A “Commitment” to Defense is Setting the Tone for Hornets This Season

by Sam Perley

Offense and everything that comes with it – rim-rattling dunks, long three-pointers, fancy assists – often garners most of the highlights and attention around the NBA. But at the moment for the Charlotte Hornets, it’s been their defense that has fueled the team’s 6-5 start and ongoing four-game winning streak so far this season.

Following a 109-88 home win over the Knicks on Monday night – an outing in which it allowed a season-low in points – Charlotte currently sits seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (107.0 points surrendered per 100 possessions). While a very small sample size, that ranking is still a vast improvement from last season, when the Hornets finished 25th in this category (112.8).

Charlotte has been doing a masterful job of keep opposing teams off balance via a constantly fluctuating arsenal of defensive coverages and schemes. Factoring in an accelerated training camp and the challenge of getting a relatively young roster to buy-in on this end of the floor, it’s somewhat unexpected that the team’s defense has been performing at the level it has so far this season.

“It’s really what we’ve committed to, so I didn’t know how quickly it would progress,” said Hornets Head Coach James Borrego. “I think they’ve gotten better and there’s pride there. We’re doing a number of things defensively, so I give our guys a lot of credit. I’m a little surprised at how quickly they’re picking up the schemes. They know for us to be a good team and a top-tier team in the Eastern Conference, we have to defend. As of this morning, we’re a top-10 defense and we want to stay there.”

Borrego believes there also has been some carryover in this area from the end of last year, particularly with regards to physicality and communication. Before the 2019-20 campaign was suspended on March 11, the Hornets ranked 11th in the league in defensive rating over their final eight games, helping lead to a 4-4 record.

“That last month of the season, we were playing some really solid defense,” he added. “We had more length, more versatility, a more defensive-minded group and it’s been our focus in the offseason. Adding the size and IQ of Gordon Hayward helps. LaMelo Ball obviously has size. I do think a lot of this defensive success we’ve had early on does go back to the seed we sowed last year that last month of the season.”

Amongst the list of individual opposing talents that Charlotte has held in check the last couple weeks include Dallas’ Luka Dončić (season-low 12 points), Atlanta’s Trae Young (11.0 points on 25% shooting and 0-of-8 from three in two games), New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram (17 points on 3-of-11 shooting) and New York’s Julius Randle (11 points on 2-of-9 shooting).

“I think for us, it’s been about just taking it one game at a time and understanding you have to know your job and be the best at it,” said Bismack Biyombo. “It’s about being able to trust the next guy and knowing you’re going to do your job and the next guy is going to cover for you. We still have a lot to learn, but we’re getting better at what we were doing from last year and having everybody committed to do it. I think that’s the most important thing.”

The Hornets have also had significant growth in other key defensive areas including steals (9.4; 26th to T-4th), deflections (15.8; 23rd to 9th) and percentage of defensive loose balls recovered (55.3%; 27th to 7th), leading to big improvements in their halfcourt (97.5 to 92.1) and transition (123.1 to 115.9) ratings. The constant disruption has spilled over into top-4 rankings in both points scored off turnovers (20.1) and fast-break points (16.6).

There might be some regression in this category as the season transpires for whatever reason, although even sustaining a defensive rating somewhere in the top 10-15 range would be a substantial achievement for the Hornets. Being part of a tough defensive team comes with a special amount of pride just because of how hard it is to always be a step ahead of the offense.

“I’m just looking back to our first day coming in for training camp and us getting to know each other to where it is now,” said Terry Rozier. “We’ve been building and getting a lot better on defense, us talking, us trusting each other. I think we’re heading in the right direction. We’re not yet one of the top defensive teams, but we have guys that really want to make it work. That’s something we’re working towards. That’s our ultimate goal is to be a top defense in the league and it’s looking pretty good right now."

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