Hornets Defensive Improvement Among the Greatest of All-Time

Published: January 27, 2011

(This article was co-authored by Michael McNamara and Agent Ziko)

Coming into Wednesday’s game with Golden State, the Hornets were 26th in the league in points per game, they had an offense rating of 105.0 which was good for 22nd in the league, and they didn’t have a single player averaging 20 PPG, and yet despite all of that they are still sitting pretty at 30-16. The reason for that is plain and simple- defense. Thanks to the new emphasis on that side of the ball, the Hornets have tied a franchise record with their current 10 game win streak and are considered contenders in the top heavy Western Conference.

The Hornets defensive improvement isn’t just extraordinary, however, it is historic. This season the Hornets have a defensive rating of 101.3. That means that for every 100 defensive possessions, the Hornets give up 101.3 points. Now if you compare that to last year, when the Hornets had a defensive rating of 110.1, the Hornets are giving up 8.8 less points per 100 possessions than they gave up last year. That is a substantial improvement, and in fact only one team has made a bigger improvement in the last 35 years; the 1997-98 San Antonio Spurs.

The previous year San Antonio was decimated with injuries, losing franchise center David Robinson for the year after only 6 games and All-Star forward Sean Elliot shortly after that. Their leading scorer that year? A 37 year old Dominique Wilkins. His back-up? 25-year old Monty Williams. Yes, that Monty Williams.

After winning just 20 games, San Antonio won the Draft Lottery, took Tim Duncan, got Elliot and Robinson back, made Gregg Popovich their full time coach and slightly reduced Monty Williams minutes to 19 per game the next year. In was no surprise then that they vastly improved on the defensive end, as they reduced their defensive rating by 12.9- a record that is unlikely to ever be broken. How could it? How often do you add two Hall of Fame 7-footers, an All-Star forward, and a Hall of Fame coach in one offseason?

The fact is that the Hornets did get Chris Paul back for a full season this year and added Trevor Ariza, but those two moves alone certainly have not been the primary reason why the Hornets have had the second greatest defensive improvement since defensive rating has been able to be tracked as a statistic. The reason that New Orleans has grown by leaps and bounds is due to the foundation that Monty Williams has put in place and the emphasis he has placed on the defensive end.

There are quite a few examples in the past of new head coaches coming in and vastly improving a team’s defense, but it has rarely been to this extent. In Pat Riley’s first season with the Miami Heat, the team’s defensive rating improved by 6.1 points per 100. The 76ers saw a similar effect in Larry Brown’s first year in Philadelphia as their rating improved by 6 points. Milwaukee, who was never known as a defensive team witnessed nearly a 5 point jump when Scott Skiles got there. In fact the only new coach who had close to the same impact that Monty has had with the Hornets is Mr. Hubie Brown himself, who took over the New York Knicks in the 1982-83 season and helped orchestrate an 8.7 point improvement.

What Monty Williams has done in just a few months is nothing short of amazing when you consider that he is doing it with a collection of guys who are fairly similar to the group that was so abysmal on defense just last year. Even if you only factor in games that Chris Paul played in last year, the defensive rating increase is still over 8 PPG. While Ariza, Belinelli, and Willie Green are better defenders than their counterparts from last year, the difference is not that dramatic.

The difference has been the play of guys like West, Paul, and Okafor, who have bought into what Monty Williams is preaching. David West is in a contract year and it would probably behoove him financially to concentrate on his offensive production and Okafor likely knows that it is those very same offensive numbers that would get him into an All-Star game. I am sure there is a part of CP3 that would love to win an MVP trophy, but to be honest, his numbers won’t be enough this season to get him over that hump. You can tell that none of that stuff matters to these guys, though.

The focus is on winning games, and the entire team has bought into the fact that in order to do that, they will have to make their mark on the defensive end. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, as the data shows that of the top 20 teams of all-time when it comes to single-season defensive improvement, 14 of them reached the conference finals or the NBA finals either that season or the following season, including that Spurs team that Monty was a part of all those years back.


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