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The Hornets Have to Get LaMelo Ball a Defense

For the second year in the row, Charlotte’s season ends in the play-in after a disastrous defensive performance. To take the next step, the Hornets need to address their biggest flaw.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One stat, and one stat only, is sufficient to explain why the Hawks steamrolled the Hornets in Wednesday’s play-in game. For context, the worst defense in the league this season belonged to Houston, which allowed 116.4 points per 100 possessions. Yet in Atlanta’s 132-103 drubbing of Charlotte, the Hornets allowed an astounding 128.2 points per 100 possessions.

At least the Hornets are used to defensive futility. In last season’s play-in loss, they surrendered 129.7 points per 100 possessions in a similar season-ending thud.

From a broad perspective, the 2021-22 season was a success for the Hornets, who finished with a winning record for the first time in six years and saw their two most important players—LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges—take significant strides. Yet Wednesday’s game, and really this whole season, shone an ugly, glaring light on the team’s biggest flaw: It owns the weakest defense of any prospective contender, and the gap between Charlotte and everyone else isn’t even close.

The Hornets’ defensive problems are myriad. As befits a young team that likes to run, Charlotte forces a healthy amount of turnovers—but it’s hard to find anything else positive to say. The Hornets allow tons of shots at the rim, tons of 3-pointers, and tons of offensive rebounds. They don’t defend picks well. By Second Spectrum’s measure of opponent shot quality, which analyzes factors like shot location and defender distance, the Hornets ranked 27th this season—ahead of only the Lakers, Trail Blazers, and Rockets.

The Cavaliers, a fellow Eastern Conference squad in the play-in bracket, also allowed plenty of shots at the rim this season, but with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, Cleveland had the right big men to contest those shots and keep opposing point totals down. Charlotte doesn’t have those types of players and hasn’t for a while. Here’s an un-fun fact: The last Hornets center to post an above-average box plus/minus was Cody Zeller in 2016-17.

The Hornets’ starting center this season was Mason Plumlee, who is a competent NBA veteran, but not anything close to a two-way anchor. Backup Montrezl Harrell, acquired at the trade deadline, is certainly not an answer on defense. The Hornets’ one surge in Wednesday’s blowout loss came midway through the second quarter with P.J. Washington as a small-ball center. Those lineups were quite successful in the regular season (plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass) but more because of elevated offense; in any case, the 6-foot-8 Washington isn’t a full-scale solution to the Hornets’ center problems.

That’s priority no. 1 this offseason, or at least 1A alongside the 1B of re-signing Bridges, who enters restricted free agency after a breakout campaign. The center market could be muted, with the likes of Jusuf Nurkic and Mitchell Robinson leading the way, or it could be tumultuous depending on what happens in the next month. If the Jazz implode again, could Rudy Gobert be available in a trade? Or Deandre Ayton, if Suns owner Robert Sarver doesn’t want to pay big money to a center? Or Myles Turner, if the Pacers’ lottery outcome lands them in a position to select a new big man in the draft? The Hornets should be an active buyer (bordering on desperate) given their need.

The other offseason priority is a reliable wing defender who can stick to top opposing options better than Bridges, who started in a frontcourt with Plumlee and Washington at the end of the season. Gordon Hayward remains a solid two-way contributor when healthy, but can’t stay on the court, and Kelly Oubre Jr. fell out of coach James Borrego’s good graces after a sizzling start. He played only 16 minutes Wednesday.

Without any lockdown defenders on the perimeter, the Hornets deployed a zone defense on the second-largest number of possessions this season, per Second Spectrum, behind only the tanking Trail Blazers. For some defenses, like the Heat (third in zone rate), a zone defense is a way to add to an already stingy unit, to mix up coverages and confuse opponents. Yet for the Hornets, the zone represented a last resort—Borrego couldn’t coax a workable defense out of his players in standard sets, so a zone effort was all he had left.

Team-building in the NBA isn’t just about the draft or trades or free agency; it requires the right moves across all avenues to improve a roster. In recent years, the Hornets have mostly nailed the draft. Ball, the third selection in 2020, is the most obvious success. After a dazzling Rookie of the Year campaign, he took another step forward this season, boosting his scoring average to 20 points per game and his 3-point accuracy to 39 percent. He’s still just 20 years old, and as long as he’s in uniform, the Hornets should always score at an elite level.

Charlotte has also exceeded expectations in the middle of the first round, via no. 12 picks Bridges and Washington, and in the second, via no. 36 pick Cody Martin. The jury is still out on last year’s no. 11 pick, James Bouknight, who played by far the fewest minutes of any 2021 lottery selection—but they’ve managed to build an impressive young talent base for a team with only one top-10 pick since 2015.

Now they must round out the roster, ideally adding two above-average starters, in trades or free agency, where the front office’s track record is decidedly more mixed. Money could be tight after Bridges’s extension, so Hayward—with two years and $61.6 million remaining on his deal—is an obvious trade candidate. (Cue the Russell Westbrook rumors … )

On the one hand, there’s no reason for the Hornets to rush into a reckless win-now move. Given their likely position in this summer’s draft, they could target a big like Duke’s Mark Williams to develop alongside the franchise’s promising young core. Yet on the other hand, the Hornets have been stuck in the 9-10 range in the East for five seasons now, and Ball is already so talented that the team might be able to take a giant step forward if it can even go from abysmal to average with a quick fix from proven defenders.

That sounds a lot like the Mavericks’ situation before this season: with another phenom creator in Luka Doncic, but an imbalanced roster holding them in place. Then the Mavericks jumped from the 21st-ranked defense to seventh, and from the West’s no. 7 seed to a team with home-court advantage in the first round.

A Hornets starting lineup with an option like Robinson at center, to say nothing of Gobert, could make a similar leap in 2022-23. Charlotte has a brighter future now than two offseasons ago, but it’s maxed out its potential with such a generous defense. The next step is almost too obvious.