This season isn't much different from most years for the Charlotte Bobcats. The team lacks offensive firepower, their playoff chances are slim and a spot in the NBA draft lottery seems all but assured. Even in the weak Eastern Conference, the Bobcats are one of the least-talented teams.
Yet on the defensive end, the Bobcats are near the top of the chart in the entire league. Considering that the only major personnel move this offseason was the addition of Al Jefferson—a slow-footed, disinterested defender at best—this newfound strength is somewhat shocking.
As Jared Dubin of Bloomberg Sports notes, there are numerous statistical factors to explain this resurgence on the defensive end: The redistribution of shots in the restricted area and corners to the mid-range and much-improved rim protection, to name a few.
From a schematic standpoint, the Bobcats do an excellent job varying their coverage style. On the pick-and-roll, Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller and Josh McRoberts drop, hedge or blitz, while their athletic guards scramble to cover the weak side.
But the larger key to Charlotte's defensive success is rim protection. Rim-protecting bigs are as valuable as ever in today's NBA.
The reason boils down to a seismic shift in defensive philosophy in the NBA. In recent years, teams have stopped trying to prevent every kind of bucket and instead have encouraged opponents into taking mid-range jumpers over layups and threes—a statistically sound approach.
Yet this has an opposite effect, which, if not carefully tracked and managed, can have an adverse effect: An over-reliance on running shooters off the three-point line and squeezing the paint leaves the mid-range almost too open.
While the mid-range jumper may represent the least-valuable shot on a points-per-possession basis, it's crucial to remember that these stats are gathered on the aggregate. The league-wide average is a giant mix of open and contested mid-range looks. And while the mid-range shot typically yields a mid-to-low-40s make percentage, defenses that force shots in this area while doing a poor job of contesting them give up a higher percentage of makes. Unguarded looks, no matter where they are on the floor, are always solid shots.
Steve Clifford's Bobcats have simplified the equation one step further, choosing instead to take away everything at the rim first and foremost.
Because they don't have that singular rim protector, such as a Roy Hibbert, who can do the job by himself (Indiana, therefore, has the luxury of being able to shut down the three-point line with everyone else), Charlotte uses an array of pressures and scrambles to keep opponents out of the paint.
Though they're only 11th in the league in defensive field-goal percentage around the rim in non-post-up situations according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), only 25.7 percent of opponent shots come in the restricted area. That's good for seventh in the league—which is to say that Charlotte doesn't let opponents get to the rim very often, and they protect it well when a shot does go up in that area.
This is how it works with the X's and O's: No matter how the Bobcats defend the initial action—whether it's a pick-and-roll, dribble handoff or isolation, the instinctual recovery scramble is towards the paint.
Check out this Jodie Meeks throw-and-chase pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol. As Meeks tries to turn the corner on Gasol, Jefferson is in a drop and backs off. He is encouraging the pull-up jumper with this play. This is a technique used by many teams, but the Bobcats take it to an entirely different level with second and third levels of help.
Notice the rest of Charlotte's defenders beginning to create a wall. Gerald Henderson, guarding Kobe Bryant on the right wing, begins to peel off towards the left elbow. Jeff Taylor slides up towards the right elbow. Even Josh McRoberts, who is battling under the basket, begins creeping up in front of the rim. Meeks hasn't even turned the corner yet and the ball is 20 feet away from him.
Charlotte wants to greet the ball-handlers with a wall of defenders up high. They want the ball-handler to see five sets of eyes glaring back. They want the paint to look like a no-fly zone. Many teams might sag back a little in order to be in better position should the wing players fade to the corner for a three-pointer on a drive-and-kick, but not Charlotte. Every player loads up in the paint any time there's the slightest scent of possible penetration.
This time, Charlotte goes with a trap of Kobe Bryant far away from the hoop to get the ball out of his hands. It doesn't work very well, as Kobe is able to wiggle around it.
As Gasol rolls away from the ball pressure, Ramon Sessions properly rotates to "chuck" Gasol, meaning he momentarily guards him to prevent an easy pass to the rim. He then immediately recovers to his original man.
But look how far Sessions rotates. He's all the way across the court, and Nick Young is wide open in the corner. Again, this is what Charlotte wants. Throw that long, cross-court pass. They think they're athletic enough to recover and that the gamble to load up on the strong side is worth possibly giving up a three-pointer.
Sessions gets back in time, and Young jacks a bad shot. But yes, this does occasionally lead to poor coverage of the three-point line, as the Bobcats are near the bottom of the league in three-point field-goal percentage against. But opponents are only shooting jump shots against them, and that's a win in their book.
Here, Kobe Bryant drives middle. Look what happens when he gets close:
Charlotte swarms recklessly, and Kobe's only option is to kick it out to Gasol.
There's a psychological component to this type of defense, too: Teams that can't get near the rim consistently will be more likely to wildly attack and not take what's given. If an opponents wants to go four-against-one in the paint, Charlotte is fine with that.
In fact, it's what they want.
Whether or not Charlotte's defense will hold up in the long term is hard to say. This is a young team with a new head coach and much of the time this kind of enthusiasm wears off. Particularly in a scramble defense, teams can get into trouble if the energy is not there.
But thus far into the season, Charlotte has certainly found a formula for defensive success.