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Game 25: Hive Five

I really didn't want to do an extended analysis post on Christmas. Especially an analysis of why we suck, but it looks like it has come to that. I said on Tuesday that I'd do a post about the defense today. I guess I might as well combine that with the recap. So here goes.

Why the New Orleans Hornets Are Not Good At Basketball

At the most fundamental level, the basis of any team's performance is its true talent level. A team with exceptionally bad players (Thunder) will never make the playoffs. A team with exceptionally good players (Celtics) will never miss the playoffs. But on a more subtle level, two other factors come into play. These two factors can make a marginally talented team into a title contender. They can make a very talented team into an annual first round bust. I'm talking, of course, of luck and coaching.

The half-glass-full way of looking at luck is "exceeding expectations." This doesn't mean the expectations of the media, the fans, or anyone else. It means exceeding the win percentage a team "should" have based on its point differential. The Hornets' last season was anything but luck; it was due to true talent level more than any other factors. Had the Hornets not sustained severe injuries the year before, they would've made the playoffs. It wasn't luck or exceeding expectations or whatever you may call it.

Now the general media was given these three things to choose from to explain why the Hornets were good all of a sudden: talent, luck, and coaching. Attributing 100% of the improvement to luck would have been silly; after all, it was around a 20 game increase in wins. So the media opted to give a lot of the credit to Byron Scott and a good share of the credit to the talent. What we're finding this year is maybe that apportionment is incorrect. Perhaps the talent level of the team was the driving factor behind the success. The coaching just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

What evidence is there to support this?

Let's start offensively. I know a lot of people have been complaining about the Hornets not seeming to have "plays"; nobody ever puts a finger in the air, stuff like that. Truth be told, Byron Scott's offenses have always been predicated on motion. To put it very simply, there are no "plays" in a motion offense. Plays are a staple of set offenses; the Hornets' only real plays are the pick and roll and the David West/Tyson Chandler post up. This was my rationale every time someone challenged the offense, early in the season. But I was missing the point.

A set offense is effective because each player knows exactly who will shoot the ball on a given play. Generally, players will get open due to isolations or designed picks. Bottom line: players getting open is built in to a set offensive play, provided good execution. In a motion offense, an open shot is not "built in." Any player can end up taking the shot- it's merely a matter of who gets open first. Therein lies one of its flaws. If no player can get open, the play is totally and utterly dead. Whenever you see Chris Paul or Devin Brown heave a fadeaway at the shot clock buzzer? That's a dead motion play. It happens to us a lot. Why? Basically, we have the least "motion" in the history of the motion offense. We're essentially a set offense masquerading as a motion offense, pretending we have player movement. We say "oh we're a motion offense, we probably don't need more than two set plays" and we end up running those two set plays without stop for quarters at a time. You know what is the easiest offense to game plan for? One that has no variation. One where you can literally predict with 100% accuracy what the next play will be.

On Tuesday, I wrote that we have a good offense. But you know what, look at the following table:

Team (Rank) Efficiency Allowed Our Efficiency Against Them
BOS (1) 98.6 93.2
CLE (2) 99.7 113.0
ORL (3) 101.0 80.0
LAL (4) 102.5 95.6
LAL (4) 102.5 98.9
HOU (5) 103.6 100.0

We've already taken on the 5 best defenses in the League. In 6 games, we've managed to crack one of them. And that was Cleveland, which struggled in its opening week. I'm willing to bet that if we played them today, they'd shut us down better than Orlando did. Take out the CLE game, and we've whiffed on all the other 5. We've been pulverized, in fact. What's the reason behind this? Zero variation. Byron Scott throws the exact same offense at every team we play. Start with the CP-TC pick and roll. That's not working, force it to David West. Eventually, he gets tired and starts throwing errant passes. Okay, back to the pick and roll. Still not working. Let's try the Chandler post up. Fine, how about the Hilton post up? All right, Devin Brown isolation. Every one of those teams knew exactly what we were going to try. They game planned to stop two plays. That's all it took. How great is our offense really if we get absolutely bullied by the top defensive teams?

Today, I was going to write about how our defense has improved. How our defense is in position to surge upwards in the rankings.

Team (Rank) Offensive Efficiency
Their Efficiency Against Us
CLE (1) 114.2 100.0
POR (2) 113.8 121.7
POR (2) 113.8 105.1
LAL (3) 112.4 113.6
PHO (4) 110.9 107.1
BOS (5) 110.4 106.8

We've also played the top 5 offenses in basketball, listed above. This list looks a lot better for us; we've played better defense against the top offenses than we have offense agaisnt the top defenses. Still, I'm tossing out that CLE one, simply because they've transformed as a team since Week 1. We've pretty much "held" the top offenses to around their league leading offensive efficiencies. How much of a victory is that, really? Certainly not valuable enough to cancel out or awful offense against the best.

In my mind, this problem has three possible solutions. One, we actually run a real motion offense instead of pretending to run one and getting all the publicity of "oh, New Orleans runs complicated Princeton sets." Two, we incorporate a lot more set plays into the offense. That way, when the offense inevitably breaks down, we'll have a better alternative to fall back on. Three, we trade for a huge, difference-making player- one whose isolation offense would be the ultimate alternative to our broken "motion" plays. Obviously, number Three is not happening. Number One and Two could and should happen, preferrably both.

This Orlando game really isn't cause for panic. Honestly, what did we learn today that we didn't already know? That Devin Brown sucks at shooting? That we struggle to play defense when Tyson is in foul trouble? That David West is often shut down by long defenders? That Chris Paul going one on twelve does not win basketball games? We knew all that already. This team is great despite all that. It's sad how things turned out today, but maybe this is exactly what the team needed- a wake-up call to the coaches.

After all this, I want to note that I'm not taking away from my previous praise of Byron Scott. My arguments from last year were that very few coaches would have stuck with a "scrub" like David West, taken a risk on a guy like Tyson Chandler, and designed an offense so perfect for shooters. My contention is that Byron has refused to change, refused to adapt to new opponents and surroundings. The game of basketball is not static; it never ceases to change. What worked perfectly one year will not work the next year. Guys on the defensive side get paid too.

There isn't a 20 point difference between the players on the New Orleans Hornets and the players on the Orlando Magic. There's a 20 point difference between the coaches. Hopefully, that will change as well.