The Warriors' rapid emergence was a wake-up call for many NBA teams. It was time to adapt to Golden State's style of launching threes and trotting out lineups full of perimeter players. Otherwise, you risked becoming a casualty in the league's evolution.
That's why successful teams like the Bulls, Pacers, Wizards and even Grizzlies (for a short time) scrapped their smash-mouth models. Those teams quickly discovered a harsh truth: They couldn't imitate the innovator. In the end, they either reverted back to their old style or floundered in a strange middle ground.
So when the Charlotte Hornets, a team that finished dead last in three-point percentage last season, started rocket launching in the preseason, it was easy to roll your eyes. Just another team that thinks they can be the Warriors, huh? This won't last.
Yet, as we approach the playoffs, the Hornets' makeover has indeed lasted. Picked by most to finish near the East's cellar, the Hornets are instead in the thick of the race for home-court advantage. In an Eastern Conference dominated by the ragged Cavaliers and the unproven Raptors, Charlotte looms as a sleeper to make a deep playoff run.
Why have they successfully changed their style when other teams haven't?
The answer to that question leads to a different question: have the Hornets really changed much at all?
Steve Clifford has a favorite stat he recites anytime someone asks about his team's new look. Last year, four of the top five teams in three-pointers made were also the final four teams standing in the NBA Playoffs: Golden State, Cleveland, Houston and Atlanta. Those four conference finalists generated three-pointers by having four shooting threats hanging around the perimeter in most of their lineups.
That was a far cry from last year's Hornets team that usually started two traditional big men and had bricklayers like Lance Stephenson, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist soaking up perimeter minutes.
"Last year, I believe we only played 4-out less than half the time," Clifford told SB Nation in a phone interview. "This year, we play 4-out almost 100 percent of the time."
The Hornets remodeled their roster to remedy their shooting problem. They shipped out Stephenson to pick up Spencer Hawes, famously turned down a king's ransom to select Frank Kaminsky and signed Jeremy Lin to form a dynamic partnership with Kemba Walker. Most notably, they moved Henderson and top prospect Noah Vonleh to Portland in a deal for Nicolas Batum, a skilled forward coming off a poor year who was approaching the last season of his contract.
Even the players who remained were put on a specific offseason training program. Walker got in the lab with new Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer and altered his release point. After a rough first season with the Hornets, Marvin Williams spent his entire summer in Charlotte working to improve his three-point shot in preparation for being a full-time stretch power forward.
"Every day, I was getting in early and shooting a lot of 3s," Williams told SB Nation. "All the work I did on the court was on my three."
Shooting wasn't the only quality the Hornets valued. The failed Stephenson experiment put too heavy a burden on Walker to create offense. That was the logic for acquiring Batum, whom Clifford compares to Tracy McGrady for his versatility, unselfishness and, "willingness to make quick, simple plays."
One would think that a team trying to change its entire offensive identity would run a very different training camp than in years past. But to a man, the Hornets say training camp was business as usual.
Clifford admitted that some of the offensive sets changed, but his method of teaching them and setting a training camp routine, "was pretty similar to the year before."
"If you really watched our team play last year, our purpose was good last year too," Clifford said.
He's right. By many publicly available measures, shooting is the only real difference. Last year, the Hornets were also a low-turnover team with plenty of ball and player movement. They just couldn't throw the ball into the ocean, so all that movement wasn't productive. That's no longer the case.
The different personnel shares one common characteristic that Clifford loves.
When Clifford was an assistant in Orlando under Stan Van Gundy, he gravitated to soccer's Premier League, especially Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Clifford didn't merely enjoy that Ferguson won. He loved how Ferguson did it.
"He was a genius at putting his team together," Clifford told SB Nation. "They didn’t have 11 world-class players out there, like Barcelona or Madrid or [Paris St. Germain]."
Clifford especially admired Michael Carrick, the Red Devils' cerebral midfielder who gave Ferguson's teams their spine. To Clifford, Carrick's play underscored that teams cannot succeed if there is a glaring weak link in their lineups. The players who do a lot of things decently, like Carrick, are often more valuable than those who are world-class in one area, but fail to pull their weight elsewhere. (Just look at United's cross-town rivals this season.)
"The hardest thing to do when you putting a team together is to get guys who, simply put, [play] hard and smart," Clifford said. "It’s very difficult to win in this league consistently if you don’t have a really smart team."
Clifford loves that he has multiple Michael Carricks on his current team.
None of this is possible without Batum, whose shooting, playmaking and versatility diversified the Hornets' playbook. A vast majority of Charlotte's sets begin with Batum curling off a series of baseline screens to come to the ball. Once he gets it, he moves immediately into a dribble handoff or pick-and-roll, often without even slowing down. He has the size and quick shooting motion to immediately rise and fire, frustrating the hell out of aggressive perimeter defenders who try to stick to him like glue.
Batum also makes quick and accurate passing decisions on the move, a skill the Hornets leverage through their floor spacing. Defenses get stuck between an awful three-way pick-your-poison scenario: let Batum shoot, take away his pass to the roll man or stay on Charlotte's shooters. They're already scrambled from all the work Charlotte's done to get Batum the ball in the first place, so they have no time to make this impossible call. That leads to threes and layups galore.
"He has a lot of different ways that he can draw the second defender," Clifford said.
Drawing that second defender means someone's open, and the Hornets do well to ensure that someone is Walker himself. In the past, it was Walker's responsibility alone to make the defense move. Now, he can play off Batum and attack scrambling defenders who aren't set.
The reverse is also true. Walker's own shooting improvements have made him an even more dangerous pick-and-roll player, and Batum is intelligent enough to slide into openings and attack quickly off Walker's work. Lin is equally decisive on or off the ball, giving Charlotte a third playmaker in some lineups and a reasonable facsimile of Batum or Walker when one rests.
"Kemba’s never really played for any period of time with another pick-and-roll player who can get the ball coming back to him when the defense isn’t as loaded up as much," Clifford said.
This was the entire point of acquiring Stephenson last year, yet that pairing failed because Stephenson, despite his passing ability, is not a quick decision-maker. Flow is a key tenet of Clifford's offenses no matter how the floor is spaced, and Stephenson likes to survey the defense before making his move.
That said, Stephenson didn't get to work with teammates who are this dynamic.
Williams' improvement in particular is a major key to the Hornets' success. Not only is he a better three-point shooter, but he's also a quicker three-point shooter who's able to dash into open spaces and fire away at will.
Williams doesn't really set screens as much as he runs in jagged lines to find openings. Once he catches the ball, he makes an immediate decision to fire it up, attack the basket or throw the ball back and try again. That forces defenses to account for him more closely than they would for a typical stretch power forward.
Kaminsky plays this way too, so the Hornets always have a power forward who buzzes around to distract defenders. That movement creates openings directly via their own production and indirectly by occupying at least one defender's attention when it should be elsewhere. Both are smart at using their speed, size and decisiveness to take advantage when teams switch smaller players onto them to negate their off-ball movement.
"We just work on the different options and the different looks [off switches]," Williams said. "Whether you want to drive the ball, if you want to post up, if you want to get out of the way so the smaller point guard can take on the bigger forward. Whatever the case may be, there are a lot of different options you can do against switching."
As all this is happening, the Hornets' remaining spot-up players are excellent at sliding over just a few feet to give their ball-handlers passing options. Midseason acquisition Courtney Lee is particularly adept at this skill, as is Batum. Not only does this lead to more openings to attack scrambling defenders, but this also facilitates the sort of whiplash ball movement that's become Charlotte's hallmark.
Every team wants to play like this, but few have the right kind of personnel. The Hornets do.
"The way we play, we do drill like that," Walker said. "But we also just have the guys who are capable of playing that way. They’re very unselfish, we get rid of the basketball fast, we draw two defenders and whoever has the best shot takes it. It’s all about quick decisions."
The roster facelift has allowed the Hornets to maintain their defensive identity.
If you want to grind Clifford's gears, tell him the Hornets play "small ball."
"People say Golden State downsizes. They don’t downsize. They’re huge," Clifford said. "They play Draymond Green at the 5 and people say they downsize. Try to play against them. They’re bigger than you at every single position. Someone will throw up one of these cliches and they don’t study the issue. It’s crazy."
The Hornets didn't downsize either, even with ace defender Kidd-Gilchrist injured for most of the season. Batum is one of the tallest small forwards in the league and Lee is the prototypical size for a shooting guard. Lin is taller than most point guards and Walker plays larger than his size. Williams may appear light for a power forward, but with so many other teams going small at his position, he matches up fairly well most of the time.
"When I first came in, most teams played two bigs. You’d have somebody that’s a 6'11, maybe 7’ power forward. 6’10, 260, whatever the case may be," Williams said. "But now power forwards are more like 235. Draymond Green's probably 230 pounds.
"I think a lot of guys are trying to play like the way Golden State’s playing," Williams continued. "They see how they do a great job playing with him in small ball. We just played Dallas and Chandler Parsons was playing the power forward spot. A lot of teams are doing that now. It’s just not what it used to be. And I think that’s helped us a lot on defense. We have a lot of guys that are long and rangy and can cover a lot of ground."
Charlotte is a bit small at center and they do downsize when they play Walker and Lin together, but they compensate by using their collective size on the wing to cut off drives. Clifford has altered his system so his three wing defenders can easily switch assignments, so long as they keep the ball in front of them and only help to cut off very specific spots on the floor. That discipline is why the Hornets are the league's best defensive rebounding team without having great defensive rebounders.
Clifford emphasizes taking away easy points, which is why the Hornets excel in transition defense and don't allow second shots. But the same was true of last year's team, too. The new personnel allows Clifford more flexibility, but little has changed with the Hornets' defensive goals. They did not need to sacrifice that end of the floor to facilitate a more dynamic offense.
The secret to the Hornets' transformation is that it wasn't much of a transformation at all.
By framing their bombs-away approach as a different means to the same successful end, Clifford was able to maintain his usual approach and impress his same core tenets on a different collection of players. In practice, that was the mistake that doomed Chicago and Washington, two preseason East favorites that look unlikely to even make the playoffs.
Clifford always reinforces those same core tenets during every practice and film session. When Clifford first arrived in Charlotte three years ago, he hung a series of banners on the practice court so his players would always see his message. One spells out the need to get back on defense after missed shots. Another stresses defending without fouling.
He added two new ones just for this season. One lists Kreutzer's technical keys for a good jump shot. The other, however, came out of a phone conversation Clifford had with good friend Tom Thibodeau late last year. It carries a universal message that applies to every team, whether they're perimeter-oriented or loathe the three-point line.
The message is five words long. It reads: "Our magic word is work."
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