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Turning a strength into a weakness: How a staple of the Hornets defensive identity has backfired on them in recent seasons

Steve Clifford came to Charlotte with a reputation as a tough, defense-first coach. Now it seems like his approach may actually be hurting his team’s defense.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford’s often stresses that in order to be a good team, the Hornets have to defend at an elite level. It makes sense. The Hornets aren’t a team with elite scorers, but they do have several high effort guys with strong defensive potential. That defensive mindset translated into two playoff berths in Steve Clifford’s first four years as a coach. However, the last two seasons have seen that defense slip into mediocre territory without a drastic change in personnel. In fact, the team even acquired defensive stalwart Dwight Howard to bolster the team’s toughness and interior presence. It hasn’t helped. What gives?

Parsing through some numbers reveals that it comes down to a problem in the Hornets defensive system. The chart below is a mapping between teams’ defensive ratings and their field goal percentage differential, i.e. how far above or below average opponents shoot when facing each team. The bottom left quadrant are teams that hold their opponents below their normal shooting percentages and also have a better than average defensive rating. Likewise, teams in the upper right quadrant allow their opponents to shoot above their normal rates, leading to a worse than average defensive rating. You’ll find that the Hornets are one of just four teams in neither of those two quadrants.

The Hornets share that lower right quadrant with the New York Knicks. That quadrant represents teams that hold their opponents under their normal shooting percentages, yet also allow their opponents to score more than their usual number of points. It seems counter-intuitive. Forcing an opponent to make fewer shots should naturally lead to those opponents scoring fewer points. That hasn’t been the case with these two teams.

The answer to that riddle is a common thread shared by both teams — they allow opponents to attempt an extraordinary amount of 3-pointers. In fact, Knicks’ opponents hoist up the most three point attempts in the league, averaging 33.8 such attempts per game. The Hornets sit fourth on that list with just the Hawks and Cavaliers sitting between them. All four of these teams are sporting below average defenses.

Before getting into what’s causing this breakdown, it needs to be noted that Steve Clifford is fantastic at getting his team to execute the fundamentals of his ideology. He preaches low turnovers, and the Hornets have been historically proficient at taking care of the ball under his watch. He preaches team rebounding on the defensive end, and every one of his Charlotte teams has finished the season either first or second in defensive rebounding percentage. He preaches defending without fouling, and the Hornets always find themselves among the top five in opponent free throw rate. Every value he’s instilled in his team has been carried out exquisitely.

But that’s where we run into a problem.

He demands his team to protect the paint and force opponents to shoot jump shots. Once again, the Hornets are excellent at this. Hornets opponents attempt just 26.1 shots per game within five feet of the basket, the fourth lowest mark in the league. In theory that sounds excellent, but it doesn’t bare out so much in practice. The below chart shows the relationship between how many shot attempts teams allow within five feet of the basket and their respective defensive ratings.

There’s absolutely no correlation at all. Teams have an equal shot at being good defensively whether opponents are shooting tons of shots near the basket or very few. It just doesn’t matter.

The idea of protecting the paint first and foremost is becoming outdated by the modern NBA game. When utilizing this school of thought, the goal is to force the opponent to settle for more jump shots, which are obviously lower percentage shots than layups. Unfortunately for Steve Clifford and other coaches of his ilk, teams aren’t falling into the trap of settling for mid-range jump shots. Instead, they are spotting up behind the 3-point line. Here’s a chart that shows the percentage of opponents possessions that ended in mid-range and 3-point jump shots since Steve Clifford took over as coach.

Hornets opponents midrange vs. three point attempts

Year MRA% 3PA%
Year MRA% 3PA%
2013-14 24.70% 23.22%
2014-15 25.07% 23.18%
2015-16 22.29% 25.97%
2016-17 18.80% 32.09%
2017-18 18.71% 31.58%

In Clifford’s first year as coach, there was a near 50/50 split between midrange jumpers and three pointers attempted against the Hornets. Now opponents are shooting about 169 percent more 3-pointers than mid-range shots. They aren’t falling into the trap of shooting contested jumpers. They are shooting more 3’s and becoming more efficient because of it. Steve Clifford needs to adjust accordingly, and so far he isn’t doing it.

This article isn’t just a hit piece, however. I’m bringing solutions to the table here. And that solution is pretty simple — shift the emphasis of the defense away from the paint and out to the 3-point line. The earlier chart showed there’s no correlation between how many shots a defense allows near the basket and their defensive effectiveness. But what about three pointers?

It’s rather weak, but there is a very apparent correlation between allowing your opponent to attempt 3’s and your defensive success, and this isn’t even accounting for the conversion rate of these attempts. Teams tend to have better defenses if they simply run their opponents off the arc.

If Steve Clifford wants his defense to improve, he needs to adjust for that fact. To do that, he needs to trust Howard and Cody Zeller to protect the basket without much help from their teammates on the perimeter. The only acceptable exception to this is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as he’s proven to be very adept at closing out to shooters after helping in the lane. All of three are capable of handling the responsibility of defending the rim.

We have another chart to prove this. Here are the aforementioned three players’ defensive field goal differential within six feet of the basket.

Hornets best rim protectors

Player DFGM DFGA DFG% FG% Diff% Rank
Player DFGM DFGA DFG% FG% Diff% Rank
Dwight Howard 2.3 3.8 59.2 65.9 -6.7 47
Cody Zeller 1.3 2.5 50 60.1 -10.1 23
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 1.9 3.8 49.1 64.8 -15.8 4

For context, these rankings are from a sampling of 161 players that have played at least ten games and contest at least 2.5 shots per game within six feet of the basket.

As an aside, MKG has the NBA’s best overall Diff% among 168 players that have played at least 10 games and contest at least 8 shots per game. He’s currently holding opponents 9.3 percent below their normal shooting percentage.

For years, Steve Clifford had the Hornets performing above their talent level. That isn’t the case anymore. Over the last two seasons, the Hornets have added talent to the roster, but it hasn’t translated to wins on the court. The coaching staff needs to adapt their defensive strategy to account for the ever changing NBA landscape that is now dominated by three point shooting. If they don’t, Steve Clifford and the rest of the Hornets could find themselves sitting on their couch watching the NBA playoffs from the comfort of their own homes.