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Stability under Steve Clifford could beget further defensive improvement

The Hornets had a great defensive start in Clifford's first year, and with more familiarity of his schemes could mean an even better defense.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Following their first playoff appearance since 2010, the Hornets preferred to not rest on their laurels satiated by the modest success of sliding into postseason play as the 7th seed in the East before being swept. Their biggest impact will likely be the addition of Lance Stephenson, a rising shooting guard on the cusp of being an All-Star with a colorful history of basketball hijinks that have been somewhat divisive.

We've delved a bit into how the Hornets could improve with the new acquisitions of Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts and their rookies, but as we've seen, Clifford's coaching ability and strategies can make for a team greater than the sum of the individual parts.

After two consecutive seasons as the worst defensive team in the NBA, Clifford installed the fundamental defensive principles to give the Bobcats a foundation they could lean on even when their offense wouldn't click. The result was progressively successful. A frail offense in the early months resulted in losing plenty of games their defense worked hard to keep them competitive in, but eventually Charlotte began to shoot better which gave their offense more scoring potential and they became a better, more well-rounded team. They finished the season as the fifth-best defensive team in the league.

The turnaround of the defense was quite the surprise given the only new addition to their starting lineup was Al Jefferson, who had a notorious reputation as a poor defender. With many of the same players from the previous season, Clifford invigorated the team's overall defense, which had some solid individual defenders.

But for the most part Clifford's defense succeeded due to hammering down the basics and maintaining discipline to adhere to his admittedly simple defensive strategies, which revolved around minimizing mistakes and giving up chasing turnovers to do so.

The team had to get back in transition, no excuses. Lacking an offensive rebounding threat outside of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Bobcats had little chance at grabbing those caroms, which would open gashes in their defense down the court, leading to easier scoring opportunities for their opponents. Charlotte would see better defensive performance by abandoning those chances to focus on preventing fastbreak scoring. And they did, moving from 29th to first in defensive rebounding percentage (an estimate of what percent of available rebounds a team grabs).

As for the halfcourt defense, Clifford got a comprehensive effort from his starters to contain ball penetration, giving opponents the less efficient midrange shot. Jefferson would zone up in pick and roll defense, staying back from screens to ensure full vision and mobility to defend around the rim. To shore up the interior defense with this strategy, Clifford opted to give opponents more midrange opportunities since Jefferson would have a tough time recovering to challenge a pick-and-pop shot.

The wings would help limit space for the opposing offense by sneaking off from the perimeter while needing to keep an eye on their defender (Kidd-Gilchrist was probably the best at this). This also hurt the Bobcats' three-point defense but it was something they were fine with doing to maintain a toughness in the paint, and they still made the full effort to close out and contest shots. All told, the strategies minimized the Bobcats' individual defensive weaknesses to maximize their overall success.

And above all, Clifford maintained an attention to detail, a precision that demands execution and minimizing errors. Even though their defense had its weaknesses, those errors were ones Clifford understood and lived with as opposed to ones to maintain the integrity of his defense. Doing so limited their ability to force turnovers, but missed shots have the same end effect and with their focus on transition defense combined for a much more solid defense on all fronts.

This brings us to his second year and a weird feeling of stability, or at least more stability than in recent years. For any current Hornet other than Gerald Henderson, this will be their first time in Charlotte heading into a season with the same coach they finished the previous season with.

Having successfully taught his defensive base to their core players, Clifford now can focus on adding more complexity to his defense, something he talked about in an interview with Matt Moore of CBS Sports.

We're just playing base defense. We're not doing a lot. For me, to be an elite defense or a unit that can defend in the playoffs, there are things that we need to add. I don't think we're ready for it this year. We may do a few things here and there. Really, my thing is they're buying into it, they're trying hard, and we have guys who are capable of doing it.

Familiarity can breed a lot of this. Having the same key components both in the roster and in the coaching staff can help the players continue to learn the ins and outs of the defenses' reactions, leading to better help defense.

And the new personnel could fit in smoothly as Lance Stephenson played in a very similar defensive scheme in Indiana under Frank Vogel, and Marvin Williams should provide similar defensive capabilities as Josh McRoberts.

Stephenson talked a lot about his ability to bring a "defensive edge" to the Hornets. His tenacious defense and good agility could make for one of the more solid perimeter defenses in the league. Both have good footwork and Stephenson is physical while managing to control his foul trouble. Gerald Henderson wasn't a defensive slouch, but Stephenson's more aggressive and could propel their perimeter defense to new levels.

From the bench perspective, the Hornets could have a more well-rounded offense with Gerald Henderson (though it's no given he won't be the starter) and a much-improved defense. There's a huge difference in the starters and bench defenders, as the reserves are much more mobile and boast better shotblocking with Bismack Biyombo. They have the ability to sub in and give the rotation the capability to be more aggressive in pick and roll defense in blitzing schemes to trap the ballhandler and in trying to force turnovers.

The Hornets/Bobcats' recent history has been rife with upheaval and roster turnover, and even this offseason has had plenty of new additions via free agency and the draft.

But their only major loss was Josh McRoberts as they kept almost all of their core. With those same major players at the center of their roster and with Steve Clifford heading into his second season, the Hornets have the chance to further develop their defense with more top-to-bottom talent.