By Sam Perley
Head Coach Steve Clifford needs his Charlotte Hornets to be a top-5 defensive team this season. Anything less and they risk not reaching what he believes they are capable of accomplishing this year.
Throughout this preseason, the team has showed its certainty capable of playing the kind of defense Clifford wants and expects to see.
“We’ve had stretches where it’s been pretty good, just not consistent, but definitely stretches. The other night [in Miami we had] some stretches where it was good. So far, when we’ve played good defense, we’ve played well,” said Clifford prior to the team’s preseason home opener vs. Boston on Oct. 11.
Last year, the Hornets ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (106.1 points), which is a measurement that calculates how many points on average they gave up per 100 defensive possessions. It was a step down for Clifford’s squad after finishing ninth in the league in each of the previous two seasons and sixth in 2013-14.
Defense isn’t always a glamorous job and for the most part, it doesn’t come with a whole lot of wow-factor moments and highlight-reel opportunities. While the Hornets’ defensive improvements will need to be a total team effort, they will be counting on a few particular players to help lead their charge up into the NBA’s elite echelon.
Perhaps the one most responsible for getting the team’s defense together (particularly with regards to the first string) is 13th-year veteran forward Marvin Williams.
“[His biggest strengths are] communication and organization. He reads plays before they happen and helps his teammates get to things quicker,” said Clifford.
“I think if you look at us in the past, we’ve always been a defensive team,” said Williams. “Defense is not a fun job. It’s a nasty job, but you have to have that mentality to be a good defender individually and collectively. We have the personnel to do it, we have the guys that really want to do it and we know it’s going to take that to be a good team.
Williams and Kevin Durant were the only two players in the league last season to total 2,000-or-more minutes and record at least 500 rebounds, 50 steals, 50 blocks and fewer than 150 personal fouls. These numbers prove Williams can make plays on the defensive end while also avoiding foul trouble, allowing him to stay on the court for longer periods of time.
Possibly the team’s best pound-for-pound defender overall, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ranked tied for fourth amongst all qualified NBA small forwards last season in defensive real plus-minus (2.47). This means that the Hornets allowed nearly two-and-a-half fewer points per 100 defensive possessions with Kidd-Gilchrist on the court compared to when he wasn’t.
Now entering his sixth season, the former Kentucky Wildcat is adamant that the Hornets can be even better defensively than they’ve been in year’s past.
“[Defense is about] heart and not taking the easy way,” he said. “You’re going to see it. We’re going to do it, too. We are going to be top 5, a top-tier defensive team in the league.”
Kidd-Gilchrist was one of just two players in the league last season 6-7 or shorter with at least 500 rebounds, 75 steals and 75 blocks. The only other to reach this threshold was Golden State’s Draymond Green, who won the 2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Charlotte’s two defensive-oriented forwards have already left quite an impression on new teammate and four-time NBA All-Defensive First-Team honoree Dwight Howard.
“[Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist] are talking. They’re loud. They’re physical and they’re tenacious,” said Howard. “That’s how you got to be on defense and I love seeing that from MKG. He’s going to have to be a dog and if he can do that for 82 games, at the end of the year, he’s going to get a big reward for it.”
Following the 2014-15 campaign, Kidd-Gilchrist finished five spots shy of making the NBA All-Defensive Team. Only one Charlotte player has reached this status since the 2000-01 NBA season (Gerald Wallace; 2009-10), although it’s certainly a realistic goal for Kidd-Gilchrist this year.
Trading for Howard meant bringing in valuable rebounding and rim protection abilities to a Hornets team that struggled with frontcourt depth last season. Last season, the eight-time NBA All-Star led an Atlanta Hawks squad that put up the fourth-best defensive efficiency of any team in the league (103.1 points).
Howard has also finished in the top 5 for rebounding 11 seasons in his career, tied with Tim Duncan for the third-highest total ever by a NBA player behind only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain (13). He ranks second in league history in career defensive rebounding percentage (29.30 percent of his team’s total defensive rebounds) and is on pace to become the 19th NBA player to ever reach 2,000 all-time blocks this season as well.
While each of these three aforementioned players brings a different skill set to the team’s collective defensive efforts, they all seem to agree that great defense starts with intangibles like heart, effort, attitude and will. Taking these attributes combined with the right amount of talent and Steve Clifford’s schemes, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any reason why the Charlotte Hornets can’t finish the 2017-18 season with a top-5 NBA defense.