The Charlotte Hornets entered this season with promise after making the NBA playoffs for the second time in three years last season.
However, after dropping their final game of the regular season on Tuesday night in Atlanta, players and coaches were back at the Spectrum Center on Wednesday, packing their belongings and talking about summer plans after missing out on the postseason.
“We don’t have an overpowering roster, but we had a roster that was good enough to be a playoff team,” Clifford said. “Of my four years here, this was the strongest the (Eastern Conference) has been.
“But the reality is we didn’t do what we’ve done here for three years, and we didn’t get better.”
Here are five takeaways from Charlotte’s season:
Defense proved to be the staple of Clifford’s teams in his first three years in Charlotte. For this year’s squad, it was anything but.
The Hornets ranked ninth in the NBA in opponent points per game and defensive rating last season. This year, after posting the fifth-best defensive rating in the league en route to a 14-9 start, Charlotte was 22nd in that category for its final 59 games, when it went 22-37.
The team’s 3-point defense was perhaps its biggest problem. The Hornets’ opponents averaged 11.6 made 3-pointers, the most against any team in the NBA.
“As much as anything else, that’s why I was brought here,” said Clifford about defense. “It’s what we built it around because that’s what you should build it around. No teams win in this league year in and year out without defending. That’s supposed to be what I’m good at, and that was our weakness this year.”
After registering a 5-0 record in overtime games last season, the Hornets went 0-6 this year. Those late-game woes were accentuated by an 0-9 record in games decided by three points or less, which they went 6-5 in last season.
“That started at the beginning of the year, and it felt like it was just a trend that continued throughout the rest of the season,” Frank Kaminsky said. “That’s a very frustrating part is we were in games where we had opportunities to win and we just didn’t make the plays we needed to make.”
Charlotte’s offensive rating in the clutch - a five-point game with less than five minutes left, according to NBA.com — ranked fifth in the league. Yet, it’s then that the Hornets’ defense struggled the most, as it ranked 29th in defensive efficiency in the same parameters.
“I felt like when the game mattered last year, we might not be scoring but the other team wasn’t going to score either,” Marvin Williams said. “I feel like this year, offensively, we have such good players that we were able to score. We just weren’t able to get stops.”
Lack of reinforcements
Entering the season, Clifford said he thought the acquisition of center Roy Hibbert could give the team something it hadn’t had during his tenure — a rim protector.
Clifford said he thought his vision might have become a reality after Hibbert had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in the season-opening win against the Milwaukee Bucks. But right knee soreness limited Hibbert to just four minutes in the next game.
Hibbert was never the same after that, and the Hornets traded him and Spencer Hawes to the Bucks on Feb. 2 in exchange for Miles Plumlee, who Charlotte hoped could fill a crucial need at backup center.
However, injuries prevented Plumlee from playing in all but 13 games following the trade. The instability at backup center further hampered the Hornets’ bench.
“We need better bench play, and it’s not just one position,” Clifford said. “We have a couple of positions that we have to get better at.”
An All-Star emerges
One of the few bright spots this season was Kemba Walker, who made his first career All-Star game in February.
Walker scored 1,830 points, the second-most by a Charlotte player during a single season, and fell just four made 3-pointers shy of breaking Jason Richardson’s single-season franchise record.
“The reality is he’s not playing with another big-time go-to guy, so he gets incredible attention,” Clifford said. “So what he did this year is significant. He’s a terrific player, and he gives us a guy to play through in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.”
Continuity a strength
The Hornets’ starting lineup underwent some shuffling early on in the season. However, Clifford eventually found a consistent group in Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Walker, Williams and Cody Zeller.
Charlotte rolled out that starting lineup in 45 games, going 26-19. Among five-man lineups that played more than 500 minutes together, that one ranked fourth in net points (+93).
“When we had that starting five on the floor, we were really good this year,” Zeller said. “I think that’s something to build off of where all of us are comfortable with each other, but add another year to it and I think we’ll be tough to play against.”