The 2009-2010 Hornets were terrible at defense. It's a simplistic sentiment, but the total lack of qualification is thoroughly damning.
And it's interesting because bad defense comes in a variety of flavors. There are the guards who do nothing but pursue the ball possession after possession, leaving their bigs exposed. There are the bigs who go in with excessive, suicidal help rotations in the paint, leaving wide open cutters. There are the forwards without the slightest sense of positional awareness, leaving shooters and rotating to drivers. And then there are the defensive schemes that play, more or less, every offense the same way, every night.
The 2009-2010 Hornets accomplished all of these things. From a four factors perspective, New Orleans actually finished the season above average in terms of three of the factors - foul rates, defensive rebounding, and forcing turnovers. The comprehensiveness of their defensive failure, though, was visible in their allowed field goal percentages. Opponents shot when they wanted, from where they wanted, and however they wanted with remarkable efficiency. The low foul rates themselves were more an indication of the Hornets' aversion towards challenging wide open layups and shots in the paint than anything else.
Coming into 2010-2011, there was palpable optimism
Defense permeated essentially every storyline for the Hornets this year. The Marcus Thornton-Willie Green-Marco Belinelli discussion was always underscored by the defensive assumptions therein. Peja Stojakovic was presumably shipped out for a presumed lack of defensive ability, and Willie Green's rapid ascension into a prominent role was, in Monty Williams' own words, largely predicated on his strong defensive performances early in the season. Trevor Ariza himself arrived for his defense. It's not too much a stretch to say that every personnel decision made by Dell Demps and every rotation decision made by Monty Williams through the season hinged strongly at some level on the supposed defensive abilities of the relevant players.
I make use of the words "presumed" and "assumed," of course, because defensive value can hardly be delineated in absolute terms. But that's neither here nor there, and to delve too deeply into the relative defensive merit of the two and three guard lineup or Willie Green vs. Marcus Thornton is to miss the defense's overall success for the trees. Perhaps the ends do not justify the means from a more general perspective, one that considers offense, defense, and the future of the team. The fact remains, though, that Monty Williams turned the Hornets' defense around against long, long odds.
From a personnel standpoint, there's no denying that the '11 Hornets surpass the '10 edition on the defensive end. A healthy Chris Paul is the best on ball point guard in the NBA. Marco Belinelli was the worst defensive starter on the team, but the '10 versions of Morris Peterson, Devin Brown, and Marcus Thornton were hardly good defenders themselves. Ariza vs. Peja Stojakovic and Julian Wright was a massive improvement. The front court, however, is where things stayed constant (West and Okafor) from 2010 to 2011, and it's (not coincidentally) where we can learn most about the defensive impact Williams had.
At its most simple form, Monty's defense could be characterized thusly- (1) lock Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor man-to-man on the opposition's primary ball handler, primary perimeter scorer, and primary big (2) everybody be ready to rotate. Even without watching a single game or defensive sequence, this sounds like a radical idea. If defensive positions fall away (as "everybody rotate" implies they must), mismatches are inherently implied. Monty's defensive philosophy was to keep rotations so crisp and frequent that in the event of a mismatch, help could swing over before significant damage was done.
The defensive system really resembled an amoeba- constant flow, fully interchangeable parts. It's why we saw David West and Jason Smith often patrolling the top of the key or Willie Green or Quincy Pondexter under the hoop. The key was for these things to happen quickly, for those occasional mismatches to be only a quick slide over away from turning into a thunderous Emeka Okafor block. The Hornets probably played less than half of their total defensive possessions in this full amoeba style, but the concept of constant flow permeated even their stricter man-to-man possessions. Such a free flowing system requires that the anchor points- Paul, Ariza, and Okafor- be extremely strong, but Monty Williams was brilliant to design the system around them, covering for the individual defensive weaknesses of his other players.
The Hornets spent almost 75% of the regular season as the Western Conference's best defense. Late season injury issues saw them plummet to 10th to finish the year, but there's no doubt in my mind that Monty's system is an excellent one. Williams likely requires a taller defender to incorporate into the defense to prevent a team like the Lakers from breaking the system with ease due to their height. But with the hand he was dealt, the job he did was remarkable.
The implications for the future are terrific. Basketball is a two-way game; I've long held that a coach can have far bigger impact on the defensive end than the offensive end. A lot of data suggests that if you have elite offensive players, you'll play good offense. A coach that can fit players into a unique, effective defensive system is rare, and Monty Williams has shown signs that he can do exactly that. Uncertainty about the Hornets' future leaves us unclear as to whether the team will indeed have the services of multiple elite offensive players as we move forward. By the same token, however, the presence of an elite defense minimizes the number of elite offensive players required for a team to be a contender.
The next challenge for Williams will be maintaining the team's high level of defense while making sure that his players also do a competent job on the offensive end.