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Dissecting the Hornets defense

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Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

For those that follow me on Twitter you will know I am not one to overreact to early season statistical trends. In modern society we want everything right this second, technology can often deliver this outcome and we become accustomed to everything being sped up.

NBA Fandom has also evolved in such a way. After opening the season with losses to Cleveland and OKC Charlotte fans had already appointed a new tank commander.

Fast forward four days and the Hornets knock off NBA Contenders in the Nets & Mavericks and Charlotte are a playoff team again.

I appreciate some of these tweets are in jest and microcosms of Hornet fandom from the past 15 years. However, the point is still valid that we must show restraint and patience before making sweeping statements and reading too much into the statistical profile of a team. I always set myself “The Dime Rule”, I stay away from quoting shooting splits, line up data or defensive numbers until at least 10 games into the season. Following Charlotte’s win over the Knicks on Monday evening the team now sit a respectable 6-5 and we have surpassed that magical 10 game number.

What has really stood out to me so far this season is Charlotte’s defensive numbers, they currently rank 10th in defense per Cleaning the Glass, that’s up 15 places from last season’s rank of 25th. I have long been a sceptic of the defensive ceiling of this team’s current “Core”, in fact I even posed a question regarding this to the Buzz Beat Podcast (38 minute mark) which is worth a listen. Side note, if you aren’t already subscribed to the Buzz Beat Podcast then I highly recommend it, as well as At The Hive podcast of course.

So how has Charlotte improved its defense? I have split up the fivekey areas where Charlotte is having success, including highlighting areas for continuation and regression.

Hustle & Steals

Following a 114-95 loss to the Kings in January 2019 Borrego came out and said after the game “If we come out and defend with energy, physicality and disruption, we have a shot against anyone.” This is normal coach speak following a game, however, looking at the last two seasons from a statistical standpoint you can see what Borrego is referring to. The Hornets have consistently ranked in the bottom third of the league in steals, blocks and deflections over the past two seasons. Charlotte have struggled to disrupt or pressure opponents, this has also had a knock on effect with Charlotte struggling to get out and score in transition. However, fast forward to 20-21 and the defensive statistical outlook and is very different.

Hustle Stats

Hustle Stats 18-19 19-20 20-21
Hustle Stats 18-19 19-20 20-21
Steals 26th 21st 4th
Blocks 25th 18th 10th
Deflections 19th 25th 10th
Fast Break Pts 20th 21st 3rd

You can credit a lot of this improvement to the new players in the Hornets rotation to start the 20-21 season, Hayward (1.4), Ball (1.6) & Caleb Martin (0.8) all have active hands and are averaging almost four steals per game between them. That doesn’t tell the whole story though, even hold overs from last year such as Graham, Rozier, Washington & Bridges have increased their steal and block percentages, the overall scheme is much more aggressive.

As you can see in the figures above Charlotte are forcing errors from opposing teams and taking advantage on the other end. Observant fans amongst you will wonder how this has affected the team’s strong history of not fouling opponents. A carryover from the Steve Clifford era the Hornets have ranked 1st or 2nd in opponent Free Throw (FT) attempts per game since the 2016-17 season. It’s true Charlotte’s new approach has led to more fouls, Charlotte are currently 14th in opponent FT attempts per game (Steve Clifford just passed out). However, so far the payoff of aggressive defense vs fouls per game has been worth it.

Opponent shot location & shooting percentages

Digging into Charlotte’s opponent shot frequency and percentages gives cause for concern. The Hornets are forcing opponents to take just 40% of their shots from the midrange per Cleaning the Glass, good for 30th in the NBA. They are allowing the 5th most shots at the rim and most corner threes in the league per NBA.com, Charlotte’s opponents are shooting a turgid 31% from the right corner and a middling 39% from the left corner. Despite getting to the rim frequently, teams are averaging just 61% at the rim against Charlotte, good for 20th in the league.

Charlotte are giving up the most efficient shots in the NBA (Rim & corner 3s) to their opponents but so far they have yet to capitalise. You might choose to put that down to Charlotte successfully challenging shots and it’s fair to credit them to some extent, but I would expect regression with opponents shooting better percentages in the coming weeks.

Line-ups

With Cody Zeller’s hand injury Borrego has not so much leaned into playing PJ Washington at centre but was pushed off the edge of a cliff. Washington’s stats have not jumped off the page but the team success with the PJ Washington-Miles Bridges front court have been nothing short of spectacular. Charlotte are holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of just 50.9%, that ranks in the 82nd percentile of all line-ups in the NBA. PJ & Miles activity in the paint has been impressive helping to challenge shots at the rim. That frontcourt is unfortunately being punished on the boards, opponents are rebounding 31% of their missed shots ranking in the 3rd percentile per cleaning the glass. So far this payoff seems to be worth it, the Bridges-Washington minutes are a net +10.6 in 262 possessions ranking in the 90th percentile in the league, that’s good folks.

Mixing it Up

Borrego has really dipped into his box of tricks on the defensive end this year, you will see Charlotte run man to man, zone and full court pressure sometimes all in the same quarter. Charlotte is leading the NBA in number of zone possessions at 17 per game and holding opposing teams to 0.86 points per possession (Credit Buzz Beat Radio for that stat). Whenever Charlotte have time to set their defense such as after a timeout or an air ball watch out for the full court press which can drop into man or zone coverage.

Devonte Graham gave a fantastic quote following summarising this approach following Charlotte’s win over the Knicks on Monday. “Just keep mixing it up, it’s confusing teams, they don’t know if we’re going man, pressing, falling back to man or zone, I think we do a good job of switching it up and confusing them, sometimes we confused ourselves so you know they have to be confused on offense”. This Charlotte team knows it doesn’t have the super sized big or an all defensive team type player but they are buying into a wider scheme which is having an impact.

Lucky Charms

Charlotte’s opponents are shooting just 71.8% from the free throw line this season, this voodoo is not going to continue, you can expect some regression here. To put this in perspective the worst opponent shooting percentage from the free throw line last year was 75% by the New York Knicks. An interesting trend across the league right now is free throw shooting is down across the board, could this be linked to some early season rustiness or the lack of access to gyms and trainers over the pandemic? Interestingly the lack of booing home fans doesn’t seem to have offset this trend thus far, maybe the tactic when fans are allowed back is to go deadly silent and pretend they’re not there?

Overall I think you can expect the hustle stats to continue to be strengths of this team throughout the season, as well as the Miles + PJ front court stifling opponents. However, I expect opponents shooting percentages at the rim, corner 3 and free throw line to all increase. I don’t see Charlotte having the elite length or athleticism needed to disrupt opponents to the same extent over the course of a season.