Offseason focus: Defense

Friday, April 23, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

During the early portion of the 2010 offseason, we’ll be examining a few of the specific categories in which the Hornets may or may not need to improve in 2010-11, as well as what steps might be required to make tangible progress heading into next season.

NBA analysts who don’t follow New Orleans closely have occasionally made the mistake during All-Star point guard Chris Paul’s career of thinking that the Hornets have been successful primarily based on an up-tempo, high-scoring offensive attack. In truth, during their rise from 18 wins in 2004-05 to a Southwest Division title in 2007-08, the Hornets were more accurately described as a methodical team that leaned heavily on defensive prowess.

While New Orleans assesses its roster this summer and analyzes ways to return to the postseason in 2011, it’s important to remember that improvement on defense will likely be the simplest way to accomplish that goal. Their decline on D this season was a precipitous one, dropping all the way from ninth place in defensive efficiency to 21st (out of 30 NBA teams).

“I think that will be the biggest focus coming into next season,” Paul said. “It has to start on the defensive end. We just haven’t been able to play defense consistently. That’s what the very good teams do. They play defense every night.”

There were a wide range of explanations for the decline, starting perhaps with a drop-off in on-the-ball containment by the Hornets’ perimeter players. Opposing guards and wings seemed to get into the lane more easily in 2009-10 than in the past, leading to several stretches in which New Orleans regularly surrendered 100-plus points. The Hornets allowed 110 points or more 21 times (roughly one-fourth of their games) and – lacking the healthy bodies or consistent firepower to keep pace – went 5-16 in those instances. By comparison, New Orleans gave up 110-plus points only five times during the entire 2008-09 season.

“We can score, but you can’t outscore teams in this league every night,” Paul said.
The constant shuffling of players in and out of the rotation due to injuries also negatively impacted the Hornets on D. Early in the season, the team’s defensive chemistry appeared lacking partly due to trying to integrate several additions to the roster. Only during the month of January – when NOLA went 12-5 and held 10 opponents out of 17 under 100 points – did the Hornets seem to show high-level cohesiveness on defense.

“There has got to be trust, and guys have to play for one another defensively,” David West said. “That’s what it comes down to – being willing to get after teams and having confidence in our ability to protect each other.”

“It’s frustrating,” Paul said of the team’s decreased effectiveness. “We just have to communicate and have the effort. We’ve got to get better.”

New Orleans also ranked last among the 30 NBA teams in blocked shots (total of 300, an average of 3.7 per game), so when opponents penetrated into the paint, they faced relatively little resistance. Other than Emeka Okafor’s 127 rejections and West’s 60 swats, no Hornet had more than 19 blocks.

As team radio analyst Gerry Vaillancourt has mentioned repeatedly of late, the Hornets must improve their athleticism on the wings and length in the frontcourt. No matter how effectively an NBA team schemes defensively, if it doesn’t possess enough individual athletic ability, it’s extremely difficult to slow down some of the league’s explosive scorers and compensate for that deficiency.