Player rotations matter. Scouting reports matter. Practice matters. Video sessions matter.
But all of that is secondary to effort. These days the Charlotte Hornets are unreliable in that regard. That’s quite an indictment and one of their leaders acknowledged it after Saturday’s 130-126 loss to the Washington Wizards.
“Tonight we just didn’t compete hard enough. Washington wanted to win a lot more than we did,” power forward Marvin Williams said. “That is the bottom line and that is really unfortunate. It’s one thing to lose, but we just didn’t play hard enough.”
Over 82 games any NBA team, even the vaunted Golden State Warriors, will have clunkers when players’ focus flutters and their effort wanes. But this is happening too often for the Hornets in a 17-18 season and it is going to have consequences.
For most of the past five years the Hornets earned a reputation of making opponents uncomfortable, whether or not that ultimately resulted in a victory. Most nights they played hard, played physical and played smart. You can’t count on that anymore.
I don’t think this is a coaching problem. I think James Borrego is actually quite adept at holding players accountable without becoming such a nag they tune him out. But the persistent effort and precision aren’t there, and this team just isn’t talented enough to get away with that.
Something changed for the worse last season, the last under Borrego’s predecessor, Steve Clifford. It was quite a statement by Clifford the day after last season concluded that his team’s “spirit” was lacking for the first time in his five years in Charlotte. Clifford was fired shortly after that by new general manager Mitch Kupchak. There was hope a fresh voice could be reinvigorating.
Borrego is doing his job. Some players, particularly some reserves, aren’t consistently doing theirs. The 40 points the Hornets gave up in the second quarter illustrated that.
“That’s what coach preaches: He wants us to be disruptive, to be difficult to play against. I don’t feel like we’ve lost that, we just don’t do it all the time,” Williams said. Then he cited examples in losses to teams below the Hornets in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Tonight, at Atlanta, at Cleveland. Those were games we had a chance to win, but they played a lot harder than we did and that (losing) is what happens,” Williams said.
‘It’s an issue’
Two-time All-Star Kemba Walker had his fourth game this season scoring 40 or more points. He finished with 47, including a magnificent 24 in the fourth quarter. But it was all wasted by mistakes, whether that be turnovers (16, resulting in 21 Wizards points) or brain cramps defending Washington backdoor cuts to the rim.
A team that was missing three key players - point guard John Wall and forwards Otto Porter and Markieff Morris - became the fourth opponent in the Hornets’ last eight games to score 126 or more points.
As Borrego said, the Hornets scored more than enough points to win this game. We’ve heard that before. When the Hornets break down, it’s usually on defense, and that leads directly to their 4-11 road record. This is about to come to a head. The Hornets are a week away from a six-game trip through the Western Conference that could be devastating to their record if they don’t tighten up defensively.
I asked Walker post-game if he concurred with Williams. “Just like Marvin said, we’re too inconsistent,” Walker replied, adding that some nights “we’re just easy to play against.”
Then, I asked if Walker saw a link between inconsistent defense and this miserable road record.
“I don’t know the last time we won on the road,” Walker said. “It’s been really bad defensively all year.
“It’s an issue.”
It’s not as if Borrego has failed to address that issue. The past two weeks he has made defense the imperative to an extent a couple of players have said offense doesn’t come up much at practice. He has changed the rotation, at times limiting minutes for Malik Monk, Frank Kaminsky and most recently rookie Miles Bridges.
They make progress for a game or two, then fall back. The same team that held the Brooklyn Nets to 87 points Friday gave up 130 to mostly spare parts on the Wizards’ roster Saturday.
If this is their pattern, then they are going to slog along, finish somewhere between seventh and 10th in the East and feel pretty empty in late April.
Williams was correct in his observation the Hornets aren’t particularly bad. The trouble is, they also aren’t particularly good and there isn’t much progress toward changing that.