Clifford: Defense was problem for 'disappointing' Hornets
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Steve Clifford sat behind a table in the Hornets arena lamenting his team's defensive struggles in what he deemed a ''disappointing'' 2016-17 season.
The disappointment stemmed from Charlotte's porous defense.
Which is ironic, considering Hornets owner Michael Jordan hired Clifford because of his defensive coaching skills. Not to mention add Charlotte's great defense is what the Hornets hung their hat on in Clifford's first three seasons - two of which resulted in playoff appearances.
But defense disappeared this year, particularly late in games. Now the Hornets will be watching the playoffs from home.
''Our offense is not the problem, it was the defense,'' Clifford said. ''The defense didn't get better.''
It figured to be the other way around after the Hornets lost Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson to free agency last summer and returned top defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a shoulder injury.
Instead, the Hornets fell to 13th in points allowed - although that doesn't begin to tell the whole story.
Clifford points out Charlotte dropped from fourth in 2015-16 to 27th this season in ''clutch defense,'' a statistic used by the NBA to measure a team's productivity in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime in games decided by five points or less.
Charlotte's 1-on-1 defense was a huge problem, Clifford said.
Teams routinely got past Hornets defenders at the point of attack and found easy kick-outs to the wing for open 3-pointers. Charlotte's 3-point defense was among the worst in the league.
''I felt like that when the game mattered last year we might not be scoring, but the other team didn't score either,'' veteran forward Marvin Williams said. ''This year we were able to score but we weren't able to get stops.''
Some other learned during the Hornets season:
LOSING TIGHT ONES: Losing close games became contagious, said reserve forward Frank Kaminsky. Charlotte was 0-6 in overtime games and 0-9 in games decided by three points or less. ''There were so many games where they didn't make enough plays at the end,'' Kaminsky said. ''That started at the beginning of the year and it felt like it was a trend that continued throughout.''
BRIGHT SPOT: All-Star point guard Kemba Walker turned in one of the most productive seasons in franchise history, finishing second overall in points scored (1,830) and sixth in the NBA in 3-pointers made (240). ''He was a monster this year,'' Kidd-Gilchrist said. Walker said he will not need surgery after missing the final two games with a hyperextended knee.
BENCH PLAY AN ISSUE: Although Kaminsky made big strides, Charlotte's bench play was never a strength and will be an area the team will look at upgrading in free agency or the draft. ''Our depth was a problem,'' Clifford said.
TIGHT UNDER THE CAP: Charlotte isn't expected to be much of a player for big-ticket free agents because most of its cap money is committed to existing players. All five starters - Walker, Nic Batum, Williams, Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller - are still under contract next season. Williams said having all five starters back will help the team's continuity. ''I don't think people understand how much of a difference that makes when you get to training camp,'' Williams said. ''You don't have to waste any time getting used to the guy.''
BIG QUESTION: The Hornets clearly missed a rim protector this season. They signed Roy Hibbert last offseason, but he played only one game before his knee flared up and he was never the same. The Hornets eventually dealt Hibbert and Spencer Hawes to Milwaukee for Miles Plumlee and his $12 million-a-year contract. That decision has thus far failed to pay dividends as Plumlee averaged just 2.5 points in 13 games while battling injuries.
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