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Defense is the path forward for the Hornets

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Breaking down the defensive potential of the Charlotte Hornets

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

As of now, the Hornets are hovering around the 7-10 seed of the Eastern Conference. They’re a very up-and-down team, seemingly winning every other game they play at the moment. Some games they do certain things better than in others, but at the end of the day there’s only so much they can control.

The Hornets are one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, but unless Mitch Kupchak goes out and trades for another big-man it will probably remain that way. Their offense can be inconsistent at times, going through cold stretches where shots just won’t fall, but the talent is clearly there for that aspect to improve. While there are some aspects to the game that the Hornets may not be able to fix immediately, the one thing they can work on is defense.

It’s no secret that the Hornets don’t have any elite defenders on the roster. The closest thing they have is Gordon Hayward and he’s a good defender at the very best. This doesn’t mean the team can’t improve as a whole, though. Certain guys have their defensive strengths and weaknesses, but it’s up to James Borrego to put them in the right position to succeed.

The most intriguing of Charlotte’s young defenders has to be Miles Bridges. The intensity he brings to the floor is evident every time he comes off the bench. While he’s struggled to stay consistent in terms of shooting, his defensive potential is clearly there and the statistics show it. There have been 56 different 5-man lineups the Hornets have run this season, and Bridges is in the top three in terms of defensive rating. On top of that, he appears in one lineup in particular that has held opponents to only 4.0% shooting from the field this season.

The lineup of Devonte’ Graham, Ball, Cody Martin, Bridges, and PJ Washington has played 12 total minutes this season on the floor together. In those 12 minutes, they have held opponents to just 1-25 shooting from the field, including only 1-17 from deep. They also forced five turnovers in those 12 minutes, and held their opponents to a +/- of -12. While it may be a small sample size, for an opponent to shoot that percentage on that high of a volume means that the lineup must be doing something right.

That leads into the next point of PJ Washington being tested as a center this season. While Cody Zeller may have drastically improved the Hornets as a team when he returned from his injury, defense has never been his strong suit. He’s much more aware and versatile on the defensive end than Bismack Biyombo is, but he’s no Embiid-stopper. While Washington may not be as good as Zeller is in terms of experience, he definitely has the potential to be a solid post defender.

Some notable guys Washington has guarded for at least three minutes of game time this season include Pascal Siakam, Clint Capela, and Domantas Sabonis. While he’s not the best perimeter defender, allowing Siakam to shoot 2-3 from deep, he held these three to 1-4, 1-5, and 1-3 shooting from two-point range, respectively. Again, while this may be a small sample size it at least shows that the potential is there for him to turn into a viable option to defend the post. (Washington was also a part of that so-called “12-minute impenetrable lineup” with Bridges.)

As for perimeter defense, having Graham, Rozier, and Ball as the main options at guard definitely isn’t ideal. Graham often gets blown by with ease, Ball has struggled defensively his entire basketball career, and while Rozier definitely shows effort on that end, he’s not someone the Hornets should be comfortable throwing at the other team’s star point guard. Despite this, all three have shown signs that improvement is possible.

Ball has the size to be a great perimeter defender. His length allows him to contest shots with ease if he can learn to be in the right spot at the right time. Looking at some notable guys he’s guarded for at least three minutes this season, there’s definitely things to be encouraged by. He’s guarded Kevin Huerter (40.8% 3PT), Justin Holiday (42.1% 3PT), and Trey Burke (38.8% 3PT) for 5:11, 4:49, and 3:59 minutes this season, respectively, In those minutes Huerter shot 1-4 from deep, Burke shot 0-4 from deep, and Holiday shot 1-5 from deep. That’s three above average three-point shooters Ball was able to stop.

The talent is there, Ball just has to improve upon the things that don’t show up in the box score. Being in the right place and making the correct rotations are two that come to mind. On top of that, his ability to stay in front of guys has to improve. On-ball defense continues to be an issue.

As for Graham and Rozier, all they have to do is hustle and that’ll be good enough to pass. Neither has the frame or natural abilities of a great defender, so it’ll be all about effort. They have to learn to make the right rotations and stay in front of the defender with more consistency. If the opposing ball-handler is able to get by them with ease, then the defense is forced to rotate and it becomes a mess from there. A few fouls here and there aren’t the end of the world, as long as the attempt to remain in front of the defender is there.

Overall, this team isn’t the worst defensive team in the NBA, but the games they do lose can normally be traced back to the defensive end of the floor. There’s a lot of potential there, it’s just all about setting the best lineups for defensive purposes and encouraging the players to constantly put forward their best effort on that end of the floor.