When Jeff Bower took over as our head coach on November 12th last year, not too many of us knew what to make of it.
The Byron Scott Hornets could be identified by three primary hallmarks. They played slowly, took care of the ball, and rebounded opponents' misses. Their slow offensive style was characterized by an almost cartoonish overemphasis on the team's most successful plays (primarily high p&r and weak side isolation) and by a notable lack of off-ball movement. Defensively, the team relied heavily on man defense, rarely doubling even the league's best players (epitomized by their 2008 post-season defense of Tim Duncan).
With no prior NBA experience, Bower offered few clues as to what he'd change in New Orleans. I anticipated Tim Floyd improving a struggling defense, which, unfortunately, did not come to fruition. Frankly, not only did I expect Floyd to turn around the defense, I anticipated 2009-2010 to simply serve as a buffer for the O.J. Mayo fallout to subside and to allow Floyd to take over in the fall. Instead, Floyd is back to the college ranks, Bower is back upstairs, and we've got the full-fledged coaching search we wanted all along.
At first glance, the 09-10 Hornets returned to their non-contact ways. Under Byron Scott, the team excelled at avoiding excessive whistles. The ability to stay away from fouls was one of the primary catalysts of the defense of two years ago- Tyson Chandler played great man D without fouling, and Chris Paul and Jannero Pargo did likewise on the perimeter. The Hornets finished as the third least foul prone team this year, but under entirely different circumstances.
The 07-08 Hornets contested shots without fouling; the 09-10 Hornets had low foul rates because they simply didn't guard anyone. Lay-ups and dunks were allowed with no resistance on a nightly basis. When your starting center and starting power forward (West and Okafor) combine to average 5.1 fouls per 36 minutes, your team is either playing ridiculously good defense or no defense at all. Studies by Dean Oliver and others have actually shown a positive, albeit small, correlation between fouling and winning. The majority of good defensive teams know when to foul, when to concede the lay-up, and when to hack the stuffing out of a shooter. The 09-10 Hornets were often nowhere even near in position to offer the last-ditch foul, something that must change next year. For now, the low foul rates can hardly be touted as a positive.
A recurring weakness for the Hornets this decade- allowed effective FG%- also reached a sad low in 09-10. Only the Warriors, Wolves, Pistons, and Knicks allowed opponents better percentages from the floor. It's not good company to keep, but the poor eFG% goes hand in hand with the low foul rates. Instead of making teams earn points at the stripe, New Orleans simply allowed shots to go in, uncontested. So to bash the Hornets for DeFG% would probably be double penalizing, to a degree. Indeed, the Hornets lost the services of their best overall defender (Paul) and saw a horrific overall defensive performance from David West. And yet, it's still the aspect of our season that vexes me most. Tim Floyd had proven, time and again, his ability to take average defenders and construct above average defenses, both at New Orleans and the University of Southern California. Instead, the defense dropped like a stone with him at the helm and never really recovered.
New Orleans also sunk to a league average level, in terms of defensive rebounding. This is perhaps the most justifiable aspect of the stunningly poor defensive performance. David West posted the worst rebounding rates of his career (offensively, defensively, and overall) and the team played long stretches of each game without a true center on the floor.
The Hornets did regress on the offensive end, just as they did defensively. Fortunately, Jeff Bower's coaching strategies provided plenty of upside to look forward to next year.
Chief among those was the decision to unleash Marcus Thornton, not only in terms of playing time and shot attempts, but importantly in terms of off-the-ball movement. Even if the offensive efficiencies of the team didn't benefit tremendously (and losing Paul obviously played a huge role in that), the team's style clearly changed for the better. Players moved without the ball and the ball itself was moved efficiently from weak side to strong side (rarely found in Byron Scott's offense).
In many ways, building an effective style of basketball is more important and more efficient than building several set plays around a specific group of players. When New Orleans goes out to the draft this summer, they can find players that fit the current style- a much more open, flowing style than anything we saw under Scott. The blueprint has been set for how CP, Darren Collison, and Marcus Thornton can all be on the floor at the same time next year, both offensively and defensively.