The Hornets Need to Defend the Perimeter to Stay in the Playoff Hunt

The Hornets are giving up three-pointers at a historic rate this season, and that needs to change.

As the 2016 calendar year was coming to a close, the Charlotte Hornets had to feel pretty good about things in terms of where their season was headed. Despite a 121-109 loss on New Year’s Eve on the road to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, they sat at 19-15 and in the top half of the Eastern Conference.

Fast forward to February of 2017, and things are looking much different and not as optimistic. A win Monday night over the Brooklyn Nets snapped a seven-game losing streak, but it was still just their fifth win in 18 games.

That five-week swoon has left the Hornets without much buzz looking forward.

What's going on with Charlotte?

By the Numbers

Statistically speaking, the Hornets don’t appear to be in any sort of dire straits.

They are 11th in defensive rating (105.0) and 14th in offensive efficiency (108.1) and currently sit 11th by our nERD rating (53.8), a number that aims to predict a team’s overall winning percentage.

It also doesn’t appear that the Hornets have made any sacrifices when it comes to the principles that have made them successful under head coach Steve Clifford. First, he stresses protecting the ball and winning the turnover margin. The Hornets do this effectively and are second in the league, allowing just 11.9 turnovers per contest. They simply are not going to beat themselves with turnovers.

The second Clifford staple is getting back defensively and minimizing transition opportunities. Charlotte currently sits 12th in the NBA in fast break points allowed, giving up just 13 points per game in transition.

Lastly, Clifford wants his teams protecting the paint and limiting high-percentage shot opportunities. The Hornets are also strong here, ranking sixth in the league, allowing just 15.9 field goals made per game inside five feet. Their 57.8 percent field goal percentage allowed on shots from within three feet is second-best in the NBA.

So What’s the Problem?

While the Hornets might be doing a great job protecting the paint, they are simply getting bludgeoned from behind the three-point line.

Charlotte is dead last in the league when it comes to thee pointers allowed, giving up 11.1 makes per game. If the Hornets keep this pace up, they’ll obliterate the Sacramento Kings from the record books in this regard. The 2015-16 Kings gave up the most threes in NBA history, at 10.1 per game.

The Hornets’ opponents are scoring a whopping 32 percent of their points from long range, also currently last in the league and up from 26.3 percent last season. This is despite opponents shooting exactly the league-average from beyond the arc (35.8 percent) against the Hornets.

It isn’t breaking news, but with the league’s growing reliance on three-point shooting, protecting the basket at all costs seems to be a strategy that’s becoming less effective.

The Overall Defense

The woes haven’t come from one area in particular. Getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back healthy this year has given Charlotte a top individual defender, but his impact on the team defense has been minimal. With Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor, Charlotte allows 106.5 points per 100 possessions compared to 110.0 without him. The league average is 108.5.

Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are decent defenders but give up quite a bit of dribble penetration.

The injury issues for starting center Cody Zeller have also been a huge detriment. Zeller’s backup for most of the season, Roy Hibbert, was supposed to strengthen the Hornets' rim protection ability, but he and Spencer Hawes' lack of foot speed led to plenty of wide open looks from the outside. It’s no surprise that the Hornets are just 2-12 in games when Zeller sits this season.

While Clifford hasn’t made any apparent defensive adjustments to this point, the Hornets' recent trading of HIbbert and Hawes for Miles Plumlee seems to indicate that management is starting to understand what’s plaguing Charlotte.

Plumlee won’t give the Hornets much offensively, but he is an athletic, pick and roll big who can close out on shooters much more effectively than either of the guys he was exchanged for.

The addition of Plumlee and improved health of Zeller and some of their bench players (Jeremy Lamb and Ramon Sessions) will certainly give Charlotte a boost, but the question is "how much?"

The goal of reaching the second round may be fading fast, but if this team keeps giving up the three-pointers at a historic rate, the final playoff spot may be too far out of reach. Our algorithm gives them a 52.5 percent chance to reach the playoffs.