a new coach and a slightly altered roster, the team became an imposing defensive unit this past season, allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions, a much improved number good enough to be the fifth-best in the league.

Not a whole lot changed in the lineup: Four of the five players who started for the Bobcats in April of 2013 returned to become season-long starters when the new season began the following October. The one change was an enormous one with the free agent signing of Al Jefferson, who would go on to win a couple NBA Player of the Month awards. Still, this was hardly to be expected. Jefferson's reputation as a defensive sieve with slow feet was well known, so he was not quite expected to turn Charlotte's defense into a powerhouse.

Rather, the defensive change came from Steve Clifford. His schemes focused on rotating well around the arc and closing out without gambling much, all while controlling ball penetration. He hid defensive shortcomings in the frontcourt with this, having Jefferson play a zone pick and roll defense well behind screens to avoid getting blown past by opposing guards or rolling big men. Though it gave up midrange shots, this was beneficial because of how less efficient midrange shots are, generally.

And even though the Bobcats didn't have a true rim protector in their starting frontcourt, Clifford's defense did that all the same thanks to a starting five with good communication and mobility. Perhaps no player was more important to Clifford's defense than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kidd-Gilchrist is a very smart and talented defender. He's physical, yet has the quickness, length and stride to cover ground quickly when defending on the ball or off it. His flexibility to defend multiple positions and cover the floor gave the Bobcats a versatile defender on the perimeter and inside the arc, making quick rotations to defend dribble-drive penetration as a help defender while still keeping an eye on his own man.

Clifford's defense here and being able to get everyone to fully buy in to it was the most instrumental part of the Bobcats defensive turnaround. The Bobcats' starting five had limited individual defensive ability, but together they became more than the sum of their parts.

With this in mind, it's fair to wonder how far Clifford's mind for the defensive side of the game can cover up other players' deficiencies.


The NBA Draft is upon us in a little over a week. The Hornets have two first-round picks: the No. 9 and No. 24 overall selections. The team has glaring weaknesses heading into the draft, and they will have the ability to fill some of those there.

The prospect most associated with the Hornets' name at No. 9 is undoubtedly Creighton's Doug McDermott. The sharp-shooting small forward has a knack for scoring, and doing so extremely efficiently. His worst three-point shooting season was his first in college, and since that year, he shot 48.6, 49 and 44.9 percent from behind the arc. McDermott does lack the athleticism that might make him more effective around the rim or when being defended by folks with longer wingspans, however. Still, he's got a great shooting stroke and scoring instincts and if the Hornets want scoring, his might be the name they'll be calling.

But it's not so much his offense that has some scouts worried. Though he's active on defense, his lack of athleticism holds back his defensive potential. One main concern is that McDermott doesn't have the quickness to defend small forwards or the strength to defend power forwards at the NBA level. And when taking into consideration his effectiveness as a defender in college, you see there's not even much of a base. He had 14 total blocks in four years and 34 total steals, incredibly low numbers for a player with such a big role.

So though he manages to be in position fairly well in the team scheme of things, I have to wonder how well he might fit on the team. If played at small forward or power forward, McDermott might struggle to defend either position. In Clifford's scheme, the wings tend to be the fulcrum of the defense, helping from the perimeter while being able to recover back to their opponent if needed. In this sense it seems McDermott could do well within the scheme. He's smart, understands how offenses work and where he should be positioned, and he's active. Still, the individual defensive weaknesses might not be too difficult for opposing teams to pinpoint and exploit. He isn't strong enough to deny positioning by power forwards and he isn't quick enough to prevent dribble-drive penetration on an island.

This isn't limited to McDermott, of course. Nik Stauskas, another wing player with strong shooting skills and weak defensive talent, is in the same category, but could have even worse defensive ability than McDermott thanks to poor agility, wingspan and awareness off the ball.

These players have plenty of strengths to plug the Hornets' gaping shooting holes, but when drafting with a lottery pick to become a major part of your rotation, the other side of the game should be in consideration, too. Whether they can improve is worth pondering, as is how well they can fit in the team's scheme with their role. Perhaps they can play alongside strong defenders that lessen the impact of their weak defense, but on an individual level, it still looks like a problem even if only on one v. one matchups.

Clifford's strength in crafting a defense and tying together a team with it has given him a bit of a reputation for managing to alleviate players' individual deficiencies, but where does it stop?