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Has Small Ball Been the Right Call for the Charlotte Bobcats?

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Has Small Ball Been the Right Call for the Charlotte Bobcats?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Ramon Sessions in the Bobcats' game against Washington.

Overview

In 66 games last season, the Charlotte Bobcats won just seven. After only 10 games this year, they've already won six. Something has obviously changed dramatically.

While the season is still only weeks old, it's clear that Charlotte is a substantially better team this year than it was last. Although a genuine playoff run remains unlikely, the Bobcats could legitimately find themselves quite a distance from the foot of the NBA standings by season's end.

Quick to embrace the trend, Mike Dunlap has sent out his team to play what many are labeling "small ball". With a host of athletic players on the roster, it's a logical method of operation. The results so far speak for themselves.

So just how successful has small ball been for Charlotte? Has it been the right call to this point in time? More importantly, should it continue to be their modus operandi?

Here's an in-depth look to provide answers to those questions.

 

Charlotte Bobcats in 2011-12

It was that bad. It's almost better not to mention it. However, for the purpose of perspective and creating a reference point, it's necessary to go back and examine it.

Charlotte's 2011-12 season was absolutely abysmal. Their NBA record for the lowest winning percentage in league history was simply compounded by the statistics that went with it.

To finish dead last in the league for points per game (87.0) and point differential (-13.9) by a considerable distance is one thing. To add offensive efficiency (92.3), defensive efficiency (107.8), field goal percentage (.414) and three-point percentage (.295) to the list as well is simply embarrassing. 

Not only did that Charlotte team lack quality, it was also completely devoid of cohesion and a definitive approach.

 

Charlotte Small Ball in 2012-13

The Bobcats certainly have embraced the small ball game plan so far this season. However, it must be acknowledged that Charlotte was hardly using contrastingly big lineups last year. The most used Bobcats' lineup in 2011-12 was D.J. Augustin, Gerald Henderson, Corey Maggette, Tyrus Thomas and Bismack Biyombo, who combined for just under 162 minutes. Thomas and Biyombo are the biggest players on that lineup at just 6'9".

If anything, the lineups that have been predominantly used this season by Mike Dunlap are actually bigger than those of last year. Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Byron Mullens and Brendan Haywod have all been on the three most used lineups so far this season, with Henderson, Ramon Sessions and Jeff Taylor being the only interchanging players.

The following chart shows the five most used lineups by the Bobcats this season. 

Both Haywood and Mullens are genuine seven footers and are part of the four most used teams for the Bobcats. So why is Charlotte's game plan being labeled as small ball?

Put simply, it's because they are getting out and running to maximize the effectiveness of their athleticism, which is what playing small ball essentially aims to achieve.

Of the lineups shown above, the three most used are +11, +8 and +5, respectively, so far this season. This highlights the marked improvement of the Bobcats.

With Henderson now back from injury to start alongside Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte has three true speedsters on the floor for a considerable stretch of time. That doesn't change when Taylor and Sessions enter the game, either. All five men are very athletic, so allowing them to harness their strengths and run is clearly working for the Bobcats.

The following chart shows the dramatic shift in Charlotte's offense this year.

Using their athleticism, the Bobcats have significantly increased the pace in which they play, ranked fourth in the league at 96.8 possessions per game. This increased pace is also seeing them get out in transition far more, reflected by the 16.7 fast break points per game, also good for fourth in the NBA.

The pace and transition opportunities are also having a profound impact on the team's points in the paint. Last season, the Bobcats were ranked 28th in that category, yet this year, they've shot up to 10th. By putting the ball in the hands of Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Sessions and Taylor, Coach Dunlap is encouraging these gifted athletes to attack the rim at every possible chance. Not only have the points in the paint risen, the Bobcats have shot up from 14th in the league to 5th in regards to free throw attempts at 25.3 per game. 

Where the Bobcats are getting their points from also shows the significant shift in Charlotte's offensive approach. The following chart shows the points per game averages for the team's six highest scorers.

The chart simply reinforces the type of approach the Bobcats are taking this season. Charlotte's three leading scorers are all guards, and five of the top six are all significant components of the athletic small ball game plan.

Yet while this offensive improvement can be somewhat expected in a high-octane system, the team has also made some significant strides on the defensive end.

By utilizing both Haywood and Mullens in the team's most used lineups, Dunlap has maintained considerable size and length behind three athletic perimeter players for the majority of this season. Not only has this led to improvement in the team's work on the glass, but it's also allowing them to press harder on the opposition out on the perimeter. Given that the likes of Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist and Taylor are all athletic at their positions, the defense on the wings has seen a significant improvement.

The following chart shows the magnitude of the team's improvement on the defensive end.

As can be seen, the Bobcats have significantly increased their rebounding performance, which is allowing them to control the game defensively to a greater extent, as well as allowing them get out and run after missed shots. 

Additionally, the increase in steals and blocks is showing that the extra pressure applied on the perimeter is forcing turnovers, which justifies Dunlap's use of his current lineups. 

With the increased levels of performance in perimeter defense and rebounding, it's no surprise the Bobcats have improved their defensive efficiency as well as their three-point and overall field goal defense.

Yet while all these statistical improvements are undoubtedly pleasing for Charlotte fans, it's the spectacle that the team is putting on that must be the most enjoyable aspect for a long-suffering fan base.

The youth on the team is taking chances, playing with risk, and doing everything they can to maximize their athletic ability. The following clip highlights this new mentality.

Kemba Walker makes a great play from a long-pass by Gerald Henderson

What must be even more pleasing for Charlotte is Kidd-Gilchrist's development in the small ball game plan in the early part of this season. In just 10 games, he's shown he can be an elite two-way player perfectly suited to this up-tempo style of play. Averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks, MKG's abilities in the Bobcats' new offense are on full display in the following clip.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's highlights against Dallas.

Given what occurred last season, a 6-4 record to this point is an outstanding achievement for Charlotte. As well as being a far superior team statistically this year, the Bobcats have also become a team worth watching again. The small ball approach with a high-octane style has had a profound impact, and given that they have absolutely nothing to lose this season, it would make sense to leave it that way.

All stats accurate as of Nov. 23.

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