Steve Clifford knows the reason why the Charlotte Hornets finished 10 games below .500 last year.
“We need to get our defensive ego back,” he said.
Last season, Charlotte saw slippage in just about every defensive category. Their .456 field goal percentage allowed was a dozen points higher than it had been in any of the three previous years. It ranked 15th in the NBA, after two top-10 finishes in three seasons.
The three-point defense saw a similar decline. Opponents hit at a .369 clip, 20 points higher than in 2015-16, good (so to speak) for 25th in the league.
Advanced stats weren’t much better. The team was in the NBA’s bottom 10 effective field goal percentage allowed after finishing in the top 10 two of the previous three years. The team defensive rating fell to 14th after three straight top-10 finishes.
“I don’t know whether I took the defense for granted,” Clifford said. “It had been what we built everything on here for three years. Maybe I wasn’t as demanding, didn’t teach it as well. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility. We have to do better. I have to do better.”
The Hornets’ front office did its part to help improve the defense, swinging a blockbuster offseason trade to bring in an All-Star player who is very familiar with Clifford’s defense.
“Defense is set,” said new Hornets’ center Dwight Howard. “It’s the same thing we ran in Orlando.”
Clifford was an assistant with the Magic from 2007 to 2012, a period that coincided with Howard’s blossoming as a defensive player. During the time they were together, Howard won Defensive Player of the Year three times. He led the NBA in blocked shots twice, defensive rebounds five times, defensive rebounding percentage twice, total rebound percentage once, defensive rating three times and defensive win shares four times. He also made his first six All Star teams in Clifford’s six seasons in Orlando.
In the seven seasons Howard has played without Clifford, he’s made two All Star teams and led the league in defensive rebounding once.
As much as Howard will help the defense, being reunited with Clifford promises to help him find a comfort level that has eluded him in recent seasons.
“It’s the same Cliff,” Howard said. “Cliff is Cliff. He’s going to push you to the limit. He wants the best out of you.”
Clifford points out that, while Howard is a defensive force, he’ll help the team on both ends of the court.
“He’s someone who is still an elite basket protector,” Clifford said. “But people forget he’s also one of the most efficient players in the league offensively.”
Howard’s presence also shifts Cody Zeller to the bench, which Clifford thinks will also help the team.
“One of our issues last year was that when we went to the bench, we struggled,” he said. “This puts Cody into a role that he can absolutely excel in. We’re not only getting a starter that’s a frontline player, we’re taking a position where we struggled, and it really should be a position of great strength now.”
In addition to Howard, the Hornets have added two rookies that are expected to have an immediate impact. Charlotte took Kentucky one-and-done shooting guard Malik Monk with the 11th overall pick in the draft.
“He’s a shot-maker,” Clifford said. “Having Michael Carter-Williams or Julyan Stone — a point guard with size to play with him — is critical for him. If you look at most of the guys his size in the league who are able to play well, they’re paired with a point guard with size to guard the bigger player in the opposing backcourt.”
In other words, Monk will likely start his career coming off the bench, since the smaller Kemba Walker, one of the top point guards in the East, will be starting. Monk and the rest of the second unit have thrived in the preseason, providing energy and production off the bench.
Second-round draft pick Dwayne Bacon, out of Florida State, has played himself into a role on the team as well.
“He’s been terrific,” Clifford said. “Not good — terrific. I watched him in summer league and said that down the road, he could be good. Down the road. But he had a couple games — it’s exhibition, so you have to temper your excitement — but he’s played all-around games in exhibition. He guarded Gordon Hayward and Wesley Matthews and did a good job. He’s maturing quickly.”
The three new additions have helped upgrade Charlotte’s rotation and, if things go well, the Hornets may just find their defensive ego again.