In his three years as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, Steve Clifford has established himself as one of the league’s best defensive coaches. After finishing dead last in defensive rating in 2013, the team fired head coach Mike Dunlap, replacing him with Clifford. Since then, they’ve been a top 10 defensive unit in every year.
That defensive turnaround is even more impressive considering the team’s personnel. Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are both capable defenders, but that itself is not enough to make up an elite defense. Besides, Biyombo’s playing time was inconsistent behind Al Jefferson, and Kidd-Gilchrist has spent large periods of time on the bench with injuries. The bottom line is that Charlotte’s success on that end of the floor has more to do with Clifford’s coaching than anything else. If the team had more players that can play high-level individual defense, the team defense could be nearly unstoppable.
Enter Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert became a punchline during the end of his stint with the Indiana Pacers and didn’t do much to improve his reputation last season in Los Angeles. Despite that, we’re only a few years removed from him being considered one of the best defenders in the league. If he can return to form in Charlotte under Clifford’s system, the Hornets defense could become the most formidable in the entire league.
In Indiana, Hibbert was perhaps the best rim protector in the league. In 2014, opposing players only managed to shoot 40.9 percent at the rim while he was defending them, which was good for second in the league among players that faced five such shots per game. The next year, that percentage went up a bit to 42.7 percent. Those are both great numbers, but things got a bit worse last season, his first with the Lakers. His defensive field goal percentage at the rim skyrocketed to 50.6 percent. That’s not a terrible number, but certainly not one of an elite rim protector — for example, noted defensive stalwart Dirk Nowitzki isn’t too far behind at 52 percent.
There's some context missing from those numbers. In Indiana, Hibbert was flanked with great perimeter defenders like Paul George and George Hill. With the Lakers, he was cleaning up for the likes of Nick Young, Lou Williams and a 37-year-old Kobe Bryant. Charlotte’s perimeter defenders aren’t quite as good as those stalwart Pacers players, but they should certainly be better than LA’s group.
There are some issues in the marriage between Hibbert and Charlotte. Al Jefferson’s offseason departure creates a hole in the frontcourt on the offensive end. If other parts of the offense broke down, the team was always able to throw the ball to Jefferson in the post and let him go to work. Hibbert doesn’t have that ability, and his size and lack of mobility may hurt their ability to run the fast break.
Cody Zeller will likely begin the year as the starting center, and he should — his talent and familiarity with the team’s system have earned him a chance to start. He was the best defensive big man Charlotte had last year and though he may not be on Hibbert’s level, he’s not a negative on that end. His ability on the offensive end will be hugely important when the offense slows down. Zeller is an important player for this team, but there are certain things Hibbert provides that he simply can’t.
Hibbert should be the main backup from day one and will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself. If he can recapture some of his old defensive magic and finds ways to contribute on offense, he could revitalize his career and bring Steve Clifford’s defense to another level.