Perley’s Press Pass: Hornets’ Defense Improving, Pointing in Right Direction

by Sam Perley

For the most part this season, the nightly evaluation of the Charlotte Hornets’ defense can be divided into two categories: the team either played with the magic words of ‘physicality’, ‘urgency’ and ‘attention to detail’ for 48 minutes or it didn’t. Do the former, and the Hornets put themselves in great position to win. And when they don’t, things become more challenging.

Holding a 4-2 record over its last six games, one major reason behind the team’s recent success (although understandably small sample size) has been the improved play on the defensive side of the floor. The early-season issues certainly aren’t fixed in this area just yet, but they certainly are trending in an encouraging direction.

During this aforementioned span, the Hornets sit seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (104.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), after previously ranking 27th through their first 25 games played (113.9). They are also allowing just 46.3 PPG in the paint, which is 12th fewest in the NBA (previously ranked 27th with 52.0 PPG surrendered).

“More presence, more physicality, more awareness of protecting the paint and being there early,” said Coach Borrego after Friday’s practice. “Doing our work and trying to prevent [the opposition] from even getting to the paint before we have to make a play at the rim. We’re doing a better job there. ‘Prevention is cure’ is something we often say. Overall, more challenging, more rebounding, just more impact at the rim.”

“The better you are on the perimeter, the less time it takes the ball to get into the paint and the better team you’re going to be defensively,” he added. “We’re challenging our guards to be more disruptive on the ball, have one-on-one pride on the ball. Then there’s a second layer behind that, which is a shift – there’s that help [defense] before it gets to the paint. That third layer is those big guys at the rim. So, you’ve got three levels of protection. We have to be better at those first two, which I think we have and then our third has become more aggressive.”

Per CleaningtheGlass.com, Charlotte is seventh in points allowed per 100 half-court plays over the last six games (87.0; previously ranked 27th at 98.5), with a play defined as a shot, turnover or free throws. When defending transitions, the Hornets own the sixth-best defensive rating (108.2; previously ranked 26th at 129.1) and are also sixth in defensive rating coming off live ball rebounds (100.0; previously ranked 16th at 114.4).

So, what’s changed? Starting Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo in the wake of PJ Washington’s finger injury on Dec. 13 in Chicago has certainly beefed up the starting frontcourt and rebounding, with one player generally staggering into the second unit anyways. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Martin and Marvin Williams have been fantastic defensively off the bench, which has helped take some pressure off smaller wings like Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier.

Numbers-wise, Biyombo currently ranks 15th amongst in all NBA centers in defensive real-plus (1.24), an ESPN-generated metric that estimates individual on-court defensive impact per 100 possessions. Martin (0.96) and Kidd-Gilchrist (0.89) are 19th and 21st, respectively, in the small forward rankings and PJ Washington is 29th amongst power forwards (0.63; fourth amongst rookies at his position).

The six-game stretch has the Hornets sitting first in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage (33.2%) and ninth in total rebounding percentage (51.6%). Previously, they ranked 19th (26.7%) and 28th (48.0%) in these two categories, respectively. Limiting second-chance opportunities (and at the same time, creating more of their own scoring chances) has been a major factor in the recent defensive improvements.

Overall though, nothing too seismic has taken place amongst team personnel outside of some minor rotational adjustments. There’s simply been a renewed commitment to everything Coach Borrego and his staff have been looking for and hopefully for the Hornets, it’s an early sign of what’s to come down the line in terms of player development.

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