The Charlotte Hornets have somewhat surprisingly made it to this point in the season as one of the best offense’s in the league. Their 112.8 offensive rating is only behind the historically good Utah Jazz offense. They’re second in the league in assist-to-turnover ration and third in the league in 3-point field goal percentage. But despite having an elite offense, the Hornets have a negative point differential and are just two games over .500. For as good as the offense has been, the defense has equally as poor. The Hornets are 28th in defensive rating, meaning Hornets opponents are just as good offensively as the Hornets are.
The Hornets are notably bad in a few areas, and most of them are fixable to an extent. The main roster weakness is the lack of a true deterrent on the interior, but the Hornets are doing a pretty good job making up for that. They block shots and protect the rim pretty well—they’re 10th in the league in blocks per game and opponents field goal percentage at the rim is middle of the road. It’s not elite by any means, but it’s not bad considering the team likes to use 6’7” PJ Washington as one of their main centers.
The bigger issue on the interior is the Hornets inability to secure defensive rebounds. They are 27th in the league in defensive rebound percentage and dead last in opponent second chance points. Their lack of size is going to lead to problems on the glass, so this is something the Hornets are going to have to make do with for the rest of the season.
There are other, larger problems that the Hornets should be able to make a dent in as the season goes along. Their opponents’ shot profile is exactly what you don’t want to see as a defense. Hornets opponents get a lot of shot attempts both at the rim and behind the 3-point line while taking fewer mid range jumpers than almost any other team in the league (only Rockets opponents shoot fewer). On top of that, the Hornets give up more wide open 3-pointers per game than anyone else in the league.
Those things are fixable. We’ve seen this group defend at a high level in spurts, but it hasn’t been consistent. There are too many breakdowns where the Hornets are one or two rotations short of a strong defensive possession. They get undone by the extra pass on the perimeter. Too often a perimeter defender will react after the ball is swung to an open player instead of proactively rotating over. The same issue manifests itself on the interior as well, where help defense will be a step slow cutting off a driving angle.
That reactionary help defense is why Hornets opponents are getting the shots they want. If the Hornets quicken up the rotations, they can run more opponents off the 3-point line and get bodies in the way of the rim. That leads to fewer high-efficiency shots and more floaters and mid range jumpers.
The good news is the Hornets have shown signs of figuring it out in recent weeks. The covid outbreak seemed to reinforce the Hornets underdog mentality and increase their defensive effort and togetherness. The team’s defense has been closer to league average in the last two weeks, which is a huge improvement over league worst. The offensive efficiency proves sustainable, a league average defense will get the Hornets comfortably into the playoffs. It’s unlikely the Hornets add the size and bulk that will help them become elite at rebounding and protecting the rim, but the Hornets don’t need to be elite at those things to be a passable defense. They just need to improve the consistency of their effort and be more proactive with their help defense, and they should get to the level they need to be.