The Hornets’ disappointing season is winding down and many fans are reflecting nen what went wrong. The Hornets started the season off with a 19-15 start and looked like they would compete for home-court advantage. Now, Charlotte is outside the playoffs trying to figure out where it went off-course.
The first place to look is at Charlotte’s approach last summer. Batum, hampered by injuries in the Miami-series, and Marvin, coming off a career year from behind the arc, were both free agents. A decision had to be made and Rich Cho felt that bringing both of these players back was a must. Batum signed a near-max deal of $120 million and Marvin took less money with his “Bird Rights” to stay in Charlotte. The thought process was clear — lock up Kemba, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marvin to compete for a top-four seed in the East for the next several years. It wasn’t a bad strategy necessarily, just one that had no wiggle room. With this “all-in” approach, it left the Hornets in scour mode in finding depth around this nucleus. The result was a trade for Marco Belinelli and signings of Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert, and Brian Roberts. Not exactly an appealing crew, but adequate considering the circumstances.
On the flip-side, Charlotte lost key contributors from their 48-win team with Courtney Lee heading to the Knicks and Jeremy Lin to the Nets. The front office knew that retaining either of these players would have been tough — Lee was not a high priority and Lin was looking for a starting role. The loss of Lin’s production as the backup point guard and one who can play alongside Kemba has proven to be the most glaring. Although injured for a good chunk of the season, it’d be easy to argue that he’s having his best season of his career. He’s averaging 14 points, 5 assists, while shooting 49% from two, and 37% from deep — all higher than what he accomplished last season. It hasn’t helped that Sessions, Roberts, and an unpolished Weber have failed to make noise in that backup point guard position.
Beyond the offseason, where we can play the “what-if” game all day, let’s take a look at what actually went wrong on the court for this year’s Hornets. Heading into the season, and any under Clifford, you had a good idea of what to expect. Clifford’s principles have been pretty plain — play good team defense, keep teams off the glass, don’t turn the ball over, and limit the fouls. Generally speaking, this has happened every season under Clifford.
Although this season, there has been one issue, a new one under Clifford’s tenure, that’s be causing many headaches across Buzz City. It’s a concern that seems to be correctable but not until there’s a change in personnel and, certainly, scheme. That problem, a hot topic amongst fans, is the inability to defend the three-point line. The Hornets allow a league’s worst 31 three-point attempts and 12 thee-point makes a game. That’s an average of 36 points given up by the three-ball. Compare this to last season where Charlotte allowed 27 points from downtown.
FYI: WAS makes 9 3s/game. Against the #Hornets tonight, they have 17 & counting. CHA defense may need some adjusting in offseason.
— Richie (@RichieRandall) April 5, 2017
Curious to see how Clifford tweaks the defense in the offseason
— Bradford Coombs (@bradford_NBA) April 6, 2017
It starts w/ wing defenders getting beat off dribble consistently + the over-help due to no rim protection = wide open 3’s. https://t.co/bqRNKj93ZJ
— Spencer Percy (@QCHspencer) April 6, 2017
The root of this problem comes with on-ball defense and the propensity to “over-help.” Whether it’s a lack of a desire on defense or reliance on off-ball defenders to help, Charlotte allows plenty of penetration from ball-handlers. With this, off-ball defenders are forced to slide over and help-out. And because this occurs at such a high rate, it constantly puts Charlotte’s defense in lag-mode where they’re hoping to recover as the ball rotates around the perimeter. More often than not, an opposing shooter gets free and doesn’t hesitate to fire away. Charlotte’s opponents average 5 makes on 12 attempts (40%) on three-pointers from wide-open (6 or more feet) positions. This tells me that Clifford’s collapsing shell defensive scheme is not working and could use some adjusting. The distance in which Hornets are having to recover is just too great. With the way the league is transitioning to a perimeter-oriented game, defending the three-point line is imperative to success. Obviously, Charlotte needs better defenders, but the philosophy to help and clog up the paint has proven to be detrimental to this year’s defense. This is the first season under Clifford in which the team’s defense has fallen out of the top-10 in the league (5th, 9th, 8th in his first three seasons).
Many of the Hornets’ downfalls were exposed when Cody Zeller went down for an extended period in late January. On the offensive side of the ball, the Hornets didn’t look the same. It forced Clifford to start tinkering with the rotations and with the lack of depth caused by the signings of Batum and Marvin Williams, the team suffered. Zeller’s absence also had a big effect on the defensive end. Not that Zeller is an eraser at the rim but he’s very good at standing his ground and altering shots around the basket. Having someone in there on the back-end also eases the defense as they don’t feel as inclined to clog the paint. When he left, the Hornets were 6th in the league in defensive rating. Now, they have fallen to 12th.
You can point to variety of things that have caused these Hornets to drop out of playoff basketball. Many will blame the injuries and lack of depth, while others will question the defensive scheme. Regardless, the Hornets failed to put together a successful season and both will have to be addressed this upcoming offseason — one not without its obstacles. The front office must hit a home-run on all transactions this summer for Charlotte not to have a repeat of this 2016-17 season.