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Hornets Defy Expectations, Find Lower Gear

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The New Orleans Hornets have played four games. They've won one time, unconvincingly squeaking by the Sacramento Kings, perhaps 2008-2009's worst team. They've now lost, rather convincingly, to one of the perennial losers of the NBA. Unequivocally, the Hornets have stumbled out the gate.

At this juncture, the optimist points to the small sample. Yes, the Hornets have played 4 games. Yes, Ike Diogu and Sean Marks are hurt. Yes, the team will still gel and understand each other and play as a team.

Statistical fluctuation happens in small samples. It's why Alex Rodriguez was a playoff "choker," why Peyton Manning could never win the big one, and why Juan Pierre can get a hit off Tim Lincecum. The common thread in all these examples is the uncertainty. Increase the sampling, and the uncertainty is diminished from an overall sense. In basketball terms, this uncertainty can manifest in shots rimming out, low percentage players going on hot streaks, basketballs slipping out of hands, or any number of other possibilities that we've all seen happen.

These first four games will not define our season, obvious as it may sound, because they are just four games.

At this juncture, the realist steps in. Yes, these are just four games. Yes, a team with Chris Paul and David West and Emeka Okafor will not go 20-62. But even in these four games, there are signs of systematic flaws, flaws that are not merely a function of statistical fluctuation, but rather of longer term issues.

The optimist says the team will eventually hit its stride and that these first four games, though harmful, may prove more illusory than absolute.

The realist also says the team will eventually hit its stride, but that in these first four games, we've seen moments and plays that aren't entirely illusory, that aren't simply products of a small sample size.

What are those moments and plays? I think you know.

It's funny. I pulled up the advanced stats to look at how we lost the game. And then I realized... it doesn't take eFG%, or dORtg, or dTOR, or any such lofty measurement to realize what's wrong here.

The New Orleans Hornets are awful at defense. Absolutely, horrifically putrid. There are times when the viewer cannot tell if they are attempting to play man or zone, if Chris Paul is supposed to be guarding Larry Hughes by design or mistake. Watching the Hornets chase the ball around on passes would be analogous to watching Adrian Peterson play keep away with a baby.

A lot of this is clearly due to the disconnect between David West and Emeka Okafor. West was never the league's best defender to begin with, but he played very well in tandem with Tyson Chandler. He realized which negative aspects of his defense Chandler could cover, and he played to his strengths. With Okafor, that learning curve has begun anew. It will take time for the two of them to sort it out. This is where the optimist's take is probably right.

The Okafor-West issues explain the myriad blown pick and rolls and unfathomably high number of allowed layups. The open jumpers we've ceded for four straight games now? That's systematic, and it's been a hallmark of Byron Scott defenses since he's been here. In his years with New Orleans, the Hornets have consistently put up solid defensive seasons without necessarily the best defensive talent around.

A key to this success is Byron's proclivity to assign a single defender to most post players- including the Tim Duncans of the world, regardless of position on the block. Hornets' teams have excelled at bringing help defenders onto post players at exactly the right moments- never too soon or too late. The price a team pays for having this help defense always at the ready is poor defensive floor spacing. The strategy requires help defenders to be close; therefore, they're less likely to recover on kick out passes. In 2007-2008, the Hornets rode this defensive strategy to the league's 7th best defense. In the subsequent time, opponents have become more aware of the gameplan. Last year, Hornets defenders were often seen scrambling to cover missed rotations. While some of this can be attributed to injured personnel, it's also a case of the Hornets' system finally being gamed. The key to beating the Hornets defense is to use their post help against them, keep the ball moving once the advantage is gained, and find the open shooter. Teams have figured this out.

And honestly, it was a really good defensive strategy when first implemented. It worked. It hid the weaknesses of the interior defense by showcasing the individual defensive talent of Tyson Chandler. It forced opponents into jump shooting games. The Hornets avoided many post confrontations, and this helped them into one of the lowest fouling rates in the NBA.

Teams have changed. Opposing strategies have changed. In many ways, the evolution (or gradual stagnation) of the defense is very similar to what happened to our offense. Byron Scott literally designed the perfect offense for Paul, West, and Chandler back in 2006. New Orleans had its successes running the pick/roll/kick offense, but as teams started to catch on, Byron did nothing to change it up. As a result, teams could play the pick and roll heavily and not be burned by secondary offensive plans. Sure, it still produced its fair share of thunderous alley oops and West 17 footers; the number of broken and completely stagnant plays rose though, and along with injuries, doomed the Hornets season. The Hornets stubbornly stuck with the same offense forever- they're still doing it now, though Emeka Okafor's surprising creativity on the offensive end is definitely refreshing. I feel the same thing is happening with this aspect of New Orleans' post defense.

In either case, those are the two biggest flaws of the defense in my estimation. The former will self correct as we keep playing. The latter requires conscious effort to change. I'm not holding my breath.

Ultimately, the defense was what cost us against New York. The offense is slowly finding its way, which is good to see. For one, Chris Paul has seemingly found a new dimension to his game; the routes he takes across the key strike me as a little different from last year. He won't sustain these shooting percentages, but man is he on right now. 32/13/5 with 2 turnovers? Yes please. To quote my SBN Knicks counterpart over at Posting and Toasting: "Chris Paul, for his part, is a near-perfect basketball player. Good lord."

And Emeka Okafor... I love this guy already. The moves he was busting today were plain awesome. The little shimmy, cut back across the paint, soft fade? He has it down pat. I've never, ever seen him do it with Charlotte. Now granted I watch Charlotte maybe twice a year, but still. In completely unrelated news, Tyson Chandler went for an 8/8 on 2-8 shooting tonight, as the Bobcats picked up Win #2.

Bullet time:

  • Niall mentioned this over at 247, and I agree 100%: Byron Scott is using Darius Songaila horrifically poorly. He seems to think of Songaila as some sort of oversized Ryan Bowen, using him to do basically nothing. Songaila doesn't have much range, but he has a solid scoring ability closer to the hoop, and out of isolation settings. He's not specacular, or even "good," but his career scoring efficiencies are certainly better than a certain player who rhymes with Obby Rown.
  • James Posey, ugh. Mr. Invisible. He's not doing it on offense, and he's certainly not doing it on defense. In four games this year, he's registered a -32. We only have him for two more years, people!
  • JuJu needs to be more involved. I've been saying this for a while; if you're gonna isolate him, don't do it 20 feet from the hoop. He gets happy feet out there and just looks tentative. Isolate him 10-15 feet away, and he's gold. Now granted, setting up a closer iso takes more work in terms of offensive scheming. Then again, isolating him 20 feet away takes no work whatsoever, and who wants to actually think up new offensive ideas, am I right?
  • The Southwest Division is off to a decent start, with Houston crushing Utah tonight. We currently rank last, right on the heels of the Memphis Grizzlies. More losses to teams like the Knicks, and we'll have ourselves a pretty nice hole to dig out of.

I firmly believe that this team will hit its rhythm and ride Paul/West/Okafor to good basketball (again, as detailed as above, not as good as they could be.) Will we pick up a win against Dallas, Toronto, or the Lakers later this week? Maybe not. But we will be solid in due time, regardless of what Byron