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The Hornets recent defensive success might be a mirage

Sometimes evidence changes opinions.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure—the end result of this little piece is much different than what I originally intended. The idea was to write about how good the Charlotte Hornets defense has been over the last few games. I dug into the NBA’s stat pages to explain how this is happening and realized something. Maybe the Hornets have just been lucky.

The Hornets have won four of their last six games. In that six game stretch, their 104.6 defensive rating is eighth best in the league. That’s even more impressive when you consider their offense has completely gone in the tank in that same span, meaning more defensive possessions off missed shots and turnovers.

So the question becomes where that improvement in defense has come from. The Hornets seem more cohesive on that end just based on the eye test. There are more rotations and more movement. Players are starting to look like they know what they’re doing a little bit. But the eye test can deceive. Where the Hornets have actually improved isn’t as encouraging.

In the first 25 games of the season, the Hornets gave up averages of 50.9 points in the paint, 13.3 second chance points, and 12.8 fast break points. In their most recent six games, they’ve given up 46.3 points in the paint, 14.8 second chance points, and 10.3 fast break points. So they’ve done marginally better getting back in transition and preventing points in the paint, but it’s not enough to account for the 9.3 point jump in defensive rating.

It isn’t from forcing live ball turnovers either. In the Hornets first 25 games, they averaged 6.8 steals per game. In their most recent six, they’re averaging 6.0. Hornets opponents in total are averaging about two turnovers more per game, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a result of the Hornets playing good defense or if they’ve gotten a couple extra travel calls and inaccurate passes from their opponents.

So now we come to opponent shooting. In the first 25 games of the season, 20.0% of Hornets opponents shots were wide open 3-pointers (at least six feet of space between the shooter and the closest defender). In the last six games, that number has actually gone up to 21.6% of opponent shots. The difference is in the conversion rate. In the last six games, Hornets opponents have connected on just 27.4% of their wide open 3-pointers. If they had hit an average rate of their wide open 3-pointers, it’d add about five points per game to their totals.

So it seems the biggest reason for the Hornets recent defensive success is that opponents are missing more shots. Some of that can be dictated by the Hornets by means of funneling the open shots to weaker shooters, forcing the shots to be taken in higher pressure situations like the end of the shot clock, etc. But typically those numbers are variable and exist somewhat independently of what the defense is doing.

There are other things the Hornets are doing well, and maybe they’d be more clear if I had access to different information or the time to find it. I’d like to look at what kinds of turnovers the Hornets are benefiting from, but I don’t know where those stats exist. I’d tell you about the Hornets interior defense, but a bunch of the NBA’s stat pages are broken, including the ones about defending shots within six feet of the basket. There could be more telling information in there.

But right now, we know for certain that the Hornets are benefiting from opponents shooting atypically poorly from deep. As the schedule toughens up, we’ll see if that’s just dumb luck or something the Hornets are actively forcing.