The Charlotte Bobcats entered the current season, a vital one in their rebuilding (or maybe just "building") process, with a first-year head coach at the helm. Steve Clifford took over the position after the unsuccessful one-season Mike Dunlap era, and there were many questions about what his team would look like. Through nineteen games, the Bobcats are somehow currently in line for a playoff spot, and Clifford the Big Red Coach's strategy has become much more apparent. In fact, since we're just about a quarter of the way through the season, we can look at some of the current trends of this team and project those for the rest of the season. What, truly, is this year's Bobcats squad like? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Do the Bobcats have an actual strength? Let's find out!
Defense: The Bobcats have given up 100.3 points per 100 possessions so far on the year, an efficiency rate that is good for third in the league. It should be noted that the Bobcats, like all other teams, aren't particularly close to the top two teams in defensive efficiency (the Pacers and the Spurs rank first and second, respectively), but being third in the league in something good is a welcome change of pace for this franchise. To put it another way, in terms of scoring, there are currently 27 teams with a worse defense than the Bobcats. Last season, there were zero teams with a worse defense than the Bobcats.
So why the sudden improvement in defense from last season? This is a young team, surely, but the only new addition that would have this much impact on the team is Al Jefferson, and he doesn't exactly have a reputation for being a good defensive player. Although it definitely helps that he replaced Byron Mullens, Jefferson has been playing well defensively in his own right as the centerpiece of the NBA's second-best defensive starting lineup, with a minimum 100 minutes played.
There's also the terrific bench frontcourt of Jeff Adrien and Bismack Biyombo, who rank first and third on the team in individual defensive rating, respectively. Both players have defensive ratings well below the overall team mark, and are a big part of the reason why the Bobcats defense is as strong as it is. To single out another individual, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has often been tasked with defending the opposition's best perimeter scorer, and has shown his ability to shut down his matchup. This was perhaps most notable in a win against the Knicks in early November, when Carmelo Anthony finished only 10-for-28 from the floor, and most of his successful field goals came when Kidd-Gilchrist was on the bench.
The biggest reason the defense is this strong, though, is likely because they force teams into taking a disproportionate amount of long twos. They hold opponents to just 52.3 percent shooting within five feet of the rim, second-best in the league, and they allow a high amount of shots (relative to other teams) from 15-19 feet, and hold their opponents to a top-ten field goal percentage in that area, which is a huge positive, given how willing they seem to be to let the opposition shoot from that range. This, more than anything, can be directly tied into an emphasis on smart team defense by coach Steve Clifford. Some of the defensive strategies this team uses - three man pick-and-roll defense, stunting an off-ball perimeter man to cut off drives - were not nearly as prevalent when Mike Dunlap ran the team. This, of course, is not meant to knock Dunlap, but rather to point out how instrumental Clifford has been with this team's defensive success.
Defensive Rebounding: The Bobcats are an above-average team on the offensive boards as well, but they really shine recovering after a missed shot to prevent any extra opportunities. As of December 4, their defensive rebounding percent of 77.4 is tied for first in the NBA with the Spurs. Biyombo ranks second in the NBA in this stat among qualified players, and Adrien and Jefferson are both ranked highly as well. Of course, a few good frontcourt players wouldn't necessarily make a great rebounding team, which is why the above-average (by position) efforts from Kidd-Gilchrist,Gerald Henderson, and Kemba Walker on the defensive boards have been so important. This team doesn't need to push the ball, ranking 27th in the NBA in pace; and although they might get a few extra points in transition by pushing out the sides instead of crashing the board as a team, they are definitely making sure they are playing a possession-oriented game.
Drawing fouls and minimizing turnovers: The Bobcats rank in the top eight in the league in both categories, and this is another facet of the possession-oriented strategy that was alluded to in the previous paragraph. This team is still not efficient while shooting the ball, so every possession counts on offense, and they make sure not to waste any opportunities by giving the opponent the ball, and get extra chances to score by drawing fouls. The player who stands out is Al Jefferson, who, while maintaining a usage rate that implies he has not lost his status as a shooting-happy player, has one of the lowest turnover rates in the league. For the other stat, the only rotation players that get to the free throw line as often per 36 minutes as Ramon Sessions does are Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard. The Bobcats aren't a team that beats you by scoring, but they'll do what they can to maximize the production on their offensive possessions.
Shooting: Oh man, where to start on this one? The Bobcats' effective field goal percentage is a league-worst 43.7 percent, a solid 5.9 percentage points below league average, and 2.3 below the next-worst team. Their field goal percentage on two-point shots is second-worst in the NBA (in front of only the Bucks) and their three-point percentage is a lowly 29.4, good for last in the league. They're also 28th in free-throw percentage. Noticing a trend? All this has led to an offensive efficiency rating of 29th. Now, this problem has been exacerbated by an uncharacteristic slump for Henderson, and an injury to Walker that clearly bothered his shot, or somehow prevented it from going in the hoop. That being said, even if these problems didn't occur simultaneously, the Bobcats would still be one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA. This isn't a problem that will go away anytime soon. I should mention that the Bobcats' defensive rating is 100.3, and their offensive rating is 97.1. Even with the third-best defense to this point, they're still giving up more points than they score. This is a huge issue.
Is this problem made worse by a lack of ball movement (the Bobcats rank 29th in assists per game)? Perhaps. Almost certainly, I'd say. Neither Walker nor Sessions are pass-first point guards, and the team leader in assists, until very recently, was Josh McRoberts. This may even by part of a vicious cycle, where the ball doesn't move well because the team is struggling to score, and then the team struggles to score because the ball won't move well; during the Bobcats' roughest stretches, they have had a tendency to play isolation ball and stop running the slow plays that lead to shots near the rim and fouls. Clifford is somewhat at fault for this, but sometimes the team can only be as good as its players, and there isn't exactly a surplus of quality scorers on the Bobcats roster.
So what does this mean going forward? Even with the injury to Kidd-Gilchrist that will keep him out of action for over a month, I believe the Bobcats can easily maintain a top-ten (if not top-five) defense by continuing to incorporate Clifford's defensive schemes and strategies. The offense, meanwhile, will continue to struggle, even as Walker and Henderson get a little more back to normal. The talent just isn't there at the moment to make the offense anything better than well below-average, though I would hope they don't remain the worst-shooting team in the league for much longer. As far as sustainability goes, I believe the Bobcats can keep up this level of play for much of the year, especially given the near-absence of quality basketball teams in the Eastern Conference. However, I don't know how well that will translate into their record, as they've gotten a bit lucky so far to get to this point. That being said, if the defense is truly this strong, they will likely be competing for a playoff spot, although they may be one of the teams on the outside of the postseason bubble.