Hive Dive: The Hornets’ Defensive Gamble

Photo Courtesy of the Charlotte Hornets

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’s topic: how the Hornets’ most glaring weakness feeds into their most significant strength.

Past two weeks:

Record: 5-2 (13-9 overall, 6th in the East)

11/17 vs WSH – W 97-87

11/19 vs IND – W 121-118

11/20 @ ATL – L 115-105

11/22 @ WSH – 109-103

11/24 @ ORL – W 106-99

11/26 vs MIN – 133-115

11/27 @ HOU – L 146-143 (OT)

The Dive:

Risk and Reward – The Hornets’ Defensive Gamble

25th and 9th. That’s where the Charlotte Hornets rank in defensive efficiency and overall record, respectively. There is no other team in the league with a larger difference between those two rankings. How have the Hornets overcome such poor defense to still win games? Calculated risks.

A Hole in the Middle

First, the problem. The Hornets are paper-thin at the center position this year, and the options they do have are less than inspiring. When Mason Plumlee was acquired in a trade on draft night, the prevailing belief among Hornets fans was that he would be the backup center. As high-profile big men like Richaun Holmes came off the free agent market and Kai Jones proved to be the project he was always expected to be, that notion was dispelled.

Through the season so far, it’s become apparent that Plumlee lacks the physicality, PJ Washington lacks the height, and Nick Richards lacks the agility for any of the three to match up on defense with offensively-gifted centers.

Help on the Way

Two significant personnel strengths the Hornets do have are their length and their motor. LaMelo Ball at guard, Oubre and Martin at wing, and McDaniels at forward are all players with notable wingspans and average-or-better height at their respective positions. Additionally, the Hornets are flush with youthful athleticism and speed.

These factors allow Charlotte to attempt to shore up their interior struggles with aggressive help defense. Their length gives them switchability for covering the players left behind by help defenders, and their motor helps mitigate the extra energy spent rotating and stunting to try and scare off the offensive player left unguarded.

Charlotte’s opponents are dared to take a lot of three-pointers as a result of this scheme, and part of the big gamble the Hornets have taken this season is betting that those shots won’t fall. Some nights the bet pays off, and some nights the rain from three is too much to overcome. Luckily so far, Charlotte remains in the black, able to ride out the barrage from deep more often than they fold.

Stealing the Show

Obviously, a defense built on band-aiding troubles at the center position is not enough to win games by itself, no matter how flashy the Hornets’ offense can be. The secret to their success lies in another kind of gamble: the passing lane steal.

Despite their overall poor defensive numbers, the Hornets snatch a stellar 9.1 steals a game, good for 5th in the league. In addition, Charlotte isn’t just great at generating takeaways, they’re great at finishing them, with 15.1 fastbreak points per game. The same aforementioned length and athleticism make it easy to see why. The ever-proactive LaMelo Ball alone has averaged 2 steals per game in the month of November, and Ball’s ability to find Bridges and Martin for transition dunks makes many fastbreaks a foregone conclusion.

The Hornets’ recent stretch of success has ridden on the back of this high-risk defensive identity, and while it hasn’t been perfect, several games over .500 isn’t a bad place to be.

Gordon Hayward in-game, shooting the ball over a Wizards defender.
Photo Courtesy of the Charlotte Hornets

Bug Bites:

Running the Gauntlet

Charlotte fans encouraged by the team’s solid win total a quarter of the way through the season will be ecstatic to know that the Hornets may be even better than their record indicates. The Hornets have had the toughest strength of schedule so far this year, have played as many back-to-backs as anyone in the East, and have played more overall games AND more road games than most teams in the entire NBA.

The schedule has been grueling so far, but the Hornets have responded well to adversity. While some players have notably better scoring performances at home like LaMelo, the team actually seems to ratchet up their frenetic defense on the road. When zooming in on only away games, no team in the league grabs more steals on opposing courts than Charlotte.

Given the density and toughness of the calendar thus far, one can only hope that the Hornets gain momentum over the course of the year as they eventually get more days of rest and practice.

Dominos Galore

Local market fans will surely have seen promotions for half off Dominos Pizza if a Hornets player scores a double-double. I hope their margins aren’t too slim because LaMelo Ball is becoming a double-double machine, with the added threat of ripping off a triple-double on any given night. He already has multiple of the latter this season, and in November is averaging 20/9/9.

Ball showed mind-boggling passing and strong rebounding before being drafted, but barely a year after the Hornets selected him with the 3rd overall pick, it’s already certain that those skills have translated to the NBA level and are here to stay. Ball’s rebounding is a much-needed boon to a team suffering from the absence of any starting-caliber center, and assists in any large volume are almost always a sure sign of quality shot creation, not simply stat-stuffing.

Tide Pool or Tidal Wave?

Kelly Oubre Jr. has without a doubt been an incredibly positive and impactful pickup for the Hornets, but it’s going to take some time to get used to the massive range of results he provides. Oubre has been the ultimate feast-or-famine scorer off the bench, seemingly just as likely to score in single digits as he is to lead the team in points.

The key to mitigating Oubre’s streakiness has been savvy minute management from Coach James Borrego. Borrego seems to have developed a fairly accurate read on when Kelly is hot or cold, with many recent games of 30 or more minutes leading to strong performances of 20+ points, and several other lackluster games trimmed to around 24 minutes when his shooting is shakier.

It’s definitely a comfort to know that Oubre can rack up nearly 30 for you on any given night, but it’s an even bigger luxury that the Hornets can find plenty of success even when he scores a mere 7 off the bench. With plenty of difficult matchups still ahead of the Hornets, here’s to hoping Tsunami Papi can iron out the Jekyll and Hyde bit and produce not just convincingly, but consistently.

Written by Michael Gallucci

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