When Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford got the job in the spring of 2013, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson met with him to send the message they were sick of losing and what could they do about that?
Clifford made them a bargain: Conform precisely with a strict set of principles and they would figure out a way to squeeze out enough victories to make the playoffs. That’s what happened the following season.
Two games into the 2015-16 season these Hornets don’t practice conformity. They make silly turnovers. They fail to get back on defense. And they’re now 0-2 following a 97-94 road loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
That the final score was this close – point guard Walker got off a 3-pointer that missed as the final buzzer sounded – illustrated this new group’s firepower. The Hornets made 12-of-30 3-pointers, including shots by Jeremy Lin and Marvin Williams that cut a 14-point deficit to two in the final minute.
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But that comeback wasn’t this game’s story. It was the 20 turnovers (as many as the Hornets committed in any game last season) and the 21 fast-break points the 2-1 Hawks scored.
The lackadaisical transition defense was a problem even in a 7-1 preseason (how misleading that record looks now). The turnovers are a newer phenomenon.
Clifford calls transition defense his “non-negotiable,” as in if you refuse to run back you’ll sit. But how can he sit an entire roster?
High turnover might not be “non-negotiable,” but it would be pretty close.
“We’re just so disorganized,” Clifford said post-game. “They’re very good defensively, but we play with very little purpose. We don’t understand what wins.
“We’ve worked on it, we’ve watched it… If you’re going to look at every game that’s played, if you’re going to not run back on defense and turn the ball over, you’re gonna lose.”
Clifford didn’t sound so much angry as exasperated. The teams he coached the first two seasons in Charlotte were formulaic, but at least they stuck to the script. Half the roster was turned over in the off-season and perhaps it will take time for the message to sink in.
“The good thing is we’re playing hard and we have a talented team,” Clifford said. “In this league it’s not who you play so much as how you play. We might have been not that talented the past two years, but we played well: We never beat ourselves, we were disciplined and right now, for these two games, we were none of that.”
A good example would be Nicolas Batum, who has been given major ballhandling responsibility in the new, flashier offense. Batum made his first four shots for a quick 10 points, but by game’s end he had committed seven turnovers.
The good news: This is an 82-game season, not the 16-game sprint that is an NFL season. But something needs to change soon because the margin for error to qualify for the playoffs doesn’t seem high, even considering the upgraded talent on this roster.
“That can change in one day,” Clifford said hopefully. “A lot of what is happening right now is just mental. We have smart guys and you can change things in this league in one day. It’s all about where your mind is at.”
Because right now it’s about where their minds aren’t.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell