Teams are now anticipating the stifling defense that was so successful for the Bobcats early in the season. (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Rob Mahoney
The progress of an NBA season is often obscured by the bounce of the ball -- that vehicle of random chance that dictates who wins and loses games stuck in the balance, sometimes in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary. A great offensive team can go cold on an odd night, just as a great defensive team can be done in by an opponent on a roll. Players and coaches speak to the importance of game-planning and process, but the win-or-lose binary creates a dynamic by which chance is a readily accepted part of the equation.
No one was a larger beneficiary of chance early this season than the Bobcats. Through the first 12 games, Charlotte was outscored by three points per 100 possessions. That mark suggested that the Bobcats were the 22nd-best team in the league, even as they posted the 10th-best record (7-5). That's because underneath Charlotte's impressively decent record were two unfortunate facts:
• Six of their seven victories came by a total of 14 points, for an average margin of plus-2.3 points per win.
• Despite the individual improvement of Kemba Walker, Charlotte's overall offense was horrible. Only five teams scored fewer points per possession than the Bobcats over the first 12 games, and only two teams posted a lower effective field-goal percentage (which factors in the added value of three-pointers).
Since then, the bottom has fallen out completely for the Bobcats, most recently in a gut-wrenching, one-point defeat to the Lakers on Tuesday followed by a blowout loss to the lowly Suns on Wednesday. Charlotte isn't a team so bad as to be worthy of 13 consecutive losses, but it's also not good enough to have won seven of its first 12.
It was heartening that the Bobcats were able to find so many wins so early in their season, but their success was propped up by a defense built by an unknown coach and a ton of ball pressure. Few teams are as aggressive in chasing after the ball as the Bobcats, and early in the season that focus created tons of turnovers and consistently rushed shots. Mike Dunlap had constructed a system built for young, athletic players, and it paid dividends as the Bobcats swarmed their opponents and wreaked havoc all over the strong side.
But once opponents took notice of what the hyper-aggressive Bobcats were doing, that defensive success slowly began to wane. What at one time seemed to be a perfectly decent defensive team has since been exploited on an incredibly regular basis, made to look every bit as overeager and inexperienced as it is. A good system can only hide so many flaws, and Charlotte is now surrendering more uncontested shots and more open three-pointers than at any point in the season.
Pre-rotation has become an all too frequent problem, as perimeter defenders often outsmart themselves in their efforts to cut off the pick-and-roll from the weak side. Just as the screen-setter springs open to roll to the rim, a Bobcats defender can be seen cheating over from the weak-side wing -- darting into the paint to stand in the way of a pass that hasn't yet been made. In a lot of cases, that kind of preemptive rotation can pay off, provided that the displaced big-man defender stumbles back into place in a timely manner, thereby allowing the helping player to recover back to the perimeter. But that sequence never works quite right for the Bobcats, who have un-synced defenders playing and rotating at their own speed.
Charlotte is also guilty of neglecting perimeter shooters when locked in its matchup zone, an alternative system that the Bobcats seem to employ more often than any other team in the league. It's worked well in spots, aided by a rambunctious group on the perimeter that is keen on helping whenever possible. But in doing so, the more inexperienced Bobcats (defensive naturals Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor included) often lose track of the shooters in their zones.
That's the more general problem with Charlotte's defense overall: The Bobcats collapse hard into the paint on even the slightest threat of dribble penetration, a well-intended maneuver that nonetheless leaves the perimeter completely unguarded and forces their defenders to execute perfectly in the event of a kick-out. Dunlap undoubtedly devised his system with the knowledge of his personnel, and most of the players in the rotation are capable of covering the necessary ground to make all of their pressure work. That said, collapsing into the paint to such an exaggerated degree means that even the slightest wrong step could give up an open shot.
All of that puts a lot of pressure on a team of young players to execute perfectly, all while opponents grow wiser to what the Bobcats hope to accomplish on defense. Inching closer from the weak side is all well and good, but not when opponents know that the slightest move toward the basket will cause the entire defense to snap shut like a bear trap. Trapping capable ball-handlers is a good thought, but not when Byron Mullens or Brendan Haywood is the one bumbling over to trap, thereby negating the impact of the pressure. There are so many little things that the Bobcats do to betray their best defensive intentions, and as the season's sample deepens, those flaws have lost games that early in the season may have been unlikely wins.
None of this means that Charlotte's principles are fundamentally wrong -- merely that some peril is to be expected when leaning so heavily on young players to know how and when to apply pressure on shrewd veterans. Even through that 7-5 start, the omens were there to portend this kind of drop-off; these same help-happy defenders were making largely the same plays that they are now, but they were creating enough of an advantage to win games by the slightest of margins and nothing more. The Bobcats didn't create sizable leads, and when the defense faltered they fell apart. Those breakdowns are coming slightly more often now, but are mostly exaggerated by being on the wrong side of the make-or-miss break that was so kind to Charlotte early in the season.
A two-point loss to the Hawks, a two-point loss to the Knicks, a six-point loss to the Clippers, a one-point loss to the Lakers ... these are the games that stand between the Bobcats and a record hovering around .500. But that's the way the game goes. Close margins come and go, but the results of those signature, hard-fought wins aren't as important as the fundamental nature of a team's play. It all comes back to the mean, one way or another, even if it takes 13 straight losses to get an overachieving team's record back on course.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.