Charlotte Hornets: Will Their Defense Be Even Better?

The Charlotte Hornets have had a top-10 defense every season they’ve been coached by Steve Clifford. Will the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the presence of a true rim protector make this their best defensive season yet?

When the founding fathers wrote “We hold these truths to be self evident,” I assume they were talking about the Charlotte Hornets always being good defensively under head coach Steve Clifford. It’s one of the facts of life. If Steve Clifford is Charlotte’s coach, they will have a top-10 defense, no matter the personnel.

Clifford’s defensive system is simple. It’s a conservative approach built on clogging the paint and forcing opponents to take contested jumpers. That’s how Jannero Pargo explained it to me on Twitter once. It’s been an effective system. Matt Moore’s recent description in an article for CBS Sports concisely sums up Clifford’s defensive scheme and the question facing them this season:

“Steve Clifford has never been a head coach with this kind of rim protection; he’s always relied on a collapse-and-recover system, which is really impressive because a lot of units that try that approach get torched from the perimeter. They’ve got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back, Nicolas Batum is a good defender and Kemba Walker is nowhere close to a liability.

“But if having a rim protector in Hibbert (and he is always going to be good at that due to size) allows them to defend the perimeter better and maybe send MKG some help when he’s on an island against LeBron or Melo (poor thing), we could be looking at a top-five defensive unit, and one that could surprise to challenge for a top-four seed in the East.”

Charlotte has posted defensive ratings ranking fifth (103.8), ninth (103.5) and eighth (104.3) in the last three seasons under Clifford. They’ve accomplished that in seasons where their best perimeter defender missed most of the season, with Al Jefferson as their starting center (far from a rim protector), and with an assortment of starting power forwards and starting wings. The one constant is Clifford.

This season, the composition of their roster is a little different. Perhaps most importantly, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has returned from injury, giving Clifford a lockdown defender on the wing.

I’ve praised his defense in at least one article per season since I started writing about basketball. MKG’s defensive impact on the Hornets is substantial. These on/off statistics from a recent piece I wrote on him say it all:

“Charlotte needs luck to be on their side this season, because the fact of the matter is when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the floor the Hornets are better. During the 2014-15 season the Hornets had a net rating of plus-12.2 with him on the court.

“Last season the results were similar, their net rating with MKG was plus-13.5, but it came in a much smaller sample.”

When Kidd-Gilchrist is on the court, the Hornets are a much better team. If he plays anything close to a full season, their defensive rating should improve. A newcomer may also have a positive impact on their defense. Roy Hibbert is trying to restart his career with the Hornets after a lost season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

At his best, Hibbert was an elite rim protector with the Indiana Pacers. According to Nylon Calculus, Hibbert allowed opponents to shoot just 42.7 percent at the rim during the 2014-15 season.

Also according to Nylon Calculus, Charlotte’s best rim protecting center in 2015-16 was Cody Zeller, who allowed opponents to shoot 47.9 percent at the rim. That’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near Hibbert’s peak.

Sliding Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist into a starting lineup to go along with two other above average defensive players in Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams could give Charlotte the recipe for their best defensive season yet.

The only flaw in Clifford’s defensive system is that they have trouble defending kick-out passes from the post, which can lead to open three-pointers.

Zach Harper of CBS Sports called that issue their biggest weakness heading into the season.

The Hornets ranked 14th in 3-point percentage allowed this season at 34.9 percent and their 3-point rate allowed was 23rd in the NBA. But when they committed to defending the post and the post scorer passed out of it, they got lit up from 3-point range.

“Eighty-two of the 145 shots that were generated in passes out of the post were 3-point attempts. Their opponents made 40.2 percent of those attempts. It’s not a large amount of points against them over the course of the season, but the opposition will look for any advantage they can get going against such a good defense.

With wing defenders helping aggressively on dribble penetration and post-ups, shots from the corner tend to fall through the cracks. That’s just the reality of scheming defensively in the NBA. To take something away you are forced to leave something open.

Having wing defenders that closeout well like MKG and Marvin Williams can help mitigate the damage, but it still remains a weakness. With Al Jefferson manning the middle it was something Charlotte had to do in the past. He couldn’t protect the rim by himself. That’s what makes the acquisition of Roy Hibbert so interesting.

If Clifford can help him become the rim protector he once was, that could completely change Charlotte’s interior defense.

If Hibbert is a shot-altering beast, Charlotte’s wing defenders can stick closer onto shooters around the perimeter, rather than crashing into the paint to disrupt dribble penetration. That would conceivably cut down on the amount of three-pointers the Hornets allow on passes out of the post.

The one obstacle that could prevent Charlotte from pushing their top-10 defense into the top five is their bench. With Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky down low, and Ramon Sessions, Marco Belinelli, and Jeremy Lamb on the perimeter, their second unit has the potential to bleed points.

Staggering the minutes of Kidd-Gilchrist or Marvin Williams so that the second unit has some sort of defensive anchor will be important. If there’s anyone that can figure out that mess it’s Clifford.

If Charlotte is going to match last season’s 48 wins, the defense is going to be what takes them there. The losses of Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin, and Al Jefferson should dim their offensive output slightly. It’s unlikely that they’ll be the three-point bombing juggernauts they were a season ago.

That being said, a healthy Kidd-Gilchrist and a 7-foot-3 rim protector named Roy Hibbert give them the pieces to construct a stifling defense. We’ll see if it all falls into place.