It can be a long year on the defensive end for any NBA team that doesn’t stuff its roster with lengthy players possessing eagle-like wingspans. The Hornets aren’t the biggest team in the league in terms of verticality, but horizontally though? That’s been a different story.
Since the beginning of the Mitch Kupchak/James Borrego era, Charlotte has made adding length a continuous priority. Over the past three seasons starting in 2018-19, the team finished 23rd (112.0), 25th (112.8) and 16th(112.0) in defensive rating, with its sights set on finally cracking the top-10 this year.
“Any time you have more length, you should be a better defensive team, a better rebounding team,” explained Borrego. “We can play more defensive, protect the paint more, the rim more, rebound better. It allows us to switch and stay in front of the ball a little bit more. Make plays at the rim, deflect the ball more. It’s going to be really important for us this season.”
Added Ish Smith, “It helps you switch a lot. Length makes spots for guards or big men look a little more crowded. Offensively, when you have the type of length that we’ve added, it allows you to be very fast, very athletic, very quick. You have a lot of different guys who can do a lot of different things. Everybody wants length on the perimeter, on the wings and on the offensive and defensive interior. We did that and now we just have to translate it on the floor.”
More than half the roster features players that appropriately fit the lengthy mold relative to their height and position. This is certainly not an end-all, be-all requirement to be a productive NBA player either, but there’s strength in numbers, particularly with how the Hornets want to operate defensively.
Specifically, PJ Washington (7’2.25” wingspan at the NBA Draft combine), Cody Martin (6’10.25”), Jalen McDaniels (7’0.25”), Terry Rozier (6’8.25”), LaMelo Ball (estimated 6’8-6’10”), Vernon Carey Jr. (7’1”), Nick Richards (7’2.25”), James Bouknight (6’8.25”), Kai Jones (7’1.25”), JT Thor (7’3.25”), Scottie Lewis (7’0”), Mason Plumlee (6’11”) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (7’2.25”) would all be considered on the higher end of the length category.
Richards also owns a sky-stretching 9’2” standing reach, which ranked second amongst all players at the 2020 NBA Draft Combine. Jones (9’2.5”) and Thor (9’2.0”) clocked in at fourth and fifth, respectively, at this event one year later. Again, all these measurements were taken a few months before players entered the NBA. Many of them have likely increased, especially if said player was a teenager when he was drafted.
Charlotte’s offense is at its best in transition and creating live-ball turnovers. Generating deflections, which simply means getting a defensive hand on the ball via a non-shot attempt, is one way to do that. The squad clocked in the ninth-most deflections per game last season (15.3) after finishing 23rd in 2019-20 (13.7) and 20th (12.6) in 2018-19. Ball was 13th amongst individual players last year (3.0), with Oubre (2.7), Washington (2.3) and Rozier (2.1) all cracking the 2.0 single-game threshold. Through Monday night’s game, Ball is T-9th in total deflections (13; 3.3 per game), with the Hornets ranking 11th in this category (15.8) and also fourth in loose balls recovered (7.8).
Oubre’s length in particular was something that stuck out to Smith even before they became teammates this season. “With his length, he’s got the ability to space you, defend you,” said Smith. “I remember when I was in Detroit, he was in Washington and they put him on the point guard a lot. Obviously, John [Wall] and Bradley [Beal] were carrying a lot of the load, but he would defend the point guards and they’d switch him one through four.”
“I can utilize that length and be in multiple places at one time,” said Oubre. “Get my hands on a lot of passes, deflections, steals, things like that. You can’t utilize that length to its full ability if you’re undisciplined or out of the game with fouls. That can backfire really quickly by reaching or having my hands on the help side when guys swipe up and things like that. Just learning how to use that length has been something I’ve been honing in on over my career.”
Even deflections that don’t lead directly to turnovers are beneficial to a defense because they can often force the opposing offense to regather itself, causing precious seconds to dwindle off the shot clock. Opposing takeaways is another area where the Hornets have continued trending upward, going from T-17th in 2018-19 (13.5), to 16th in 2019-20 (14.4) to ninth last season (14.7). After four games this year, they currently rank T-10th (16.3).
Deflections aren’t the most glamorous of stats (they don’t even show up in a traditional box score), but often times, a few pokes of the ball here and there can be the ultimate difference between winning and losing in an extremely competitive league. For a team like the Hornets, adding length has only helped create more and more of these extra opportunities.
“The margin of error is so small in this league right now, especially in the East,” said Borrego. “It’s all the little winning plays that are going to add up to victories for us. One or two plays made down the stretch could be the deciding factor. We have to win on the margins and these are areas we can do that. Turnover game, rebounding game, the 50-50 ball game, the deflection game, those are the areas we can win on the margins.”