The Bobcats' biggest struggle recently has been figuring out a balance between focusing on offense versus focusing on defense. Steve Clifford expressed his frustrations with this after the debacle that was the road defeat against the Portland Trail Blazers:
I think we're thinking about the wrong thing.
Our effort defensively has been going down and down, and we've gone from being, to me, an exceptional multiple effort team going from one play to the next to the next, where now we want to make one effort: Get the ball and go.
Our team, to me, is thinking too much about offense. And we have individual guys who need to build their games around their defense, and they're worried about their offense. We're not built that way. We're not going to be outscoring people. If we're not going to commit to defensive rebounding, then we're limited in how good we can be.
One way to balance these efforts is through managing the roster talent in rotations that excel in certain aspects. The Bobcats' two most-used lineups are identical with the exception of swapping Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Tolliver.
Kidd-Gilchrist's injury is the sole reason the most-featured lineup includes Tolliver instead, but the results have been somewhat positive, at least offensively.
No. 1: Walker / Henderson / Tolliver / McRoberts / Jefferson
15 games, 189 minutes
This lineup absolutely crushes the baseline team season average for offense, adding on about 10 points more per 100 possessions. This group actually shoots 3-pointers better than they shoot twos, hitting 47.9 percent of their threes compared to 44.7 percent of their twos. Surely this must be at least a little shocking considering the team is fifth-worst in shooting behind the arc this year. But Walker and Tolliver have been shooting well from distance recently, with Tolliver taking advantage of teams sleeping on him off the ball. This shooting has made this offense well-spaced and their shots well-distributed, as seen below (shot performance on left, distribution on right).
It's also nice that this lineup nearly halves the team's usual turnover rate. On the minus side, their effectiveness is limited by a subpar ability to draw fouls. With Walker and Henderson as the only threats to draw contact and shooting fouls, their ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts falls from .306 to .234. Offensive rebounding is also an issue as the percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed falls 4.7 percentage points below the norm.
Defense, however, is another story. A bad story. The defense's drop isn't quite at the level of the offense's rise, but allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions is bad enough to rank 29th in the NBA were this a team rating. To start with smaller potatoes, this lineup just doesn't force turnovers well. It lacks athleticism outside outside of the two guards, which means they can't spark turnovers out of jumping passing lanes much. The perimeter defense particularly suffers because of comprehensive defensive breakdowns, which in turn leads to opponents kicking out or making the extra pass to an open shooter. This particular lineup allows opponents to shoot 40.7 percent from behind the arc.
Lacking athleticism and a great defender at any position leaves this Bobcats especially reliant on holding true to the team defensive strategy, which breaks down because of over-rotating. Below is opponent shooting performance and shot distribution allowed by this lineup.
Ultimately, the Bobcats have a net rating of -2.1 in this lineup, which is better than the average -3.6, yet still not good because, well, it's still a net negative.
No. 2: Walker / Henderson / Kidd-Gilchrist / McRoberts / Jefferson
10 games, 139 minutes
Alternately, just by switching out Tolliver for Kidd-Gilchrist, the Bobcats change completely. The team runs a slower pace and has a much less efficient offense, despite a comparable true shooting percentage (which takes into account the added value of 3-pointers and free throws). Offensive rebounding is much more in line with the season average with Kidd-Gilchrist's added help, as is the lineup's rate of getting to the free-throw line.
However, the offense really sputters because of its 28.6 percent shooting from behind the arc. As discussed previously, this could, at least partially, be because of the timing of this lineup previously before Kidd-Gilchrist's injury when Walker was shooting much worse.
However, this lineup starkly outperforms opponents despite this offensive inefficiency due to its defensive strengths. These five fellas together slice off 11.4 points per 100 possessions from their averaged allowed defensive rating for a pretty 89.5 points per 100 possessions.
Though they force turnovers better than the above lineup, it's not a significant percentage better than the team's average. Rather, the defense limits or shuts down opponents in a plethora of areas to be effective. Opponent offensive rebound percentage falls three percentage points to limit second-chance opportunities. Bobcat enemies struggle to find the free-throw line even more with a free throw attempt rate of .186, which compares favorably to the normal .251 opponent free throw attempt rate. Shooting-wise, opponents manage a meager 44.9 percent in effective field goal percentage (compare that to lineup one's 52.4 percent or the baseline 49.2 percent), including 33.8 percent from three. On simple field goal percentage, opponents shoot under 40 percent against this lineup.
With Kidd-Gilchrist's return at a time when the team is shooting better but defending worse, it will be interesting to see how these figures shift, but for now, this opponent shot chart is fun.
Clifford's focus on returning to defensive principles to implement a resurgence in team performance even with a foundering offense has merits but one of the more interesting things is how these lineups perform in the fourth quarter.
Of the Bobcats' 40 games so far this season, 29 of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer and it's not an uncommon sight to see a lead disappear in the early moments of the fourth quarter and late comeback efforts fall short.
These are small sample sizes but initial results show that the most-used lineup proves to perform better in the fourth quarter compared to the latter. The lineup with MKG dissolves offensively and defensively with a 37.5 eFG percentage and a 64.9 opponent eFG percentage allowed while the former lineup's fourth quarter stats are more in line with the lineup's normal averages.
As defenses stiffen late in the game, they can shut the MKG lineup's offense down as that offense becomes more desperate to score in a limited spaced floor. I'm not sure what happens defensively with that lineup that's so drastically different from the norm, but that's quite the disparity to allow such a staggering effective field goal percentage. With more minutes to work with, I expect the defensive and offensive numbers to improve, though not as much with the offense.
Situationally, Clifford will have to judge when to go with these lineups but it certainly stands that the stronger defensive squad outperforms the offensive-heavy one on the whole, but not late in the game.
[Statistical thanks to NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.com]