If you’re looking for reasons that the Hornets underperformed last season, the biggest one isn’t hard to find. Charlotte has remained competitive throughout the Steve Clifford era due in large part to a stifling defense, one that often had to pick up the slack for a lackluster offense.
That elite defense wasn’t there in 2016-17. In its place was one that was just average – not a disaster, but not enough to compensate for what turned out to be an average offense. 36-46 is perhaps a bit of an unlucky record for a team that was average on both ends of the floor, but the Hornets were expecting a possible playoff run. That’s not what average play gets you.
If Charlotte wants to return to the postseason, it needs to get its defense in order. Fortunately, there’s reason to be hopeful on that front.
Clifford’s teams aren’t the swarming turnover machine one might expect from a top-tier defense. Instead, they play a fundamentally sound, if somewhat boring style that emphasizes grabbing defensive rebounds and not letting the opponent get opportunities to shoot free throws. Those basic rules were still in place last season when the Hornets ranked second in the league in defensive rebound percentage and first in opponents’ free throw attempt rate. If the core principles of the Clifford defense were as strong as ever, though, why was the end result so much worse than usual?
One major difference is the three-point shooting. The NBA is more three-happy than ever, and no team felt that more than the Hornets, who gave up a league-high 11.6 made three-point shots per game last season. If Charlotte wants to return to the postseason, that can’t happen again.
And that’s where Dwight Howard comes in.
Of course, Howard won’t be chasing down perimeter players or closing out on shots, but his presence can change the entire defense. He’s not the same guy that won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, but he’s still an imposing figure at the rim that can block shots. That rim protection won’t directly affect three-point shooting, but it does set in place a sort of chain reaction that will help.
With Howard’s presence defending the paint, the rest of the Hornets roster has a safety net behind them. If a perimeter player gets beat off the dribble, Howard is there to clean up their mess. That doesn’t mean that the guards can slack off defensively, but it does mean that they can sell out a bit more to defend against the three. Howard’s mere presence changes the geometry of the defense in a way that can make it as formidable as it was in years past, before last season’s collapse.
It wasn’t all about the three-point shooting, though. There’s another explanation for last year’s less-than-stellar defense, one that shouldn’t need to be fixed through trades. Last season, Cody Zeller missed 20 games. It’s as simple as that.
Zeller isn’t the rim protector Howard is, but he’s still a great defensive piece that can make the entire team better. The stats show that too: while he was on the court, the Hornets had a defensive rating that would rank fourth in the league; while he wasn’t playing, their defensive rating would’ve ranked 25th. Zeller just playing more will improve the defense plenty.
There is a reason to be concerned that Howard’s presence on the team will cut into Zeller’s minutes, but having two centers – especially two that offer different playstyles – can be a great asset for Clifford. Howard can stay in the paint and protect the rim, but if teams try to pull him away from the basket with a rangier lineup, Zeller can come in. His speed and agility make him a more valuable option to defend screen-heavy offenses and more mobile big men.
It’s possible that too many cooks will spoil the broth, but if Clifford can find the correct balance of Howard’s rim protection and Zeller’s more mobile defense, it’s possible that the Hornets can cook up one of the league’s best defenses.