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Numbers indicate the Hornets emphasize principles that aren’t working anymore

The Hornets have underachieved in each of the last two seasons, with many fans placing the blame on an antiquated system. The numbers seam to bear that out.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Plastered on the wall in the Charlotte Hornets practice facility is a huge sign detailing what the Hornets must do well in order to be a winning team. That sign reads:

Offensive Musts

  • We play with great energy
  • We are unselfish
  • We play inside out
  • We are low turnover
  • We play to our strengths and help our teammates play to their strengths

Defensive Musts

  • We get back in transition
  • We protect the paint
  • We close out and contest
  • We defend without fouling
  • We block out and rebound

The Hornets have been elite in almost all of these areas throughout Steve Clifford’s tenure. They were able to parlay those successes into playoff berths in two of Clifford’s fist three seasons at the helm but haven’t been able to top 36 wins in the two seasons since. The eye test indicated the Hornets were falling behind the times. More and more teams have switched to uptempo, 3-point arc-centric offensive systems that seemed to leave the Hornets in the dust most nights. I took a deep dive into some numbers to see if the statistics backed up the eye test.

To the best of my ability, I pulled stats that I thought best represented each of the offensive and defensive musts. Corresponding with the list above, here are the stats I used:

Offensive Musts

  • We play with great energy (No stat available)
  • We are unselfish (Assist rate)
  • We play inside out (Number of field goal attempts within 5 feet of the basket)
  • We are low turnover (Turnover rate)
  • We play to our strengths and help our teammates play to their strengths (No stat for this, either)

Defensive Musts

  • We get back in transition (Opponent transition frequency and opponent transition points per possession)
  • We protect the paint (Opponent field goal attempts within 5 feet of the basket and opponent field goal percentage within 5 feet of the basket)
  • We close out and contest (Frequency of opponent jump shots taken with a defender within 4 feet of the shooter)
  • We defend without fouling (Foul rate)
  • We block out and rebound (Defensive rebound rate)

Instead of looking at each of those attributes and their relation to winning on a case by case basis, I melded them all into one stat - the Clifford Rating. The Clifford Rating was calculated by taking the team’s values in each statistical category and dividing them by the league averages over the last three seasons. The positive stats like assist rate and defensive rate were assigned positive values while the negative stats like turnover rate and foul rate were assigned negative values. The scores were normalized so the average score was 0.0 and voila, we have a Clifford Rating. So the better a team is at those offensive and defensive musts listed above, the higher their Clifford Rating will be.

The obvious litmus test for the Clifford Rating is where it ranked the Hornets. Over the last three seasons, the Hornets have ranked 1st, 2nd, and 2nd in this stat I made up. Another good test is to see where it ranks Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons, as Van Gundy is often cited as the biggest influence on Clifford’s coaching style. His Pistons teams ranked 2nd, 1st, and 3rd in Clifford Rating over the last three seasons.

So this number seems useful enough. Here’s a scatter plot of teams’ win percentages as a function of their Clifford Ratings:

There is an apparent positive correlation between Clifford Rating and win percentage over the last three seasons. There are certainly very few teams that frequently lose while putting Clifford’s principles into practice. However, a look at the trend lines for each individual season shows something interesting.

In each of the last three seasons, the correlation between The Clifford Rating and winning has dwindled. In 2017-18, the correlation was virtually gone. In fact, when the tanking teams are removed from the equation, the correlation becomes negative.

This indicates that Clifford’s preferred style of play is losing its luster and is not leading to wins anymore. The rest of the league seems to be realizing this, as the 2017-18 season saw a marked shift away from Cliff ball.

In 2015-16, nine* teams had a Clifford Rating below 0. In 2016-17, that number increased to 12. This past season, that number jumped all the way to 21. That can be explained by two factors. One, many front offices saw the downturn in success of teams running the type of system Hornets fans are accustomed to and quickly jumped ship, and two, the newer style of play made it harder to successfully put those defensive musts into practice.

The Hornets have been playing a style of basketball that was all the rage in the 2000s and early 2010s. Now the league is shifting to a faster, more free flowing perimeter oriented game that can’t be overpowered by the cautious, deliberate style the Hornets coaching staff chooses to employ. After two straight disappointing seasons, the Hornets have to think long and hard about whether this is the right coaching staff to move forward with, and if retained, whether Clifford is willing to adopt new principles that better correlate with success.

*Only 28 teams have a Clifford Rating for 2015-16 as the Nuggets and Kings did not have play type data that season.