Mike Dunlap had an ambitious vision on defense when the Charlotte Bobcats hired him last June.
He came in set on installing a system (h/t Rich Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer) that involved zone and full-court pressure. The plan also employed a three-quarter trap to play takeaway defense and burn opponents’ time on the 24-second shot clock.
It was an ideal strategy, and it seemed to be working for the Bobcats after their 7-5 start.
But Charlotte has now won just four games in a two-month stretch and is struggling as one of the weakest defensive teams in the league.
Mike Dunlap’s Defensive Philosophy
Dunlap, in December, was reported as saying that quick feet and trust are the non-negotiable ways he wants his Bobcats to play defense.
For one, he likes to overload the strong side, where four defenders crowd the lane.
If a player is about to shoot, four Bobcats defenders collapse, hoping to force a turnover and to burn the shot clock.
It was a promising beginning for the Bobcats, and players like Kemba Walker were on board for Dunlap’s plan.
“You have to be your brother’s keeper,” Walker told the Charlotte Observer. “When someone gets beat, you help him out and trust your teammates behind you to be where you leave.”
In an interview with Bonnell in July, Dunlap said he told his players to not get discouraged when their zone D gives up open shots. He said he could live with a trade off that essentially helps protect his big men.
This defense was especially sound when the Bobcats defeated the Indiana Pacers, 89-90, on Nov. 2.
Here, Dunlap’s scheme works as a sea of white jerseys swarm the lane to pressure the ball.
Center Byron Mullens’ block forced a shot-clock violation with 35 seconds left. The Bobcats would keep the Pacers from scoring another bucket to seal the upset.
Unfortunately, Dunlap’s defense has not worked too much in his favor since then.
Why It Fails
Dunlap wasn’t the first coach to try to use full-court pressure and trap defense in the NBA.
Too bad the trend did not take off.
By the time the lockout-shortened, 50-game season started in 1999, players were too pissed off about their contracts to think about applying full pressure on the ball for 48 straight minutes.
Simmons asked Pitino in his 2009 column about why "underdog" teams do not use the press more often. Pitino said it's because most coaches cannot get their players to work that hard.
Enter Dunlap’s problem.
On paper, Dunlap’s defense could be brilliant and help any decent team make a postseason appearance. He certainly looked brilliant when the Bobcats sparked early in the season with a 7-5 start.
Then reality sunk in.
Charlotte is tied for 29th in points allowed, letting up 102.9 points per game. They have a minus-8.4 point differential with their 94.5 point-per-game average, which is the largest margin in the league.
In short, the Bobcats have a pitiful defense.
The players look painfully exhausted on this play.
A team with great ball movement can dismantle Charlotte's defense in a heartbeat, where flailing arms and sloppy guarding takes over.
Opponents started to see how the hyperactive Bobcats would exhaust themselves after they continued to rush after every pass thrown by an opponent.
It’s obvious that Dunlap’s defense isn’t working. It was even reported that he has since scaled down his original scheme.
It’s already tough to get college players to dedicate 40 minutes of extreme pressure, so asking a multi-millionaire to do it might as well be forgotten.
Simmons put it best in his column: players who carry $10s and $20s in their wallets are better suited for this type of defense than guys who carry $100s.
The latter are the ones who trot up and down the court, full of defensive apathy.
In the Bobcats' case, Dunlap simply needs to find players he could utilize best for his system.
Should NBA Teams Press More?
There are times when being unconventional can be inconvenient. Dunlap now has to reconfigure his strategy before his team completely implodes.