The Charlotte Hornets know exactly who they are

Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images /

Let’s talk about what wins basketball games in the NBA. You need good players, obviously. You need good coaching. You need strong ownership that empowers smart management to find good players and good coaches. And you need the one thread that ties all of those things together: an identity.

Throwing a bunch of players together in mish-mashed fashion sometimes doesn’t really work, even if they’re good; there can be diminishing returns. Everyone need to fit together within a team concept. The coach defines a system on offense and defense. The general manager, ideally, acquires players that fit within that system. And the players execute it. Really, it’s all about knowing who you are.

The Steve Clifford-era Charlotte Hornets, as much as any team in the league, know exactly who they are. The Hornets come out and play the same way every night: Offensively, Kemba Walker runs the show, and everybody else fills their role. They all work their butts off on the other end of the floor, starting with sprinting back in transition to prevent fast-break and early-offense baskets. They blockade the area immediately around the rim. They force a ton of mid-range shots. They almost never foul. They clean the defensive glass. They do not take breaks and they do not make mistakes.

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This worked extremely well for Charlotte in two of Clifford’s first three seasons (they went 43-39 in Clifford’s first year, a 22-win improvement over the previous season under Mike Dunlap; they dropped to 33-49 the following season as their offense completely collapsed, then rebounded to go 48-34 last season) and it’s working even better so far this year. Through their first 10 games of the 2016-17 season, the Hornets are sporting their best offensive efficiency and their best defensive efficiency of the Clifford era, and as a result, they sit in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 7-3 record. Only three teams have a better pace-adjusted point differential (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) this year.

It starts, fittingly, with Walker, who is one of the few guys around the league about whom the phrase “he just gets better every single year” actually fits. Now in his sixth season, Walker is carrying a heavier offensive burden than ever before and has actually goosed his efficiency under that burden, even though extra possessions usually come with the tradeoff of diminished effectiveness. He’s taking and making more 3s than at any point in his career (47.8 percent on 6.9 attempts per game) and parading to the free-throw line a career-high 6.3 times a night as well. And while doing all that, he’s assisting on a career-high 32.1 percent of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor.

Watching him this season has been a treat, as his delightful array of tricks and hesitations and head-fakes and pull-ups has kept defenders consistently off-balance with a regularity not matched in even previous seasons. A slight shoulder dip here, and turn on of the jets there, and suddenly he’s at the basket. A power dribble to the left, a hop-skip backward, and he’s sinking that ubiqitous step-back jumper. The 3-point shooting will almost definitely regress (he’s a career 33.9 percent shooting from deep), but he has everything else working so well that even when it does, the place to which he’ll fall off is still likely to represent the best offensive season of his career.

Walker has a bunch of partners with whom he can work his pick-and-roll dance: Cody Zeller, who is more athletic than his counterpart at center almost every night and has shown himself to be a better connective passer than some thought he might be; Marvin Williams, who pops out for a couple open 3s a night simply because defenses are so concerned with stopping Walker from getting where he wants to go; bench bigs Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky, who  mostly do the same; there’s even been the occasional Michael Kidd-Gilchrist screen-roll thrown in for good fun.

If Walker or his partner don’t find a look, Nicolas Batum and Marco Belinelli sit on the wings to work as shooters and secondary ball-handlers, keeping everything moving until the defense springs a leak. All the while, Kidd-Gilchrist lurks and waits and finds a crease, then hammers the offensive glass. Everybody knows their role, and it all works pretty seamlessly. So far, that recipe has created an offense that’s within 0.4 points per 100 possessions of being top-10 in the league. (And only sits outside because the offense completely collapses when Walker and/or Batum leaves the floor. They’re going to need to find a non-Ramon Sessions solution for the 12-14 minutes a night that Walker sits.)

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The defensive side of the floor, though, is where it’s really at for the Hornets. Turn on any random NBA game, and you’re likely to see a host of defensive mistakes from either or both teams, but that’s not really the case with Clifford’s teams. Everyone is on a string, always. The first rotation is made on time, the next guy in line is there to pick up his man, and so is the next. The frenetic scramble that most teams go into when an opposing pokes a hole in the shield is not quite as frenetic. Everyone’s under control because they trust that their teammates will also be in the right place at the right time. And they do all this while never gambling, and almost never sending opponents to the line.

They force players into uncomfortable positions, and even more uncomfortable shots. They make opponents use as much of the shot clock as possible. Only seven teams force their opponents to burn more time with the ball before taking a shot. They have an elite defender in MKG and several high-level athletes, but mostly they accomplish this through working and working and working and always knowing where to be. They’ve built their identity on not making mistakes, which forces you to beat them straight up.

It’s tougher than it sounds.