The New Orleans Hornets are now in third place in the Western Conference after getting a 91-89 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. They have won nine games in a row, including blowout wins on the road against the Hawks (100-59) and at home against the league-leading San Antonio Spurs the next day (96-72). Clearly, they are a team to watch as we enter the second half of the NBA season.
How are they doing it? It's pretty well-established that they're doing it with defense, as Rob Mahoney noted for the New York Times last Friday. Entering last night's game, they were third in the league in defensive efficiency, surrendering an average of just 98.5 points per 100 possessions. This has allowed them to be a contender despite basically only having three and a half productive players offensively (Chris Paul, David West, Emeka Okafor and sometimes Marcus Thornton). Nobody else on the team has a PER above 14, and regular rotation spots are held by guys like Trevor Ariza (10.8 PER), Marco Belinelli (11.3), Jason Smith (10.6), Jarrett Jack (11.8), Willie Green (8.7) and D.J. Mbenga (9.9).
I'm not hear to point out the Hornets' amazing defense, because others have done it already. It's also pretty logical -- if the Hornets only have three players adept at scoring and are still a contender, it's probably because they are good at preventing the other team from being adept at scoring. Instead, I want to discuss exactly how the Hornets have become such a good defensive team, because it fits into a larger frustration I have with NBA analysis.
Lots of people seem to think that a team can become good defensively simply through better effort or through more "emphasis" by the coaching staff. Defense is most commonly associated with competitive spirit, so many reason that raising your competitive spirit is the key to improving defensive performance. But the Hornets are proof that it takes far more than just trying harder to become a good defensive team. It also takes intelligence, especially on an individual level in an era where scouting reports are more detailed than ever before.
The defensive genius of the Hornets is that intelligence. No team does a better job of dissecting individual scouting reports and putting them into action when they take the court. They know players' tendencies and force those players into spots on the court from which they are less efficient. That explains why they are fourth in the league in effective field goal percentage defense, and it in part explains why they are second in the league in defensive rebounding rate. Offensive rebounders expect shots to go up from certain places on the court, and when they don't, they aren't able to get in good rebounding position.
Crawford is one of the most difficult players to cover in the league because he has such a unique style. Unlike most players, Crawford's strength is the in-between game. He's one of the rare players that shoots a better percentage from 10-15 feet (51.5 percent) than he does from inside of 10 feet (45.5 percent - and that's higher than any figure he's posted since 2007). He's also very dangerous from 16-23 feet (45 percent, one of the best marks in the league).
The Hornets decided to defend him by surrounding a wall of defenders in his sweet spot (10-23 feet) and making him drive all the way to the rim. Here's a good screenshot from the game of them doing just that.
There are two players trapping Crawford on the pick and roll, and two others cheating off their man to give help. There's no way for Crawford to pull up from in front of the free-throw line, because four defenders could converge on him. Crawford's only choice if he wants to score, then, is to get to the rim, where he isn't very strong. In this way, the Hornets take away his strength and force him to his weakness. Crawford actually got all the way to the basket and hit a layup on this play, but was 5-13 in the game.. He didn't take a single shot from his sweet spot (10-15 feet), and went 1-7 on jumpers, hitting just one three.
In the very next game, the Hornets played the Spurs and had to deal with a wing in Jefferson that is the complete opposite of Crawford. Jefferson has experienced a revival this season because he's become an elite three-point shooter. He's currently at 41.5 percent for the season, and that's huge when you add in the extra point. But if you force him one step off the line (or, more accurately, 16-23 feet), that shooting percentage plummets all the way down to 32 percent. That's a huge drop-off, and yet, the Hornets succeeded in running Jefferson off the three-point line better than almost anyone. He took three three-pointers, and also had four shots from 16-23 feet in the game. Over the course of the season, Jefferson shoots four three-pointers and just 1.7 shots from 16-23 feet per game.
Finally, the Hornets topped the Thunder by preventing Westbrook from getting into the paint. Westbrook is pretty much exclusively a paint scorer at this point of his career. He hits over 55 percent of his shots at the rim and gets to the line 8.3 times a game. He's improved the rest of his game, but he's still below average pretty much anywhere else on the floor. Earlier in the game, he found his way into the paint, but down the stretch, the Hornets laid off him on pick and rolls and made him beat them with jump shots. Westbrook hit a couple, but the Hornets were that confident that consistently having him shoot from weak spots on the floor would result in bad results.
Here's a shot of the Hornets' defense one possession after Westbrook drained a pull-up jumper from a very similar spot on the floor.
David West, the man tasked with picking up Westbrook on the pick and roll, is laying way off Westbrook, daring him to pull up and shoot. Sure enough, he did, and he missed. Later in the game, it happened again, with the same result.
The Hornets eventually won, and after the game, Westbrook was surely bemoaning how he had open shots, but missed them. The Hornets? They were probably snickering about how Westbrook took the very shots they wanted him to take, even though he spent the entire first quarter in the lane.
The thing is that it's not easy to keep Westbrook out of the lane. Every team talks about it, and almost nobody does it. That's why this is more than a matter of working harder. You also have to work smarter, under duress and in pressure situations. The Hornets stationed their help defender (West) in a perfect spot to concede the jumper and prevent Westbrook from getting inside.
The whole thing reminded me of when I was talking to Wizards forward Al Thornton after one game against the Rockets last season. He had shot just 6-14 against Shane Battier, arguably the smartest man-to-man defender in the game. I asked him what he thought of Battier's defense, and he told me this:
"Shane's a real good defender and I give him a lot of credit, but I got the shots that I wanted. They just didn't go in."
Thornton thought this because he got open-ish shots, but the truth is that Battier studied the scouting report and forced Thornton to take shots in spots from which he is inefficient. The Hornets' defense, right now, is essentially a unit of Shane Battiers. They aren't spectacular individually, but collectively, they outsmart you on D. It's a pleasure to watch them force players away from their comfort zones and shut down high-scoring teams.
Stan Van Gundy Face of the Week
Angry Stan is funny, but confused Stan may be better. Given the score, Stan is right to be confused.
Other screenshots of the (short) week
Looks like Danilo Gallinari has a little Situation on his hands.
Pictures of Ronny Turiaf are so much fun.
Tony Allen made a layup while yelling and screaming his own name up and down the court. You think I'm kidding.
This is the perfect caption contest photo. What is Samuel L. Jackson thinking?
In honor of David West's buzzer beater, this is a must.