Hornets' improving defense once again among NBA's best

BY foxsports • February 3, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There were many reasons why the Charlotte Hornets started the first month of the season on such a bad stretch: one of the three most difficult schedules in the NBA, injuries and poor defense.

Everyone knew the schedule would eventually even out and that players would return from injury, but it was the poor defense that caused pause considering it was defense that propelled the Hornets to just their second playoff appearance since regaining a franchise in 2004.

However, after a change in philosophy by coach Steve Clifford, Charlotte is once again one of the top defensive teams in the league. And truthfully, had it not been for that lackluster first month, the Hornets may very well be ranked as the best defensive team in the NBA.

In the early part of the season, Clifford thought the interior defense might be good enough to stand on its own and, therefore, he concentrated on stopping the shooting from opposing teams from the perimeter.

It didn't work.

In the first 25 games, Charlotte's opponents scored 100 points or more 17 times, and as a result, the Hornets held a woeful 6-19 record. That's when Clifford went back to what had worked last season, taking away the inside and making teams win by shooting from long range, even if many of the shots are uncontested.

Since then, the Hornets are 15-8 over their past 23 games, and opponents have broken the century mark just five times.

"They are one of the top defensive teams in the league," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "Even when their record is bad, they are always going to guard."

Just how good is Charlotte's defense compared with last season's? Eerily similar:

Despite the mirror statistics, Clifford believes the defense can get much, much better, though he likes where it is. During one stretch, the Hornets held opponents to 22 points or fewer in 14 out of 16 quarters. Moreover, they held opponents under 100 points for a league-high 10 straight games, including three in a row of 80 points or fewer.

The Hornets even set a record in their overtime win against Indiana, when they held the Pacers to just 71 points, the fewest points scored by a team in an overtime game in the shot-clock era.

"I think it's close," Clifford said of the team's progress toward last year. "The progress those guys have made is significant."

Many have wondered why it took so long for the defense this season to catch up to last year's. That's because, like last season -- when it was a brand-new system for the entire team in Clifford's first year -- there are so many first-year players that it's as though the team is starting from scratch. That and the fact that there have been so many injuries and a consistent lineup hasn't been available.

Another aspect that's getting overlooked with Charlotte's defense is its superior defensive rebounding and how the Hornets limit their opponents' offensive boards. Charlotte is allowing just 8.5 offensive rebounds per game, which is nearly a full rebound better than second-place Indiana. Moreover, the Hornets have the highest defensive rebounding percentage in the league at 79.9 percent. That means for every five missed shots by the opposition, Charlotte's defense is grabbing the rebound four times.

"We have all five guys come back (to the basket)," Clifford said. "We don't leak out ever. We just group rebound."

Power forward Cody Zeller said it's something the team works at extra hard because Clifford demands it.

"From Day One, that's been his No. 1 emphasis, and I think we've bought into that," Zeller said. "It's an effort stat. We don't have any great rebounders like a Dwight Howard, so at the end of the day, it's more about technique and blocking out every time."

All of this has led to a resurgence in the team's record. The Hornets still have areas in which they can improve, especially offensively, but as long as the defense is there, the team always has a fighting chance.


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