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The Bobcats’ Defensive Miracle

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The defensive performance of the Charlotte Bobcats this season has been nothing short of miraculous. To date they’ve been allowing just 100.8 points per 100 possessions, the seventh best defensive mark in the league. That’s a huge improvement from last season’s league worst mark of 108.9 points per 100 possessions. But the magic isn’t just in the numbers. It’s that the Bobcats have been able to pull it off with a starting frontcourt that features two of the league’s more suspect defenders — Al Jefferson and Josh McRoberts.

Up to this point Jefferson has been carefully cultivating a reputation widely as a defensive disaster, particularly in the pick-and-roll. If you’ve watched much of his play the past few seasons you know that this is a reputation that’s well-earned. McRoberts’ defense has never approached Jefferson’s on the unintentional comedy scale, but it’s also never really been taken seriously. Yet somehow the Bobcats have actually been able to create a stiff defensive interior this season with this pairing.

And it is this pairing that has helped form the backbone of this defense, as insane as that sounds. They’ve played 847 minutes together, nearly half of the Bobcats’ total, and the team has allowed just 100.5 points per 100 possessions when they’ve been on the floor, a mark even better than their season-long average.

In terms of opponent field goal percentage the Bobcats have the fifth best defense in the restricted area this season. They’ve also forced their opponents into the seventh most mid-range jumpers and while they do give up a lot of three-pointers, a relatively low percentage of the threes they allow come from the corners. But where they’ve really shined is about the last place you’d expect for a defense with Jefferson in the middle — defending the pick-and-roll. According to mySynergySports the Bobcats have allowed the eighth fewest points per possession on pick-and-roll possessions finished by either the ball handler or the screener.

In his last few seasons with the Utah Jazz the defensive expectations for Jefferson in the pick-and-roll were less rigid. He was often asked to hedge on ball-handlers, trying to stymie penetration on the perimeter. Lateral movement is not his strength and the more possibilities there are for directional changes in space, the more possibilities there are for the defense to collapse around him.

Here’s an example from the end of last season as Jefferson works to defend a pair of pick-and-rolls between LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Both times Jefferson hedges, rather softly, and the second time Lillard splits the two defenders, exploding to the rim for a dunk.

Hedging out on pick-and-rolls can be incredibly disruptive to a ball-handler but it requires a quick and mobile big man. It’s a fine strategy, but one that doesn’t play to Jefferson’s strengths. But the Bobcats have been using a more rigid defensive system than the Jazz, usually asking him NOT to hedge on ball-handlers, regardless of what personnel their opponents are using.

Like Roy Hibbert with the Pacers, or Marc Gasol with the Grizzlies, Jefferson’s standard responsibility this season is to sag back on pick-and-rolls keeping the ball-handler from getting to the rim.

This strategy pares down the possible variations for Jefferson and eliminates a lot of different avenues where his lack of lateral quickness could be exploited. As he retreats the ball-handler is usually presented with just two options in terms of creating a shot. The first is to take a pull-up jump shot, an outcome that the Bobcats are more than willing to concede given the alternative of the ball ending up all the way at the rim. The other option for the ball-handler is to continue attacking Jefferson off the dribble.

In this area of the court the negative impacts of Jefferson’s mobility are restricted. There is less space for him to operate in than on the perimeter and help defenders are usually closer. In addition, the ball-handler usually has built up a lot of forward momentum which pushes their movement in a single direction for Jefferson to react to.

Here Jefferson is sagging off a Greivis Vasquez pick-and-roll. You can see how the two additional help defenders pinch in, funneling Vasquez towards Jefferson. In this scenario, keeping Vasquez away from the front of the rim is a fairly simple task.

This strategy of Jefferson sagging off pick-and-rolls is not a defensive panacea. He’s not a fantastic defender even at the rim. And, while conceding mid-range jump shots is an advantageous strategy when stretched out across an entire season, on a game-by-game basis it came make them susceptible to torching by deadly pull-up shooters. For examples of this phenomenon, see the 43 points Stephen Curry hung on them in early December, or the 34 Kevin Durant put up just after Christmas.

That being said, it’s a careful calculation made by Steve Clifford and his staff that opening those holes in their defense are vastly preferable to the ones that are opened when Jefferson gets blown up trying to jump out and stop a ball-handler on the perimeter. By letting him retreat he gets to dictate the point of contact between himself and the ball handler. It’s not always played perfectly but it’s been wildly better than expected. In an ironic twist Jefferson’s poor defensive reputation has also been working to the Bobcats benefits at times. He’s still targeted in pick-and-rolls constantly, despite the fact that he’s doing a much better job with them.

Interestingly, while Jefferson’s responsibilities have become more defined and consistent in terms of staying close to the paint, McRoberts has a little more flexibility. He is considerably more mobile than Jefferson, but an overzealous nature and lack of awareness would often have him chasing his tail in the past. But this season’s he has been much more focused. He often defends pick-and-rolls the same as Jefferson but his athleticism lets him do it with a little more pressure.

Here, on a Raymond FeltonKenyon Martin pick-and-roll, he gives a soft hedge. He’s not sagging nearly as far back as Jefferson would have been, but he’s protecting against the pocket pass, inviting Felton into a long two-pointer all without surrendering an avenue to the rim.

The extra bit of footspeed McRoberts has lets him take the same basic strategy and implement it in a slightly more aggressive way. But it also gives Clifford and the Bobcats a big capable of defending the pick-and-roll slightly differently, when the situation calls for it.

Here the Clippers run two different pick-and-rolls involving McRoberts. With Blake Griffin and Darren Collison, both very good mid-range shooters, the Bobcats are interested in disrupting things a little more quickly. In both instances McRoberts is able to help cut off the ball-handler and still recover to his man.

In the past McRoberts probably would have flown past Collison or Griffin, or both, on that possession exposing all sorts of openings. But this season he’s kept his movements much more controlled and balanced, sometimes sacrificing a little bit of aggressiveness for the sake of maintaining positioning.

While McRoberts and Jefferson have both done an admirable job this season, the Bobcats’ wings also deserve plenty of credit. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson in particular have done a great job helping squeeze these pick-and-rolls into tighter spaces for their big men. Kemba Walker has also been much more aggressive at the point of attack.

When you pull back from this defensive miracle in Charlotte you can see that it’s less about magic and more about engineering. A few small changes have helped Jefferson and McRoberts make the most of the defensive potential they possess, which has in turn made the entire defensive system function at a higher level. Now if they could just figure out how to score some points . . .

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*About four hours after I posted this Carmelo Anthony blew a giant hole through the Bobcats defense, on his way to piling up 62 points. This would seem to undercut the arguments I made above but I’ll just point out that he was 13-18 (for 26 points) on mid-range jumpers, the exact shot that I said was still a vulnerability in their defense. Some nights that vulnerability will be exploited to embarrassing degrees. Last night was one of those nights.

** It has also been pointed out to me that over the past few weeks the Bobcats’ defense has been playing at a woefully inept level. I knew they had not been performing as well as they had to start the year, but I didn’t check the splits and missed just how bad the numbers have been lately. Poor research on my part.

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