The Hornets need to get LaMelo Ball a defense

One statistic and only one statistic is sufficient to explain why the Hawks steamrolled the Hornets in Wednesday’s play-in game. For consistency, the worst defense in the league this season belonged to Houston, which allowed 116.4 points per 100 ball possessions. But in Atlanta’s 132-103 drubbing of Charlotte, the Hornets allowed an astonishing 128.2 points per 100 possessions.

At least the Hornets are used to defensive uselessness. In last season’s play-in loss, they scored 129.7 points per game. 100 ball possessions in a similar beating that ended the season.

From a broad perspective, the 2021-22 season was a success for the Hornets, who finished with a winning record for the first time in six years and saw their two most important players – LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges – take significant strides. Still, Wednesday’s game, and indeed this entire season, shone an ugly, glaring light on the team’s biggest mistake: It owns the weakest defense of any potential challenger, and the gap between Charlotte and everyone else is not even close.

The Hornets’ defensive problems are innumerable. As befits a young team that likes to run, Charlotte is forcing a healthy amount of revenue – but it’s hard to find anything else positive to say. Hornets allow tons of shots on the edge, tons of 3-pointers and tons of offensive rebounds. They do not defend elections well. By Second Spectrum’s goal of the opponent’s shooting quality, which analyzes factors such as shooting position and defensive distance, the Hornets were placed in 27th place this season – ahead of only the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Rockets.

The Cavaliers, another Eastern Conference team in the play-in bracket, also allowed plenty of shots on edge this season, but with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, Cleveland had the right big men to contest those shots and keep the total number of points down. . Charlotte does not have that kind of players and has not for a while. Here’s a funny fact: The last Hornets center to send a box plus / minus above average was Cody Zeller in 2016-17.

The Hornets’ starting center this season was Mason Plumlee, who is a competent NBA veteran but nowhere near a two-way anchor. Backup Montrezl Harrell, acquired by the trade deadline, is certainly not a response to the defense. The Hornets’ one increase in Wednesday’s blowout loss came midway through the second quarter with PJ Washington as a small-ball center. These lineups were quite successful in the regular season (plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass), but more so due to heightened offensive; in any case, 6-foot-8 Washington is not a full-scale solution to the Hornets’ center problems.

It’s # 1 priority this offseason, or at least 1A along with 1B of re-signing Bridges, who are entering a limited free agency after a breakout campaign. The center market may be subdued, with people like Jusuf Nurkic and Mitchell Robinson leading, or it may be tumultuous depending on what happens next month. If jazz implodes again, could Rudy Gobert then be available in a trade? Or Deandre Ayton, if Sun’s owner Robert Sarver does not want to pay big bucks for a center? Or Myles Turner, if the Pacers’ lottery result enables them to pick a new big man in the draft? The Hornets should be an active buyer (on the verge of desperate) given their needs.

The second off-season priority is a reliable wing defender who can stick to the best resistance options better than Bridges, who started on a front row with Plumlee and Washington at the end of the season. Gordon Hayward remains a solid two-way contributor when he is healthy but cannot stay on the field, and Kelly Oubre Jr. fell out of coach James Borrego’s good grace after a sizzling start. He played only 16 minutes on Wednesday.

With no lockdown defenders on the perimeter, the Hornets deployed a zone defense on the second-largest number of possessions this season, per. second Spectrum, only behind the refueling Trail Blazers. For some defenses, like Heat (third in zone rate), a zone defense is a way to add to an already stingy unit, to shuffle coverage and confuse opponents. But for the Hornets, the zone represented a last resort – Borrego could not lure a usable defense out of his players in standard sets, so a zone effort was all he had left.

Teambuilding in the NBA is not just about draft or trades or free agency; it requires the right moves across all paths to improve a list. In recent years, the Hornets have mostly beaten the draft. Ball, the third overall committee in 2020, is the most obvious success. After a dazzling Rookie of the Year campaign, he took another step forward this season, increasing his scoring average to 20 points per game. match and its 3-point accuracy to 39 percent. He’s still only 20 years old, and as long as he’s in uniform, the Hornets should always score at the elite level.

Charlotte has also exceeded expectations in the middle of the first round, via no. 12 selects Bridges and Washington, and in the second, via No. 36 selects Cody Martin. The jury is still out on last year’s No. 11, James Bouknight, who played by far the fewest minutes of any lottery in 2021 – but they have managed to build an impressive young talent base for a team with just one top-10 pick since 2015.

Now they have to round the list, ideally adding two above average starters, in trades or free agency, where the front offices track record is definitely more mixed. The money may be tight after Bridges’ extension, so Hayward – with two years and $ 61.6 million left on his contract – is an obvious trade candidate. (Look for the rumors about Russell Westbrook…)

On the one hand, there is no reason for the Hornets to rush into a ruthless win-now move. Given their likely position in this summer’s draft, they could aim for a big one like Duke’s Mark Williams to develop alongside the franchise’s promising young core. But on the other hand, the Hornets have been stuck in the 9-10 range in the East for five seasons now, and Ball is already so talented that the team might be able to take a giant step forward if it can go from abyss at all. to the average with a quick fix from documented defenders.

It sounds a lot like the Mavericks’ situation before this season: with a different phenomenon in Luka Doncic, but an unbalanced list keeps them in place. Then the Mavericks jumped from the 21st-ranked defense to the seventh, and from the West No. 7 seed to a team with home field advantage in the first round.

A Hornets starting lineup with an opportunity like Robinson in the middle, not to mention something about Gobert, could take a similar leap in 2022-23. Charlotte has a brighter future now than two offseasons ago, but it has exploited its potential with such a generous defense. The next step is almost too obvious.

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