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Is it scheme or personnel? A look into Charlotte’s poor perimeter defense this past season

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The 2016-17 season marked coach Steve Clifford’s first mediocre defensive squad, the most 3-pointers given up in the whole league and shaky execution against the pick-and-roll, among other things. What gives?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

One particular word comes to mind when trying to characterize Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets and that is “consistency”.

Charlotte’s head coach has preached the same things — like transition defense and not fouling — for four seasons now, and the players have bought in year in, year out.

If you take a look at the Hornets team stats, it’s easy to see how committed the players are to Clifford’s strategy. This was the first NBA season since 2012-13 in which the Charlotte Horncats didn’t finish first in Defensive Rebound Percentage.

The Hornets — as always abandoning the offensive glass and putting an extra focus on securing their own — finished “only” second to the Detroit Pistons.

Per Basketball Reference, Pat Riley’s New York Knicks (1991 - 1994) are the lone other NBA team to finish first in this category for three straight seasons ever since the NBA first began tracking offensive and defensive rebounds separately in 1973-74.

Charlotte did, however, four-peat in taking care of the ball as it was the fourth season in a row that the Hornets had the league’s lowest Turnover Percentage. Only Doug Moe’s Denver Nuggets have also reached this mark as they lead the league for a whopping five seasons in a row from 1985-86 to 1989-90 (can’t turn it over if you have such a quick trigger).

Overall, that’s a level of discipline that is uncanny in the NBA.

Yet there was some slippage away from that consistency this season, as the Horncats finished outside of the top-10 in Defensive Efficiency for the first time under Steve Clifford’s helm.

What is the easiest thing to point at in this regard? No other NBA team gave up as many 3-point field goal attempts and makes as did the Charlotte Hornets. Given the trajectory of the league, the Hornets will, for at least a year, hold the league’s all-time record of allowing the opponent to make 950 3-pointers in a single season.

Charlotte had previously fallen as low as being the eighth worst offender in giving up threes during the 2015-16 season, but not as low as this. In the age of the 3-pointer that isn’t a place you want to reside.

Roster composition is a notable factor. The 2014-15 Hornets played Cody Zeller at power forward, didn’t mind starting Bismack Biyombo alongside him and got 63 makes from 3-point range total from their three main wings in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Lance Stephenson. Not exactly pace and space basketball.

What followed was an offensive revolution of sorts as the Hornets shook up their roster and playing style to become a more contemporary team. However, it has resulted in gradually losing some of the team’s best defensive pieces and acquiring minus players on that end of the court.

Hornets wings aren’t capable of limiting penetration as much as they used to be. The duo of MKG and Hendo were masters at keeping the action towards the sidelines and thus limiting drives through the middle. It was easier to hide Al Jefferson thanks to the two of them pulling off such nifty ICE-ing of pick-and-rolls:

Charlotte gave up the least shot attempts from the restricted area in the whole league in 2014-15. If you stop the ball handler from ever getting to the middle, his chances at getting a good look at the rim worsen.

The team has finished 9th and 10th the last two years in this category.

Nicolas Batum, for example, has provided Charlotte with plenty of invaluable skills to boost their previously anemic offense, however, he’s nowhere near the perimeter defender that Hendo was for the bees. His defensive effort was already discussed after the 2015-16 season and not much has changed in regards to his suave approach to basketball.

The Frenchman quite simply plays as if he had made a bet with someone that he could last a full NBA season without ever bending his knees on defense. While his lanky body could be so fitting for the defensive end, the poor fundamentals of his stance just don’t allow him to be a capable defender. You won’t be able to stay in front of NBA-level ball handlers by defending in straight legs:

Marco Belinelli just isn’t athletic enough to play a full, modern NBA game where the court is spread and not get beat on a couple of back-doors, close-outs or offensive rebounds.

He can also, you know, get singled out for a merciless one-on-one.

(For the record, that’s Alan Anderson who played in 30 games this season and made only 30 field goal attempts.)

Jeremy Lamb can anticipate plays with his long hands, yet his attention to detail comes and goes. Kemba Walker is feisty and goes all out, but at times can be picked on due to his size. Backup point guards Ramon Sessions and Brian Roberts leave a lot to be desired.

Nevertheless, finishing as a top-10 team in shots given up at the rim is actually commendable. Those looks produce the two most effective shots in basketball - layups/dunks and free throws. Limit those and you’re halfway there.

The catch is that there are signs that such an achievement came at the expense of giving up a barrage of 3-pointers. Also not too shabby of a shot attempt for the offense.

It seems like there’s a better middle ground to be found here.

The Hornets weren’t shy about helping one pass away if the situation suggested the least bit that the ball handler might end up in the paint:

Despite the mismatch at hand, that seems like too easy of a pass for Tyreke Evans to make.

The philosophy of limiting such drives by helping out is understandable. Yet there can be too much cleaning up to do when having a leaky perimeter defense in the first place. Have perimeter players giving up middle on pick-and-rolls or just straight dribble drives and there will be an abundance of opportunities for the opponent to slice you up with the pass.

Heck, even MKG will get stopped in his tracks by a screen from time to time.

That’s where one gets to Charlotte’s pick-and-roll schemes and wonders how much do they exactly affect the volume of incoming 3-pointers.

With Cody Zeller replacing the more plodding Al Jefferson in the starting center spot, the Hornets have played a fairly aggressive pick-and-roll coverage where Zeller almost comes up to the level of the screen to meet the ball handler.

It’s his task to jump out quickly and force the man with the ball to hesitate or stop.

“There’s different terms teams will use. Most will call that “shock the ball””, an Eastern Conference assistant coach explained in a conversation for the article.

“Zeller is pretty athletic and quick for his size so with players like that you try to stop the ball at level of the screen,” he continued.

This strategy goes hand in hand with the Hornets principle of not allowing shots at the rim. By being more aggressive, you keep the ball handler from driving deep into the paint. In a way, the defense then becomes the one that forces the issues by deciding that the ball handler will have to swing the ball.

Play a more conservative scheme where your big drops back and you’ll face the possibility of the ball handler turning the corner and going downhill. The Hornets objective is to keep this one-on-one date from ever happening.

It isn’t solely on the center either. Guards will pull in to make the paint look crowded and possibly deal with the roll man.

“The center is going to be more concerned with stopping the ball and will rely on his teammates behind him to help on the roller,” the assistant coach said. “Once the ball handler picks it up or passes it, he’s retreating right back to the rim to find his guy and everybody else then kicks back out to their men.”

It looks good when it actually works out. Force the guard to make a floating pass over your big and there’s enough time to get back home while the ball is in the air. Someone might even get a little messy on their catch and you’re scot-free:

Yet it’s not as if offenses don’t know what’s coming. With the amount of pick-and-roll coverages ball handlers have seen, luring out the defenders and then kicking the ball cross-court for an open 3-pointer is pretty doable.

Note how much ground Jeremy Lamb has to cover on the close-out (hold that thought).

If the man above the break moves towards the ball or steps into the shot at the right exact time, you might even find the downtown look one pass away.

Certain teams have been fairly confident about sucking in Charlotte’s weak side defenders and then finding open men to attack from deep. A version of that happened in the 2016 Playoffs as Miami game planned for the Hornets and launched away with its four shooters who surrounded Hassan Whiteside’s dives to the basket.

Thus it seems fair to ask whether every ball handler in the NBA deserves such close attention.

The similarly sized Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams could be used for a larger dose of switching, a facet of the game that the Hornets don’t use as much as certain other teams.

Same applies for the agile Cody Zeller who frequently hops out to the perimeter as it is. His track record suggests that he could switch on ball handlers later in the shot clock to stall possessions.

You could also be a bit more conservative against some of the backups. Zoning up the pick-and-roll by having your big man hang near the foul line and then drop back against the driver is definitely a strategy for a team with a more imposing center. Zeller and Miles Plumlee aren’t exactly the type.

Yet Zeller is a fairly competent rim protector. His 6-11 wingspan isn’t threatening, but the Hoosier has finished around 50% the last three seasons in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. That’s basically a middle of the pack center.

His 6-11 wingspan won’t lead to many blocks, yet he reads the game well and has mastered Roy Hibbert’s verticality play:

Zeller “shocks the ball” so frequently that he’s shown time and time again his capabilities of mirroring the ball handler. He’ll at least stay in front of a dangerous athlete who’s coming downhill that runway to attack him:

Obviously, both the data and the eye test could look worse if he had to face more of these dangerous situations. However, it remains a place where Charlotte could tilt the scales a bit. Play more aggressively against specific threats, but stay moreso home on the shooters when facing lesser operators in the pick-and-roll.

There’s only so much that the scheme itself determines, though. After all, everyone runs the pick-and-roll nonstop because it’s so difficult to defend.

That’s where you have to return to the personnel whose job is to execute it.

Per Inpredictable, the Hornets were the seventh worst team last season in points given up after a defensive rebound for the opposition.

Basically, they were unusually bad in transition, and that counts as blasphemy in the church of Steve Clifford. Charlotte was fourth best in the league the season before and had never been lower than 12th during the Maine native’s time here.

If you abort the glass like the Hornets do (fourth lowest Offensive Rebound Percentage in 2016-17), it’s a lose-lose to also be vulnerable when retreating back. There were just too many inexcusable errors this year for a Steve Clifford coached team.

Bad floor balance and lack of communication also contributed to some costly buckets being given up after a miss.

Problems of communication would rear their ugly head when having to execute in the team’s aggressive pick-and-roll scheme, to boot.

Charlotte typically plays what is called an “X-out”. The player (Marvin Williams) who’s guarding the man in the corner steps in the lane to tag the roll man, while the other perimeter player (Brian Roberts) who is on the wing is responsible for the close-out on the first pass. You then expect that the former switches on the fly and jumps out to the man on the wing.

“It’s called an X-out because when you draw the pattern on the board it makes an X,” the assistant coach elaborated.

The downside is that even when executed fairly good -- like on the play above -- it just requires absolute precision and lightning quick communication. In a way, you’re willingly taking a player off the very dangerous man in the corner. That half a second might be too much, especially when you end up with a guard in Brian Roberts closing out on the 6-10 Nikola Mirotic.

Perhaps, it’s no wonder that only three other teams gave up more corner 3-pointers than the Hornets did, per nba.com.

At times, lack of execution lead to those corner looks. The team never reached the necessary understanding between one another which is vital for the X-out to work. One would assume that the threat wasn’t big enough to do any switching, while the other would expect that you go about it according to the plan:

Look, this is some hard stuff. Breakdowns happen in this situation. Finding the right groove between bumping the roll man and somewhat staying at home is one helluva task. Worry about what’s happening behind your back for too long and that 7-footer will score right at the basket:

Teams know that. Offenses will target that man on purpose.

“Teams will have some false movement to try to hide what they’re getting ready to do and they’ll end up having two guys on the side where the ball’s coming off,” the Eastern Conference coach said. “If there’s one guy on the weak side and he’s a shooter, that causes a lot of problems for a defense. That’s one of the toughest plays to guard.”

That, oh, so lonely assignment is known in NBA hoops lingo as a “single side bump”.

Facing such difficult actions might just be another reason for toning it down. That especially applies to lineups where you have two below average wing defenders in Batum and Belinelli performing this dance (unsurprisingly, lineups that featured the two of them gave up 110.8 points per 100 possessions, the second worst mark among the top-20 most used Hornets duos).

It might not be wise to expect good execution when players who are bad at closing out are inserted in such a role.

Add that to the list of reasons why Kaminsky is more comfortable at center, even if that presents you with some other challenges on defense.

Some of this might just require time for the players to get on the same page, even if they aren’t defensive stalwarts. If you insist on being aggressive, you can designate responsibilities so the worse defensive player is always responsible for closing out on the lesser shooter.

“There’s different views on that,” the coach explained. “Some teams will designate and then want those guys to communicate if there’s two players over there. One has to pick up the roller and the other one has to rotate to the first pass, no matter which way it goes.”

It also makes us return to the bigger elephant in the room which is Charlotte’s lack of flexibility. They’re locked in on a core of their own draftees — Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — and a few veterans with big deals in Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Miles Plumlee. Those six players eat up the most of the $100 million the Hornets are slated to pay in 2018-2019. Then there’s Frank Kaminsky who is a summer away from a possible rookie extension.

Therefore there isn’t exactly an easy way towards acquiring help for the defense.

Moreover, Batum and someone like Marco Belinelli — both of whom have received a decent amount of flak for their showing on that end of the court — are quite valuable to the team’s offense. Charlotte created a frequency of only 4.1 percent of isolation plays — almost a 100 less than the 29th placed Orlando Magic — and needs all the creativity it can get.

A couple of the veterans already seem to be on the decline. Besides, their “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” performance on offense has been nice, yet a reminder that the offense scored only 100.7 points per 100 possessions without Kemba Walker on the court is also worthwhile (the next biggest hit is an offensive rating of 104.5 without Batum).

The sad truth is just that finding wing players who are above average on both ends of the court is hard for a reason. No matter how good or bad the Malachi Richardson trade was, you gladly take the shooting that Belinelli gives you for $6 million. There’s not much else you expect out of a first wing off the bench.

Batum’s rebounding from the wing position also needs to be mentioned and it has certainly helped the Hornets sustain their success on the glass. You can’t close out the possession if you don’t grab the miss.

All in all, it seems like it will be hard to improve on defense when retaining most of the last year’s pieces, sans any transaction wonders by Rich Cho.

In a way, it will again be on coach Clifford’s staff to make something out of the nothing and on the players to retain that consistency.