Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford thought he’d be coaching a top-5 NBA defense this season, but it’s just not happening. David Zalubowski AP
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford thought he’d be coaching a top-5 NBA defense this season, but it’s just not happening. David Zalubowski AP

Charlotte Hornets

If Hornets players don’t want this team blown up, they have a funny way of showing

February 06, 2018 12:36 AM

DENVER

This isn’t happening for the 2017-18 Charlotte Hornets.

Even viewed through the most optimistic of prisms, the chase for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference looked over Monday night in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains. This was a game the Hornets could have won; the Nuggets are every bit as fragile as the Hornets have been for much of this season, and the home team was hurting with injuries and illness.

After a 121-104 loss at the Pepsi Center, coach Steve Clifford reminded his players that when a road team is shooting 55 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range, it ought to recognize the possibilities. With any real effort on defense, the Hornets (23-30) could have stolen this one.

As Clifford bluntly described post-game, a team with resolve gets past three games in four nights and a cross-country flight and high altitude, and puts games like this away.

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I didn’t see any fire from the Hornets in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets (29-25) have a decent chance of qualifying for the Western Conference playoffs, but there was nothing dominant about that group Monday. Hornets center Dwight Howard could score any time he wanted in the first half, making his first seven shots from the field. The Nuggets built a 14-point lead, but that evaporated completely in the second quarter.

Clifford thought he’d be coaching a top-five defense this season, particularly after adding Howard’s rim-protection. They are now 12th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, allowing 1.043 points per possession.

I’m mildly surprised they are still in the top half of the league, because this team has little defensive resolve. The Nuggets made 18-of-34 from 3-point range, which is just unacceptable.

Beyond anger

Clifford didn’t sound angry in his post-game comments, so much as deflated. He pointed out that falling short on defense these days isn’t just on the players who aren’t strong in that area, but on those who are supposed to excel at that end of the court. You have to assume he was referring to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Howard and Nic Batum.

Plus-minus can be a dubious measure of a player’s performance, but it seemed pretty true Monday. The Hornets were minus-21 points when Kidd-Gilchrist played, minus-22 with Batum in the game and minus-17 with Howard in the game. Those were the three worst plus-minus ratios on either team.

Charlotte Hornets reserve Treveon Graham has played with resolve lately, something that’s not so true for all his teammates.
David Zalubowski AP

There was a time not long ago when the Hornets’ biggest flaw was what happened when the reserves came in. The second-unit performance has improved of late, particularly with Treveon Graham reaching new heights. But Monday, the starters didn’t carry their weight. A team’s best players must set a standard, and other than Kemba Walker (20 points), I didn’t see anyone offering to carry such a load.

“These are the nights when you can really do things,” Clifford said of an opportunity wasted. “We had three or four guys who stuck their fingers in the water and said, ‘If we’re close at the end, then I’m there,’ instead of diving in and trying to do something of significance.”

“If we’re not going to defend, we don’t have enough offense to be a great team.”

Squandering the season

Forget great. They don’t appear to have enough right now to be good, or enough to salvage this season by at least qualifying for the playoffs.

The schedule has been undeniably tough: Three games in four nights with a cross-country flight on the day off. However, they have so little margin for error that going through the motions in a winnable road game is a sure route to the draft lottery. They have all of 12 home games remaining. Squandering the road opportunities is squandering the season.

The next time the Hornets play, Thursday night in Portland, Ore., the NBA’s trade deadline will have passed. I don’t expect the Hornets to do anything major between now and the 3 p.m. EST deadline on Thursday, but you never know. Someone could offer a lot for Walker, as far as salary-cap relief and draft picks to hit a reset button.

If this veteran group would like to discourage owner Michael Jordan from making such a blow-it-up move, they had a funny way of demonstrating that Monday.

Professional athletes make statements around the trade deadline with their actions, not their words.

Monday’s statement was a collective shrug. That’s not OK

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell