Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets are on 5-2 run. Here’s the change that explains their success.

If you regularly follow the Charlotte Hornets, you know their flaw this season has been at the defensive end. You also probably know they’ve improved lately on defense.

Not just better over the last eight games. Strikingly better.

The standard measure of defensive efficiency in the NBA is points allowed per 100 possessions. Since the start of the game in Sacramento Jan. 12, the Hornets are fourth among 30 teams in defensive efficiency. In that span, they have allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz.

That looks like significant progress for a team that has struggled most of this season to stay out of the bottom third of a 30-team league in defensive efficiency. Two games into that eight-game span, veteran point guard Tony Parker made a comment following an impressive road victory against Parker’s old team, the San Antonio Spurs, that now sounds prescient.

“We know we are going to score. .We just have to make stops,” Parker observed Jan. 14. “Our defense is not like together (often enough). Some guys will play with energy here and there, but we have to play with energy all five together. Everybody on the same page.

“That’s what we’re missing the most. If we can do that more over 48 minutes, we have a great chance to be in every game.”

Synergy

Since the night Parker made that observation, the Hornets have gone 5-2. As Parker said, the challenge defensively to a large degree has been about getting a cross-section of players -- but mostly the younger ones -- on the same page regarding how new coach James Borrego wants to play defense.

Some qualifiers: For the entire season, the Hornets are still 18th in defensive efficiency and three of the five teams they’ve beaten of late are already out of the playoff race.

Borrego knew going into training camp there would be some adjustment to the sort of defense he wants to play; in particular a lot more defensive switching than Borrego’s predecessor, Steve Clifford, employed. Over the first two months of the regular season, Borrego trimmed back the number of players he’s asking to switch. Primarily, that group now is forwards Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum and rookie Miles Bridges.

At practice Tuesday, Borrego described the underlying factors in what looks like two weeks of progress in an area that has held the Hornets back in a 24-25 start heading into Wednesday’s road game against the Boston Celtics.

“It’s an overall physicality and effort, and I think our young guys are making strides defensively. I’ll put Billy (Hernangomez) in that group, and Miles and Malik (Monk) as well. That has helped our second unit to defend.

“We’ve been a more disruptive team and a more disciplined team -- we understand what we’re trying to do on a schematic basis. We’re not making as many mental mistakes.”

Trickle-down effect

Defensive focus was a concern earlier this season, when some players seemed to think scoring alone could blast them out of any predicament. Very few teams in the NBA have the offensive talent to function that way, and the Hornets aren’t one.

“When shots aren’t falling, we can’t hang our heads. We’ve done that at times -- where shots not falling trickles into the defensive end.” Borrego said.

To think that adapting to a new coach and a roster with increased reliance on the young players Borrego mentioned wouldn’t involve an adjustment period would have been unrealistic.

“Early in the season, as we were putting in our schemes, guys were more reactionary,” Borrego described. “Now we’re more the aggressor. We saw that in periods earlier in the season, but not consistently.

“I think over those last eight games we’ve been more aggressive because I think we understand what we’re trying to do. When you’re second-guessing yourself. you’re a step slow, you’re a step late.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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