Hornets Insider: Five Things to Know About New Orleans’ Defense
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com
November 30, 2010
During a recent Western Conference local TV broadcast, fans were asked to vote on the following poll question: “Which team’s early-season record is the most surprising to you: New Orleans, San Antonio, the L.A. Clippers or Golden State?” Before fans could even reach for their phones to text in a vote, the game analyst quickly piped in with his opinion: “I’d say the Hornets, because I just don’t think they’re that good.”
Skepticism like that regarding New Orleans’ franchise-record start is quickly starting to dwindle, but even among those who are beginning to believe in the legitimacy of the Hornets, a question remains: How, exactly, are they playing this well?
Ask any Hornets player or coach, and you’ll get a rapid response. A vastly-improved defense, which held each of the first 10 regular season opponents to under 100 points, has been the clear catalyst behind the stunning success. A month into the regular season, New Orleans ranked first in the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage. The Hornets were also in the top five in various other key categories, such as points allowed and defensive three-point percentage. Those early results are in stark contrast to last season, when New Orleans finished 21st in defensive efficiency.
With the help of first-year head coach Monty Williams and lead assistant coach Michael Malone – who helped oversee a defensive resurgence in Cleveland during the LeBron James era – here are a handful of things you might not know about the Hornets’ significant emphasis on D:
Like athletes in any sport, NBA players subconsciously focus on aspects of the game that will help them earn more playing time. If a player believes he must score in bunches in order to impress his coaching staff, he may develop a mentality that begins to treat the offensive end as a priority, while relegating the less-glamorous defensive side of the ball to an afterthought. That’s one reason why the Hornets’ new coaching staff has tried to drill home the notion that minutes will be allotted based much more significantly on what a player does when the opposition has the ball.
“Our players know they’ll be rewarded if they defend,” Malone explained. “As coaches, you can’t preach defense, but then reward the guys who don’t defend (with playing time and larger roles). It’s got to be consistent – because otherwise the players see right through you. They’re not dumb. If you preach defense, you have to back it up.
“The players know that if they’re not defending, they’re coming out of the game. We’re going to have guys out there who are playing as a unit, but also guarding at a high level. That’s how we’re going to win.”
In the early portion of the season, that meant occasionally winning in a fashion many might describe as “ugly,” including prevailing by NCAA-like scores of 87-81 at Milwaukee and 75-71 in Sacramento.
Williams: “We’re not in a position to give away minutes. We’ve said from the start that guys have to earn minutes. It’s obvious when you go in the game and aren’t defending. It changes the rhythm of the game. Our players know that’s who we are. From Day 1, my motto has been that we’re going to be a defensive team.”
There’s another motivating factor that becomes evident to new Hornets the first time they play with Chris Paul, one of the NBA’s premier ballhandlers and passers. Players know if they force a turnover, the chances are good it may result in a basket for them at the other end.
“We have the best point guard in the NBA,” Malone said. “When we get stops and rebound, that ignites our fast break. Teams can’t game plan for our transition (offense). Chris Paul in transition, just like when we had LeBron in Cleveland, that’s tough to guard. When you have the best ballhandler and decision-maker in the game coming at (an opponent), he’s going to find David West, find Marco Belinelli, Trevor (Ariza) or Emeka Okafor for a wide-open look. That’s the carrot in front of the players if they defend at a high level.”
2) Unlike your jump shot, defensive effort isn’t subject to slumps.
The Hornets’ Nov. 6 low-scoring victory at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center provides one of the best illustrations of how defensive effectiveness can cover up deficiencies in other areas of a team’s performance. Twenty-four hours earlier on Nov. 5, New Orleans posted a hard-fought, emotional home victory in front of a sellout crowd against the star-studded Miami Heat. After flying overnight for the second game of a back-to-back against the Bucks, the Hornets appeared to leave their offensive game in Louisiana, shooting just 41 percent from the field and coughing up a season-high 19 turnovers. Despite those offensive woes, they eked out a quality road victory, holding Milwaukee to 39 percent shooting.
“We were awful offensively that night,” Malone remembered. “We shot a low percentage, turned the ball over a lot. Why did we win that game? Because defensively, we brought it. If defense is your anchor, you can weather those times when you’re having an off night on offense, and find a way to win.”
“There is always room for improvement, but our defense is going to give us a chance to be in every game,” said Hornets reserve guard Willie Green, a staple of the team’s late-game defensive efforts. “Some days the shots aren’t falling, but if we’re rebounding, playing defense and taking care of the ball, we’ve got a chance to be there at the end of the game.”
3) Tape don’t lie.
While recent adidas TV commercials featuring Dwight Howard and “Slim Chin” remind us of the infallible truth that “Fast don’t lie,” the Hornets emphasize that it’s impossible for individuals to run from defensive gaffes. The reason? It’s all been captured on videotape, which the team frequently reviews. It’s not unusual during a Hornets practice to see an assistant coach holding a laptop near the side of the court, pointing out recent video examples of what players should and shouldn’t be doing defensively.
“If you ask players 1 through 15 in that locker room, they know you can’t hide,” Malone said. “We watch film, and the players know the tape doesn’t lie. If you’re not defending, we’re going to point it out in that film (room). It’s never anything personal, but we’re going to use it to teach about it and clean it up.”
4) The proof has been in the W column…
With a first-year head coach and completely new coaching staff, a first-year general manager and a roster that now includes only five players who were here last season (Paul, West, Okafor, Marcus Thornton, Aaron Gray), there was a considerable amount of uncertainty surrounding how the Hornets would open their 2010-11 schedule. Within the New Orleans locker room – though perhaps not yet around the rest of the NBA – any potential doubt has quickly been erased by the fabulous start.
“If the coaches were preaching defense every day and we were 1-9,” Malone explains, “players might be saying, ‘I don’t know about this.’ But this early success allows guys to buy in that much more. You’re winning games, so there is proof in the pudding. When you’re having results, guys are understanding that defense is why we’re winning. There’s a direct correlation – the best defensive teams in the league are always the teams with the best winning percentages.”
It seemed very unlikely that a roster consisting of so many new faces could rapidly develop chemistry, but Malone credits the cohesiveness partly to the intelligence and experience of the Hornets’ returning and new players.
“You have to give the players credit, because they have bought in so early in the season, and not only bought in, but grasped our defensive philosophy and blossomed in it,” Malone said. “They’ve been able to take what we do in practice and transfer that to a game situation. That shows they have a high basketball IQ.”
5) … but it’s still early.
Although the initial results have been beyond what anyone could’ve reasonably anticipated, Hornets coaches caution that we haven’t even reached the quarter-mark of the NBA regular season. Opponents watch film, too, and constantly make adjustments to try to exploit areas they believe the Hornets may be vulnerable. Although teams may have viewed the Hornets as a mediocre foe early in the regular season, that perspective will change quickly if they continue to generate wins.
“We don’t want to jump the gun,” Williams said.
It will be challenging, but also critical, for the Hornets to maintain a consistent level of defensive intensity over the grind of the 82-game schedule, and to not – as the coaches often put it – “show slippage.” Still, they’ve already accomplished a few things not seen in NOLA in quite some time. The Hornets’ 75 points in their win at the Kings was the lowest score by a victorious NBA team since 2008. Through a dozen regular season games, New Orleans had held the opposition to less than 85 points three times – something the team accomplished only once in all of 2009-10.
“From Day 1, Monty told our players that if you look at last year, our defensive numbers were awful,” Malone said. “We were in the bottom third of the league in all defensive categories. If we have any chance to be a competitive team, it’s got to start at the defensive end.”
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