A word you wouldn’t necessarily attach to great defense, but could be big for the Charlotte Hornets this season: Interchangeable.
With small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning to health, the Hornets now have three defenders – Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Nic Batum – who can all guard a variety of players with similar proficiency.
As Wednesday’s season-opening victory against the Milwaukee Bucks demonstrated, that allows the Hornets to play switching defense to take away some of the advantages NBA offenses typically have. Switching is big these days, particularly when opposing teams downsize into smaller, quicker units.
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"I feel like the three of us are comfortable guarding guys at whatever position, whether its" shooting guard, small forward or power forward, said Williams. "We’re quick enough and physical enough. And, if worse comes to worst, Roy (Hibbert) is back there at the basket.
"Having a safety blanket like that, it really changes everything."
The combination of Kidd-Gilchrist’s return and signing shot-blocker Hibbert expands the possibilities defensively. Hornets coach Steve Clifford has given that plenty of thought, given he believes this is the most talented defensive group he’s coached in Charlotte.
"The advantage of switching is two things, and you saw it in the (NBA) Finals," said Clifford, whose team will play at Miami Friday night. "One it slows down ball movement because, in the pick-and-roll, you don’t have to take the roll man – you can stay home.
"And, second, it helps your 3-point defense. The switching takes care of all that.
"With those three guys, our starters, they can all guard along the perimeter, if in different ways. Most nights there aren’t significant mismatches. You can keep your defense compact and no huge mismatches."
That doesn’t mean the Hornets will never be lit up by a LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. But there’s a system that fits these players’ skills, particularly with Kidd-Gilchrist back from two shoulder surgeries last season.
Batum said the beauty of this is, while the Hornets might be running a so-called "small" unit, in fact 6-9 Williams, 6-8 Batum and 6-7 Kidd-Gilchrist play with plenty of length, plus quickness.
"We’re a pretty big ‘small’ defense," Batum said. "And all three of us can guard from (point guard to power forward). And (point guard) Kemba Walker can guard too. He’s a great defender.
"You do all that, with Roy behind us, and we can control the paint. That’s huge for us."
The Hibbert factor is important. He might not average the five blocks he totaled against the Bucks, but he will protect the rim this season in a way the Hornets weren’t equipped to do last season. And that changes how perimeter defenders can approach their matchups.
"That’s how I played my first years in the NBA (in Portland) when I had (defensive) centers Greg Oden or Joel Przybilla or Robin Lopez behind me. It’s huge when you know you have someone like that to protect the paint.
"We have that now with Roy."
One of the big surprises in the Hornets’ commanding victory in Milwaukee is what they got from reserve center Cody Zeller.
Zeller didn’t play in any of the seven preseason exhibitions because of a deep bone bruise in his right knee. But he scored 15 points off 5-of-6 shooting from the field and added three rebounds in 14 minutes. The only problem for Zeller Wednesday was committing five fouls.
"I got out there and I felt good. And no swelling today," Zeller said after practice Thursday.
While Zeller didn’t scrimmage much in the preseason, he did enough individual work to be able to contribute in the opener.
"I’ve still been shooting a lot," Zeller said. "A lot of those baskets came off the same plays Nic and I made last season."
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell