We’re back with another edition of the Hive Dive, a biweekly series analyzing trends and narratives in the Charlotte Hornets that go deeper than just results. Today, we look at how the Hornets have turned their identity on its head and played excellent defense in the face of offensive struggles.
Past two weeks:
Record: 5-1 (25-20 overall, 7th in the East)
1/8 vs MIL – W 114-106
1/10 vs MIL – W 103-99
1/12 @ PHI – W 109-98
1/14 vs ORL – L 112-102
1/17 @ NYK – W 97-87
1/19 @ BOS – W 111-102
Flipping the Script
Let’s play a game. I’ll write a few headlines, starting out fairly reasonable, and you tell me when they stop making sense.
“With Kelly Oubre Jr. Sidelined, Hornets’ Scoring Dips.”
“Missing Their Sixth Man, Charlotte’s Offense Falls To #22”
“Hornets Hang On, Dropping Only One Game During Oubre Absence”
“Hornets Clinch Season Series Versus Bucks and Break 5-Year Losing Streak to Philadelphia Thanks to #1 Defense in the League”
Yes, you read that right. Over the last two weeks, the Hornets’ offense has fallen to bottom-10 in the NBA, and yet Charlotte has notched 5 wins and only 1 loss in that timeframe off the back of a defensive surge that has put them atop the league in efficiency during this window. So, what exactly happened?
Oubre Out Sick
On January 10th, ahead of tipoff for the second game against the Bucks in 3 days, Kelly Oubre Jr. was ruled out per NBA health and safety protocols. COVID was rearing its ugly head among the Hornets once again after the team weathered a COVID outbreak that considerably thinned their roster in early December. With Oubre contributing 16.6 points per game, a drop in the team’s scoring over the next several games was expected.
What was unexpected is that during his absence, the Hornets would win 4 of their next 5 games despite averaging just 106 points per game, a significant drop-off from their mark of 115.5 ppg through January 8th. In fact, the Hornets scored no more than 111 points across that 5-game stretch. For context, in every other game this season that the Hornets have scored 111 or less, they’ve gone an abysmal 6-11.
This winning stretch was only possible thanks to vastly improved defense, a leap in performance that’s worth further analysis.
Fulfilling the Prophecy
You may remember from the Hive Dive where I took a closer look at the Hornets’ defensive troubles that Charlotte struggled to defend at every level. Their interior, perimeter, and transition defense were ALL abysmal. The silver lining to this was that the Hornets appeared elite even with only a slight uptick in defensive performance. At the time of that article, the Hornets were 10-0 in games where they held their opponents to less than 110 points. Now? That record is up to 15-0, still holding strong. I predicted that the Hornets only needed to shore up one of the three layers of defense to make a big difference in their success, and that barring a personnel change, it wouldn’t be the interior. That left transition defense (plagued by poor effort and overzealous board-hunting) and perimeter defense (plagued by a help-heavy scheme and mental lapses).
Looking at the numbers of this improbable stretch, perimeter defense is still a challenge. The Hornets have been among one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to giving up wide-open shots (defined by NBA stats as shots with the closest defender more than 6ft away), and their opponents have been connecting on those shots at fairly average rates, so they haven’t been bailed out by good luck. Transition defense, on the other hand, tells us everything we need to know about this stretch, as Charlotte has been the #1 transition defense in the league.
Right on time, the Hornets shored up a single aspect of their defense and found themselves taking down the likes of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Boston without the eye-popping scoring that they had relied on almost exclusively to win games so far this season. One can only hope that they continue to sustain this trend with the return of Oubre to the lineup, and we may just look up in a few weeks and see a Hornets team that’s in the top half of the league on BOTH sides of the ball.
Trade Buzz Around the Hornets
With the Hornets playing clearly ahead of schedule this year, a clamor has been growing for them to make a trade that could propel them from playoff hopefuls to possible first-round competitors. Specifically, attention has been focused on the center position.
While Charlotte has been linked in trade talk to Indiana’s Myles Turner for several seasons, recent injury developments may have sidelined that particular possibility. Richaun Holmes, a big target in the offseason for the Hornets, has apparently been put on the trade block by Sacramento despite a significant freshly-inked contract with the team. Other names linked to the Hornets include Houston’s Christian Wood or Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton.
Only time will tell if any of these options are enticing enough to pique GM Mitch Kupchak’s interest, but given his notable trigger discipline on in-season trades, we may just be stuck watching Plumlee throw down reverse dunks for the rest of the year.
Hornets All-Star noise this season may be more interference than clear signal, but it’s worth appreciating the bugs getting national attention for the performance of their young stars. Lamelo Ball currently ranks 5th in fan voting among guards in the East, and Miles Bridges sits at 9th among frontcourt players.
LaMelo has a decent shot at getting selected as a reserve by the coaches, but it’s far from certain. Bridges, on the other hand, would need a slew of injuries to make the All-Star roster, but being in the top 10 at all is a great look for both him and the franchise. Even if neither gets in this year, the fact that both of these young players are on upward trajectories means that the Charlotte Hornets may have its first All-Star since the Kemba Walker era as soon as next year.
Speaking of Miles Bridges…
That man is getting the max from someone this coming offseason, and rightfully so. Barring a catastrophic lapse in judgment, it’ll be Charlotte offering or matching it. That said, I expect RTB MB music videos to get far more extravagant come next year.