Charlotte Hornets

With ball-stopping security blanket gone, Charlotte adjusting under James Borrego

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego says his team must be more preventative about the ball ever getting to the rim to avoid first halves like Tuesday against the Miami Heat.
Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego says his team must be more preventative about the ball ever getting to the rim to avoid first halves like Tuesday against the Miami Heat. AP

The Dwight Howard Effect can mean various things, depending on whether you’re discussing off-court Dwight or on-court Dwight.

Off-court Dwight was playful, silly, emotional, theatrical. On-court Dwight often stopped offensive ball-movement to the Charlotte Hornets’ detriment last season.

But he also stopped a lot of layups and dunks by opposing teams. What you saw in the first half against the Miami Heat Tuesday was the Post-Dwight Effect.

“I don’t want to say ‘lazy,’” power forward Marvin Williams described of last season. “But we were conditioned.”

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Conditioned to the comforting feeling that Howard, the NBA’s active career shot-blocks leader with 2,047 rejections and counting, would clean up defensive messes. The Hornets were awful defensively in the first half Tuesday, allowing 30 points in the paint and being outscored in second-chance points 15-0.

They righted themselves in the second half for a 122-113 preseason victory over the Heat at Spectrum Center. But if you’re a Hornets fan, that first half should have made you queasy.

My intent here is not to revisit the incentive for the Howard trade. I think it was the right thing to move on from Howard after one season because he was going to be a bad fit with the quick-pace, ball-constantly-moving offense new coach James Borrego is installing.

The first half Tuesday illustrated the Hornets are going to have to play defense very differently this season, particularly against teams like Miami that lean to a big lineup. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra started 7-2 Hassan Whiteside at center and 7-foot Kelly Olynyk at power forward.

Whiteside, who grew up in Gastonia, finished the first quarter with seven points and six rebounds, and Olynyk made four of his five first-quarter shots for 11 points. That added up to a nine-point lead off 52 percent Heat shooting from the field.

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The Miami Heat and Derrick Jones Jr. (5) attacked the relatively unprotected rim effectively against the Charlotte Hornets and Cody Zeller (40) in the first half Tuesday, but Charlotte rallied after halftime. Chuck Burton AP

Borrego said the breakdowns weren’t just about Miami’s big men, that Charlotte’s guards gave up some drives. Either way, the defensive lapses were frequent. There’s a lot to clean up in the five days before the Hornets’ next exhibition Monday against the Chicago Bulls.

I asked Nic Batum about this post-game. Like Williams, Batum said you get conditioned to Howard being back there to clean up defensive messes with his shotblocking and rebounding. However, Batum added that some of the first-half struggles defensively were about unlearning what they did under former coach Steve Clifford.

There were some basic principles in the Clifford defense that differ from Borrego’s approach. The starters are still working out that transition. That’s what the preseason is for, particularly following a coaching change.

Switches

Borrego is asking this team to switch defensively a lot more than Clifford had them do, and that doesn’t come together instantly. Williams, in his 14th NBA season, probably has the most experience at switching defensively, and that reaches back to his original team, the Atlanta Hawks.

That Hawks group had ideal personnel for switching, whether it be Williams, Josh Smith or point guard Mike Bibby. But switching is about more than personnel. It’s about a high level of communication and trust. That isn’t completed in three exhibitions and a week of practice.

“It’s a chemistry thing — you have to know (with conviction) who is going to take who,” Williams described. “You have to know who is behind you, and you have to communicate.

“You’ve have to be on the the same page: Who you’re switching onto, who you’re switching off of, who is making the switch.”

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Miami Heat’s Justise Winslow, right, drives against Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller, left, on Tuesday. Zeller is the likely starter in the middle, but he’s not the rim protector the Hornets had in Dwight Howard. Chuck Burton AP

Big men

No one on this Hornets roster is going to replace Howard by himself. Of the four centers, Bismack Biyombo is the best option as a rim-protector, but he’s an offensive liability. Cody Zeller deserves to be the starter in this group, but he’s not intimidating at the rim. Borrego is still hashing out who will be Zeller’s backup between Frank Kaminsky and Willy Hernangomez.

Kaminsky had a rough night, missing all four of his shots and playing only eight minutes. Hernangomez looked promising, making six of seven shots and grabbing 10 rebounds in 17 minutes. He was by far the more rugged of those two alternatives.

“Once our physicality picked up defensively, I think our second unit really picked it up, got us back into the game,” Borrego said.

The most physical player from last season is gone, traded to the Brooklyn Nets and now playing for the Washington Wizards. One player won’t be Howard. One player can’t be Howard.

For this group to be physical, every one of them must be physical.

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