Take a look at the league leaders in defensive efficiency this season and see if you notice anything unusual. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Okay, good. If you didn’t notice, the Charlotte Bobcats – owners of the league’s very worst defense in each of the last two seasons – have the league’s third best defense as of this moment. Their defensive efficiency of 97.9 is exactly 11.0 points per 100 possessions better than last year’s mark, good for the biggest year-to-year improvement in defensive efficiency this millennium, according to NBA.com’s stats database. (The database only goes back as far as the 2000-01 season)
Biggest Year-to-Year Defensive Efficiency Improvement
What the Bobcats are doing this year is basically unheard of. The previous record-holders – the 2011-12 Knicks and Raptors – both made massive defensive leaps in a shortened season due to the NBA lockout, when scoring efficiency was down around the league. Before that, the 2007-08 Celtics held the crown, and they swung a trade for Kevin Garnett in the offseason prior to showing huge improvement. You have to go all the way back to the 2003-04 Raptors to find a comparable jump in defensive efficiency that can’t be explained away by the mitigating circumstances of a lockout or a seismic trade, and that improvement is dwarfed by the one shown by the 2013-14 version of the Bobcats.
Charlotte named Mike Dunlap the team’s head coach before the 2012-13 season hoping the defensive principles he used in his time as an assistant coach at St. John’s and elsewhere could translate to the NBA. That didn’t happen. The Bobcats performed worse defensively under Dunlap than they did in the season where they had the worst record in NBA history. That, along with Dunlap’s in-your-face coaching style that reportedly rubbed some players the wrong way, got him fired after just one season on the bench.
This past summer Rich Cho and Michael Jordan tapped former Lakers, Magic, Rockets, and Knicks assistant Steve Clifford as the new head man, and Clifford has the Bobcats playing world class defense despite having mostly the same personnel as Dunlap had on hand last season. The big roster move the Bobcats made this offseason was bringing in Al Jefferson from the Utah Jazz, but he’s widely considered one of the league’s worst defenders, particularly against pick and rolls. This type of defensive improvement could not possibly be traced to the Jefferson signing, nor to the selection of Cody Zeller with the fourth pick in the 2013 draft, as Zeller has played less than 20 minutes per game and is not exactly a defensive stalwart.
So what’s the difference? Let’s start with the easiest fix for a bad defense: the Bobcats are simply playing with more effort when the other team has the ball. Charlotte looked lazy and disinterested for strings of possessions (and games) at a time far too often last season. That’s been cleaned up. Clifford’s Cats rarely take a possession, let alone a game off. It helps that they’ve faced off against teams that rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency in only six of their 17 games so far this season, but there are reasons to believe the improvement is at least somewhat for real.
First, there’s the change in their opponents’ shot selection profile. The Bobcats allowed the opposition to take 37.3 percent of their shots in the restricted area last year, but this season that number is down to 33.2 percent. Similarly, A total of 8.8 percent of Bobcat opponent shots were corner three pointers last season, and that number is down to 6.3 percent this season. Almost all of those shots have been redistributed to the mid-range area. Where mid-range attempts made up only 24.4 percent of shots taken against the Bobcats last season, this year that number is a much more preferable 30.7 percent. It’s amazing what forcing opponents into tougher shots does for a defense.
How are they forcing more mid-range shots? A lot of it has to do with their pick and roll coverages. Charlotte tried to capitalize on its athleticism last season by having the man defending the screener jump out on the ball handler on nearly every pick and roll. It didn’t work at all. Only Josh McRoberts seemed to go with the conservative strategy of hanging back near the free throw line with any sort of regularity, and he did that seemingly at random, with no regard for who the other players involved in the action were. You can guess how that worked out.
According to mySynergySports, the Bobcats ranked in the bottom half of the league in points per play (PPP) allowed to both ball handlers and roll men in the pick and roll last season, and allowed them to shoot a combined 45.9 percent from the field. This year, the Cats have held ball handlers to the second fewest PPP, and roll men to the fifth fewest. Those players are shooting 37.7 percent from the field.
There are much more defined rules for how the Bobcats defend pick and rolls this season. While the guards seem to choose whether to go over or under the screen depending on the ball handler, the big men involved in the action are playing it the same way with regularity. For McRoberts and Zeller, that means jumping out close to the three point line, in keeping with last season’s strategy. (To be fair, McRoberts still sometimes plays it the other way. He’s not the world’s greatest defender.) Both players have quick feet and pretty good mobility, and this helps them corral ball handlers before they can get into the paint, and ideally can force a cross court pass.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats have Jefferson (who has some of the slowest feet in the league but has long arms and a wide body) and Bismack Biyombo dropping back near the free throw line, the better to force ball handlers into those pesky mid-range jumpers.
Another staple of the Bobcats’ pick and roll defense is that they help like crazy. The players not directly involved in the pick and roll action pack the paint to the point that they often have both feet completely in the lane, thus entirely abandoning weak side shooters. Here’s a screen shot of a Mario Chalmers-Chris Bosh pick and roll in Charlotte’s recent game against the Miami Heat.
Gerald Henderson is mid-way through the paint, totally ignoring Dwyane Wade in the weak side corner. Sure, it’s Wade, and he’s not a strong three point shooter by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s still an awfully dangerous position for Henderson to be in. Similarly, McRoberts has a foot in the paint and is well below the elbow while his man – Shane Battier – spots up just to the left of the top of the key. McRoberts also has his head turned and thus wouldn’t be able to tell if Battier were to slide into an easier passing lane, which would essentially gift him a wide open three.
This screen shot is from about a second later in the play. Henderson is now completely on the other side of the lane, between Bosh and the hoop. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – guarding LeBron at the top of the key – has crashed all the way down into the paint as well. Thus McRoberts is left alone to defend both Wade and Battier on the weak side. A lazy initial pass from Chalmers to LeBron immediately after this is the only thing that keeps the Heat from pinging the ball quickly around the perimeter for an easy basket.
Far more often, the over-helping results in plays like this:
Walker crashes so far down into the paint to tag Sam Dalembert on his roll to the rim that he ends up leaving Jose Calderon – a 40-plus percent three point shooter for his career – wide open on the wing and can’t recover in time to properly contest the shot.
The Cats wind up in a similarly disadvantageous position on this LeBron-Bosh pick and roll when Walker and McRoberts stray far enough from their men that Chalmers has time to make a touch pass to Battier in the corner for an open three after receiving a cross court pass over the top of the defense.
It’s plays like this that have the Bobcats sitting 27th in the league in three point field goal percentage against, as well as 26th in PPP allowed on spot-ups. Opponents are shooting over 38 percent from three against the Bobcats so far this season, and over 42 percent on spot-up three point shots.
While defending the three point line remains a weakness, the Bobcats have cleaned up almost everything else that plagued them defensively last season.
|Restricted Area FG%||16th||2nd|
|Points Off TO Allowed||21st||8th|
|Opp 2nd Chance Points||25th||1st|
|Opp Fast Break Points||20th||2nd|
|Opp Points in the Paint||25th||1st|
The Bobcats have moved from the bottom half of the league to the top 10 in five key categories, and into the top two in four of them. Field goal percentage in the restricted area has long held a strong correlation to offensive efficiency, so it’s not surprise that a massive improvement in that area on the defensive end of the court has helped the Bobcats sport a much better defense this season.
Biyombo has been particularly key in this area. Among players who have defended against at least five at-rim shots per game, Biyombo has held opposing players to the fourth lowest field goal percentage in the league, according to SportVu player tracking data released by the NBA in conjunction with STATS LLC. Biyombo’s blocks are way down this year compared to his first two seasons in Charlotte (1.6 blocks per 36 minutes compared to an average of 2.6 across his first two seasons; 3.6 percent of opponent shots blocked this year compared to an average of 5.5 percent entering this year), but he’s making up for it by contesting and altering shots near the rim with abandon. His presence has, as you can see in the chart above, helped Charlotte rise from 25th in points allowed in the paint to first.
Another key to the Bobcats’ defensive improvement: defensive rebounding. Charlotte last year ranked 29th in the league in defensive rebounding rate (the percentage of available opponent misses rebounded by the team). This season, they’ve collected a larger share of opponent misses than any team in the NBA at 77.4 percent. It’s no wonder they’ve improved from 25th in second chance points allowed to first. Lest you think any of these counting stat improvements are just the result of playing significantly slower, it should be noted that Charlotte’s pace has dropped by just 0.06 possessions per game.
Charlotte has also been helped by the fact that its two highest-usage lineups have been incredibly stingy on defense.
|Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, McRoberts, Jefferson||104||86.3|
|Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, McRoberts, Biyombo||134||94.9|
One wouldn’t expect any lineup including Jefferson – let alone Jefferson and McRoberts – to have such a good defensive mark, but the Cats are somehow making this all work.
Of course, Charlotte now faces the challenge of defending without Kidd-Gilchrist for an indefinite period of time following the broken hand he suffered against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night. MKG is likely the team’s best perimeter defender, and is nearly always tasked with the toughest wing assignment. Charlotte’s defense has been 6.4 points per 100 possessions better with Kidd-Gilchrist on the court this season; they’ve suppressed points at the equivalent of the second best rate in the league with him on the court, and on par with Minnesota’s eighth ranked defense without him. That’s still strong, but there’s a big difference between elite defense and very good defense, and it’s entirely possible MKG is the key ingredient for this Charlotte team.