The two most important commodities in the NBA are superstar players (LeBron, Wade, Howard, Paul) and elite defensive coaches (Thibodeau). Both bring a team closer to a title on the +6 paradigm than any other individual entity. We lost one last summer, but we also had the makings of another. Or so we thought.
But in the early season, Monty Williams' defense checks in at a -1.2 differential. Even in the absence of talent, defensive ability was something we (and projection systems like Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE) expected to stay relatively constant. The schemes themselves were excellent in 2010-2011, and expecting a fair bit of carryover value seemed justified, even sans Chris Paul and the randomly defensively competent 2011 version of David West.
Of course, Monty Williams' right hand man and the ostensible architect of the defense, Mike Malone, is now Mark Jackson's assistant (or "assistant," depending on your perspective of Jackson) in Golden State. How much has the defense suffered as a result of his departure, and how much should we read into this significantly depreciated defense as a whole?
On the surface, the Hornets' defensive rebounding has remained largely constant. The team gathered 76.2% of all opponent misses a year ago, tied with the Chicago Bulls for the best mark in basketball. This was fueled by a lack of emphasis on transition; quite often, all five players on the floor contributed to making sure that the basketball was collected before proceeding further. This is correlative more than causal, but a look at Chris Paul's decreased defensive rebounding rate (12.3% with New Orleans to 9.3% with Los Angeles) would appear to point to this.
In 2012, that hasn't really changed. The Hornets are still a slow team that, if it runs at all, runs off of turnovers and really nothing else. And their defensive rebound rate has hardly changed at all. This year, they sit at 76.3%, again the second best mark in the NBA. But strangely, what has changed is the effectiveness of opposition offense from their very limited second chance opportunities.
Last year, the Hornets gave up just 1.01 points per offensive rebound, the 4th best mark in the NBA. Coupled with their tendency to very rarely give up offensive boards in the first place, it was a devastating combination. If you missed on the Hornets, you simply weren't going to score on the same possession. Weirdly, this has changed in 2012. Even more weirdly, it's changed not because the Hornets give up significantly better second-chance scorign (1.01 last year to 1.07 this year), but because the rest of the NBA has been significantly improved at defending second chance buckets for whatever reason. That seemingly small change in allowed finishing from offensive rebounds has plummeted the Hornets from their 4th rank of last season all the way to 20th this year.
Overall? This is something we can't become too worried about, at least not yet. We're still rebounding very well, our foul rates on offensive boards are very similar (we're not committing more loose ball fouls or anything to maintain possession), and our overall rates are almost the same too. So this is something we should expect to even out over the long run.
Here's the second most important culprit. Last year, New Orleans was the 6th best isolation defense team in the league.
But this is also the most personnel-fueled aspect of defense. A year ago, Trevor Ariza, one of the team's best defenders, was responsible for more than 17% of all isolations New Orleans was faced with. This year, that's down, via injury, missed time, and lack of productivity, to 6% of total plays.
Strangely enough, Jarrett Jack has been a significantly more effective isolation defender than Chris Paul, but the damage is down across the rest of the roster. As noted above, Ariza's defended 6% of all iso plays. Marco Belinelli? 15%. These are the sort of discrepancies that iron themselves out through the course of the season. And, of course, it's important to note that we're missing the player I'd consider our best perimeter isolation defender - Eric Gordon.
Our transition defense is absolutely putrid. This, more than anything else, is why you shouldn't worry too much about our defense going forward.
After ranking among the NBA's best in terms of turnovers for pretty much the entirety of the Chris Paul era, New Orleans has plummeted down to #21 this season. Vasquez's 19% turnover rate is much too high. Kaman's 19%, when he played, was too high. Tack on Aminu at 19% and a shooter-only in Marco Belinelli with an outrageous 13% mark, and it's easy to see this isn't a recipe for much transition success. And even though Jarrett Jack's 13% rate is entirely reasonable for a player that handles the ball so much (indeed, it's downright Chris Paul-ian) his errors have led disturbingly commonly into direct fast breaks for the opposition. Jack has had a tendency to turn over while setting up plays and while throwing entry passes for the perimeter, essentially allowing an entire open floor to run on.
The best way to defend transition is to make sure it doesn't happen. The Hornets concede one of the highest transition rates (opposing transition possessions as a function of total opposing possessions) and they also defend transition with the worst efficiency in the entire league. New Orleans' overall defensive efficiency is made to look especially bad by the team's awful ball control on the offensive end.
Ultimately, there's nothing to be worried about. Yet. It's depressing that we haven't been able to watch for defensive improvement this season, especially after the successes of 2010-2011. When Paul, West, Ariza, and Okafor were all healthy last season, the Hornets routinely played top-5 defensive basketball. But between the randomness induced by the lockout-shortened season, the team's turnover rates, and injuries to top defenders, it's a bit silly to look too harshly on our current lack of defensive success.