Charlotte Hornets

Steve Clifford’s Hornets a work-in-progress

Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum (5) passes against the Miami Heat Wednesday in Miami. The Heat won 104-94.
Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum (5) passes against the Miami Heat Wednesday in Miami. The Heat won 104-94. AP Photo

Coaching, like most any management job, is to a great degree about playing give-and-take.

There is seldom such a thing as the perfect employee. So you figure out how to blend various people’s strengths and weaknesses into a group that is functional to their task.

Right now, that is a work-in-progress for the Charlotte Hornets.

This group is more talented, potentially far more, offensively than either of the previous two seasons Clifford has coached in Charlotte. But it is also lacking in an area that Clifford has declared his non-negotiable as an NBA coach: Transition defense.

“We don’t get back,” Clifford said before Wednesday’s season-opening 104-94 loss to the Miami Heat.

“In Detroit and against Indiana (in the preseason) we were terrible. The first half of the Detroit game, that was related to turnovers, but that has not been the whole issue.

“You’d think our challenges (defensively) would be in the half-court with basketball protection and containing the ball, and we’ve been very good at that. What we haven’t done is set our defense. If we’re not going to do that, we just won’t be good enough.”

As if on cue, the Heat outscored the Hornets in fast-break points 15 to eight Wednesday.

That the Hornets would look flawed defensively early on was predictable. You can’t make over half the roster, mostly adding offense-centric players, and not experience a learning curve. But these players will find it’s either get back on defense or sit, because that is the core of what made the Hornets so good defensively the past two seasons.

That’s the downside of the roster makeover. But it’s a correctable flaw, and the payback is potentially high. The preseason suggested this team will be better along the 3-point line and in ball movement. The plodding pace of previous seasons has sped up. To a great extent that’s about the Hornets now having three trustworthy ball-handlers – Kemba Walker, Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin – who will often play as a unit.

When Clifford first came to the Hornets he inherited a team that ran well but was sloppy with the ball. So he initially gave orders that only Walker was allowed to bring up the ball. Eventually he loosened that restriction, letting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist advance the ball.

Now Walker, Batum and Lin each has the green light to start the offense.

“When I first got there, Charlotte’s pace was top-8 in the league. As I started watching them, that’s also why they were (worst) in turnovers. Everybody was allowed (to bring up the ball), then you watch film and say, ‘My goodness, that’s why the offense was so poor!’ ” Clifford recalled.

“Offense, to me, is guys playing to their strengths. If you’re not a ball-handler/decision-maker, it doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t make sense to have them run the ball up and turn it over just so we’re saying we’re fast-breaking more.”

Translation: Replace Lance Stephenson and Gerald Henderson with Batum and Lin and you become a more diverse offense.

Lin (17 points Wednesday) has been a very pleasant surprise. Clifford thinks he’s just starting to scratch all that he can be.

“I think he can be a total player. I think he’s viewed as an offensive pick-and-roll/transition player and I think he can be a lot more than that,” Clifford said. “His defense has improved a lot. He’s very bright, he’s physical and he learns quickly. He played at a very high level in the preseason.”

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