A couple of games ago, Rick Bonnell tweeted that the Bobcats’ record “feels far more real” than their 7-5 start last year. It might be more than a feelin’ to Bonnell, but the stats say otherwise. Though they’re a respectable 5-5, Charlotte has played the 3rd easiest schedule in the league, per ESPN strength-of-schedule rankings. Meanwhile, BasketballReference.com has them ranked 27th in the league based on both point-differential and strength of schedule. So far this year has been last year, with a couple of moderate improvements; it’s been like going from Thor to Thor 2.
The Loki-like wildcard in all of this is AL Jefferson. You could argue that the Cats are getting by despite playing mostly without their injured big free-agent acquisition Jefferson, but the counterargument would be that they’re getting by because they haven’t had to play their injured big free agent acquisition Jefferson much. What’s currently keeping the Bobcats flirting so hard with .500 is their defense (ranked 9th-most efficient in the league), and the only reason they might get her number on a napkin is by ramping up their shooting while not sacrificing that defense. Jefferson only helps with the first part of the equation; when it comes to the second part he’s going to take the multiplication signs and replace them with square roots. Historically, Jefferson has played less defense than a street mime in Grand Theft Auto.
On the other hand, it’s inarguable that Jefferson was the reason Charlotte won in Boston on Wednesday night. In a putrid game featuring the worst shooting accuracy since To’hajiilee, Jefferson went 8-for-17, hit all 6 of his free throws, and had 9 defensive boards. Plus he blocked Gerald Wallace’s 3-ft layup like a Lego with a 1:07 to go to preserve a 5-point lead, and then had a huge putback on Kemba Walker’s miss with 18 seconds left, putting the Cats back up by 4. “His defense is better than he’s been given credit for,” coach Steve Clifford said afterward. That’s true because Jefferson has been given no credit for his defense; in fact he’s been given nothing but debits through the years. In my preseason preview, I ticked off Jefferson’s stats like tsunami victim counts, which I don’t have the stomach to go through again, but the one you need to remember is that last year the Jazz were 9.3 points/100 possessions worse on defense with Jefferson on the court. This year he’s only played 3 games, but he does have the second-best defensive rating among the regulars: with Jefferson on the court, the Bobcats are giving up 96.4 points/100 possessions; when he’s off the court that number shoots up to 101.2 (per NBA.com/stats).
Given Jefferson has only played a total of 91 minutes, his stats are noisier than an opera about Sarah Palin, so I’m not going to get excited about them just yet. BUT if Jefferson can do something, ANYTHING in the paint it would fit right in with the Bobcats’ scheme. So far they’ve kept up the defensive pressure by defensive rebounding (7th best rate in the league) and protecting the paint. Even after LeBron James rocked the rim like a hurricane in last night’s 16-point loss to the Heat, Charlotte holds the 4th best opponent shooting percentage in the league on shots from 5-feet in. And they’ve done it without fouling, as they’re a respectable 14th in the league in FTA/FGA. Bismack Biyombo has been leading the charge here, gobbling up 29.6% of all defensive rebound opportunities. I normally prefer Biyombo like shots of grappa—in small doses—but this is about 9% better than his career average and it’s third in the league among qualified centers. And Biyombo’s personal foul rate is down to 2.8/36 minutes, which is also a career-best. Am I ready to admit that Biyombo is finally validating his 7th pick in the draft? No, but I’ll at least admit that he’s taking away the sting that comes from losing Gana Diop.
And getting back to Jefferson, for all of his defensive misadventures, he’s always been a competent rebounder. Thus if he can keep it up, the Bobcats will have the defensive glass covered like Chester’s Mill no matter who is at center. Meanwhile, we know that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson will remain individual fiends on defense, while guys like Josh McRoberts have been pleasantly surprising in help-outs. McRoberts is a big part of that superior defensive paint job, by the way, keeping his opponents at 51.7% shooting within 5-feet (overall, the team is holding the opposition to 53.7%).
The Bulls are up next on Monday, but the schedule stays pretty middling over the next several games, so we’re still not going to know much. The Bobcats do look solid on defense, but that body of work Northern Illininois-level.
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