The Bobcats have built upon their heroic 3-3 start to get their record up to a blistering 7-7, daring to match their incendiary 7-5 start last year. Excuse me if my adjectives are a little off, as I still need to recalibrate after years of watching the ‘Cats and Panthers struggle to win even a quarter of their games. But alas, last year’s transcendentally scintillating march towards an inevitable NBA championship was all but a mirage, as the team decided to follow the Miley Cyrus formula of riding a giant wrecking ball through all goodwill and self-respect on their way to losing the next 18 games in a row, and ultimately firing their coach after only one year.
However, this year’s good start feels different (though if you see Jordan twerking with Robin Thicke and licking a 6 foot Teddy Bear, feel free to disregard this entire section). The young players have grown up a year, and they’re not counting on beating up decimated teams like the start of last season. They finally decided that this year was as good as any to apply what most of us refer to as defense, and are actually decent at it.
The main reason is the defensive system that Steve Clifford has put in place. The difference from last year was that Mike Dunlap attempted to mimic the defense of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls and Jeff Van Gundy’s Rockets and Knicks teams, while Clifford actually helped design and develop that defensive system as part of the same coaching staff with Thibodeau under Van Gundy. Would you trust yourself to renovate your home by watching the HGTV channel, or would you rather hire the Property Brothers, who have mastered their demolition/remodeling technique? And yes, I do watch HGTV, as part of my husbandly duties.
In this edition of the blog, I will be discussing with my partner Master Chef how the team defense has improved, as well as taking a closer look at the rag tag group manning the inside while Al Jefferson’s ankle returns to human size.
The Bobcats are rumored to have improved their defense this year. What can you show to back up this wild claim that the Bobcats are actually playing defense?
Last season, the running joke of the league was our Team Defense, coupled with our Team Offense, as well as guessing which lucky fan in the stands that would get cussed out by Tyrus Thomas. Last year’s Bobcats allowed the 2nd most points in the league at 102.7 points per game and the 4th highest shooting percentage at 47.1%, but triumphantly snatched the top spot for worst 3 point defense and most 3 pointers allowed, letting opponents hit 8.7 threes per game at a clip of 38.8%. Coupled with their offensive ineptitude, they also claimed first place in negative point differential, getting outscored by 9.2 points a game.
Early returns this year show us holding opponents to only 91.6 points per game, an improvement of over 11 points less per game and right behind defensive juggernauts Indiana, San Antonio, and Chicago. The opponents shooting percentage has dropped to 43.4%, and they are now only 7th worst in 3 point % allowed, while actually being in the top half of the league in fewest allowed 3 pointers made.
Chef: The Bobcats also rank 10th in the league for effective FG% (adjusting for the higher worth of 3 point shots) and 4th in defensive rebounding. I think the start is much more a testament to Coach Clifford. He has a great defensive system compared to Dunlap and Silas that the players have bought into early. What I mean by that is that he actual has one and holds players accountable for playing it. We finally chase shooters off the three-point line and have well-oiled, purposeful rotations, plus properly help in the paint. I still think we are lacking in transition defense, often giving up threes on the secondary break, but overall it is much, much better than last year.
There is more of an extreme focus on help defense, putting two feet in the paint on penetration and identifying and locating three point shooters on the kick out.
This year’s start is similar to last year’s 7-5 start. However, this year it seems to be more a product of a strong defense, and accomplishing this record despite Jefferson’s absence on the offensive end, it could prove to have more staying power. The Bobcats do rank 26th in strength of schedule, so the road will most certainly get tougher. If they can maintain their defensive heart, they should be close in most fourth quarters this year.
I think accountability is a key point here. Clifford demands you to play defense, otherwise he isn’t afraid to pull you from the game. It’s why Ben Gordon’s uniform ensemble now includes a towel wrapped around his head. But the team also no longer sells out to pack the paint, allowing shooters on the weakside to spot up for wide open threes and having the Bobcats not able to recover on time, a scheme that Dunlap oddly seemed loyal to.
Big Money Al Jefferson has only played a handful of games this year. How have we been able to survive without him and who has stood out in his stead.
With any semblance of a post offense joining Jefferson on the injured list, we have relied on a group of young bigs to hold down the fort in Josh McRoberts, Jeff Adrien, Bismack Biyombo, and Cody Zeller. Each one has had their moments, and bring a particular skill that the others don’t possess. But they also may have specific limitations that can hamper the functionality of our offense, where we actually score 3 less points per game than our stellar defense allows the opponents to score, despite our even record. That said, I think its time to acknowledge the growing legend of Sideshow McBob, and the actual skills he’s been able to show outside the clutches of dook headmaster Coach K (admitted UNC bias here).
Chef: With Al Jefferson sidelined this year, the screening center Bismack Biyombo has been largely a decoy/paint clearer on the roll. In fact, I cannot recall one instance where Walker has slipped a pass to him on a dive. The issue with this tactic is that if there is not a decent look for a shot or layup, the ball is trapped below the foul line in the baseline corner area.
This is where the 2nd point guard enters the play. Surprise, it is point/forward Josh McRoberts. McRoberts is used as a relay switch from 18 feet and in around the foul line. If Kemba does not find a shot or dump off he likes, he swings the ball to McRoberts, who wheels in from the weakside to catch the ball around the foul line to essentially run a 3 on 2 break. They also use McRoberts as the picker and rather than roll, he either fades to the foul line area or stays put for the pass back from Walker, as pictured below.
I too have noticed that when McRoberts is on the court, Clifford likes to initiate the offense with him at the top of the key. Despite his distracting Movember beard, he is actually an intuitive passer with a high basketball IQ. We want the ball in his hands, as he averages 4.5 assists per game, the highest out of all power forwards in the league. And because he handles the ball surprisingly well, he has a 3.41 assist to turnover ratio, which places him in the top 10 for ALL players, 4 spots behind Chris Paul.
Then on top of that, he has already hit 21 three’s this year (former Bobcats faux shooting center Byron Mullens cries himself to sleep watching Bobcats’ highlights). What this does is bring reluctant power forwards and centers who are assigned to McRoberts out of the paint to guard the 3 point line, where a simple pump fake has them flying in the wrong direction, and McRoberts easily drives by for an array of floaters, between the leg dribbles, and pin point passes to cutters for easy layups.
Chef: Caution nerd alert! On a per minute basis, Walker averages 2.7 touches per minute to McRoberts 2.6 per. This does not say much in itself and has no reflection on how the touches are used. When the game tracker passing stats are examined in context, inferences can be made. McRoberts’s and Walker’s passing stats are nearly identical, and when factored with pace show that a larger percentage of McRoberts’s role offensively is distribution.
Using pace (possessions per 48 minutes) for McRoberts (91.13) and Walker (99.48) and a trusty TI85 calculator, passes per possession can be calculated. McRoberts averages 1.17 passes per possession, which is more than Walker’s average of 1.10. Keep in mind the player tracker stats are not specifically for passes (other than in relation to assists) so this is a broad average and not specific to where the pass went and to what result (i.e. a non productive swing pass from guard to guard equals the same as a post entry pass). The on/off the court numbers further elucidate this. When McRoberts is on the floor, the offense averages 65% of field goals assisted vs 49% when he is off, where Walker is at 56% and 60%, respectively. Furthermore, 40% of McRoberts’s assists were for “close shots” or dunks vs 34% for Walker, highlighting the interior passing nature of his role.
Damn, that is nerdy Chef.
Chef: Either way, McRoberts is basically utilized as a non-dribbling point guard from 18 feet to the basket. The ideal model for this type of player is Kevin Love. The Wolves utilize Love in much the same way, with the exception being that he is a far superior offensive weapon both in the post and shooting. The biggest issue with Josh McRoberts is that he is an ideal 2nd unit guy, and putting him on the floor with a few volume scorers as the distributer plays exactly to his strengths. He is simply not good enough to be a starter for a serious 2nd round playoff or better contender.
The Kevin Love comparison (poor man’s Kevin Love, that is… poor, poor man) is pretty interesting, as they both are the best passing bigs in the league and can hit threes with regularity. Well, here may be the first and only Josh McRoberts NBA highlight reel in existence, which showcases in order: 1) a nice crosscourt pass to Jeff Taylor; 2) pick and roll with Kemba, ending in a quick pass to Biyombo for an easy dunk; 3) strip of Anthony Davis on defense, with a nice outlet pass to MKG for the breakaway slam; 4) perimeter drive with reverse between the leg dribble for a hook shot
On behalf of my Tar Heel brethren, I hereby pronounce McBob to be an acceptable dookie, alongside Grant Hill and Jay Bilas. I will now burn my fingerprints off in penance for typing such a thing.
Now moving on to the other notable bigs, Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Adrien are two physical specimens that have been cleaning up the boards and blocking a few shots while they’re at it. Biyombo has shown growth from last year in learning how to box out better and getting into better defensive position. However, he curiously did not play against the Suns and only had 5 minutes against the Bucks, seemingly replaced by undrafted Adrien. I’m going to let Chef continue on his nerd roll.
Chef: Following Friday’s beatdown to the Suns, the interwebs (okay, Bobcats’ fan boards) were awash with Steve Clifford criticisms regarding a DNP-CD for both Bismack Biyombo and Ben Gordon. I have no intention on building a case for Ben Gordon to ever see the floor, as I am not a lying sadomasochist. It was surprising to see that with Al Jefferson returning to the starting lineup, that Jeff Adrien was given Biyombo’s backup role. It is no surprise that Adrien has earned some playing time, going for 7pts/10reb/1blk and 6pts/6reb/4blk/3stl in very spirited efforts against the Nets and Bulls, respectively, but to totally replace Biz did raise an eyebrow. So, why did Steve Clifford decide to bench Biyombo in favor of Adrien?
In his words, “Just because Jeff Adrien is playing so well. We have functioned so well with Jeff Adrien on the floor the I’ve got to see if it lasts.” I can get behind that. A coach has to be able to follow his instincts. He sees these two every day in practice and generally knows them much better than any 3rd party observer. But, when you look at Rick Bonnell’s blog, a non-quoted “quote” sheds some light on the decision: “You know who played Biz’s minutes? Jeff Adrein. You know why? Because while Biyombo is longer and a better athlete, Adrien is a quicker study and, to use Clifford’s words, the team “functions” better right now with Adrien playing.” The key to that, for me, is “quicker study”. I read that as Biyombo struggles to pick up the defense and offense. It is no secret that Biyombo is incredibly raw, but his leash is getting shorter. Clifford has also publicly pounded the defensive aspect of his system as well as making it the focus for the team this year. These two factors are probably why Clifford is “trying” new players, and when you consult the almighty advanced stats, they show he was correct in his decision.
If Biyombo is supposed to be a defensive world beater as well as an all-around glass cleaner, he rates a distant second to Adrien. Neither of them are lighting the scoreboard on fire offensively, but Biyombo is far worse defensively compared to Adrien and 2 pts worse than the team when looking at Defensive Rating. As a matter of fact, Adrien’s Offensive Rating is 2 pts better than the team and his defensive rating is 4 pts better. Adrien is also a better rebounder. It seems he is much better at reading the ball and putting down roots in the paint to collect the rebound. In short, he is the non insane, less grabby version of Reggie Evans. Adrien is far more active on the offensive glass than Biz, which is a much more important rebound as it gains an offensive possession. When turnovers are factored, the case for Adrien becomes even stronger. The On/Off data validates these numbers:
Basically, Biyombo is a major net negative on offense and a minor net negative on defense while Adrien is minor net positive on offense and major net positive on defense. Couple this with far superior offensive rebounding numbers and a better free throw shooter and it can’t be argued that Clifford was right to give Adrien a try. He has earned it.
For the record, I am as big a Biz fan as the next guy. I feel like he is one of my children and I am finally starting to see him grow a little. But, from what Clifford has said both publicly and inferred coupled with his actual statistics, I may have to concede that he may forever be a deep 2nd rotation big. I would still like the Bobcats to continue to develop him, but in this instance, I cannot argue with Clifford. Perhaps, as Adrien’s minutes expand and his name enters the opponent scouting report as he plays against more 1st unit guys, his numbers fall. But, it is worth finding out, after all, he has earned it.
I must say, that research is a little surprising, as they both played the hard nosed, defensive rebounder position well. I think this may be a situation of confounding factors, with Biz playing against opposing teams’ starters while he is replacing Jefferson in the lineup, while Adrien got to beat up on the backups when he came in for relief roles. But as you said, Clifford sees these guys in practice, so he should know better. Maybe he’s just sitting Biz down for a couple games so that he can observe and absorb everything being thrown his way, and not just to keep Ben Gordon company in discussing the intricacies of towel weaving.
Well, it seems that Jefferson has been able to play injury free for a couple games, and will in turn affect the team on both ends with his own abilities. We will have to watch to see what impact this will have on the impressive defense being played so far. But as the first player in Bobcats’ history with more than one post move… scratch that…. as the first player in Bobcats’ history with any post move at all, he is a welcome addition, and I think he will become a better defender under Clifford’s guidance. Otherwise, Ben and Biz may have an Al sized head cloth reserved for him on the bench.