If a month ago I offered to bet you that 13 games into the season, the Charlotte Bobcats would be 7-6, and alone in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, how much would you have been willing to wager?
$100? $1000? Your car? Your first-born child?
You would have lost that hypothetical bet, now hand over your hypothetical child.
Unsplicably, disfathomably, preposterageously, the Charlotte Bobcats matched their win total from all of last season less than 15% of the way through this one (and in case you were wondering, yes, this is so ridiculudicrous that it deserves four made-up words to describe it).
Once you move past the shock, or, in my case, the sheer, unadulterated terror that comes with the possibility that everything you know thought you knew about the NBA is a lie, you start to think about how the universe would allow something like this to happen.
Last season, the Bobcats finished comfortably in last place in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their offense was so much worse than the rest of the league, in fact, that the distance between them (95.2 points/100 possessions) and the 29th-ranked offense (Toronto at 100.8) was almost as large as the distance between 29th and eighth (Miami at 106.6). To geek out a bit more, their score was 2.89 standard deviations below the league average. I don’t have a full data set in front of me, but I’ve never seen a score more than three standard deviations above or below league average on offense or defense. In other words, anecdotally statistically speaking, the 2012 Bobcats may have been the worst offensive team in the history of basketball.
They did this by managing to not shoot the ball very often, and by shooting hilariously poorly when they did shoot. They were just 27th in offensive rebounding percentage, and 16th in turnover percentage, so they were towards the bottom of the league in shots per 100 possessions. When they did shoot, they were dreadful, clocking in dead last with an eFG% of 43.9%, the worst showing of any team in 13 years.
This year, they’ve improved on offense, if only by a little. They currently sit 27th in offensive efficiency with a score of 99.4 (prior to Monday’s laugher against Oklahoma City, they were in 24th). They’ve improved just about across the board in terms of Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors,” going from 30th to 29th in eFG% (yawn), but 16th to 7th in turnover percentage, 27th to 17th in offensive rebound percentage, and 16th to 6th in foul rate. Much of this improvement can be traced back to two players – Ramon Sessions and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Sessions was brought in as a free agent to replace the departed D.J. Augustin (and by that I mean he signed with another team, not died, contrary to what anyone who watches Indiana on a regular basis might tell you). Sessions has been a noticeable upgrade over Augustin as a result of his robust foul rate. Augustin shot .24 free throws for every field goal attempt he had last season (which is so pedestrian that cars have to stop for it); Sessions has doubled that with a foul rate of .51 so far this season.
Kidd-Gilchrist also sports a healthy foul rate of .46, but that’s actually lower than that of the player whose minutes he’s largely replacing from last year’s team, Corey Maggette. Drawing fouls has long been Maggette’s lone redeeming quality, and last year was no exception, with a foul rate of .56. Where Kidd-Gilchrist provides an upgrade is on the offensive glass. Just as hustle-y as advertised coming out of Kentucky, MKG grabs 8.5% of available misses on the offensive glass, which is fourth in the league among qualifying small forwards.
Where Charlotte has made the most headway, however, is defensively. After finishing dead last in defensive efficiency last year at 110.4, they’ve actually clawed their way close to league average at 105.4 this year. The biggest difference between this year and last year is that they’ve stopped giving up a lot of uncontested shots at the rim. Last season, Charlotte allowed 30.8 field goal attempts at the rim per game, by far the most in the league. Teams shot 63.3% on those attempts, a slightly less-horrific 9th-worst in the league. This year, they’ve surrounded the rim with barbed wire and hired that guy that hit Nazis in the head with a baseball bat from Inglorious Basterds to patrol the basket area. They’re still surrendering a lot of shots at the rim (27.9 per game, third-most in the league), but opponents are making just 61.5% of them, which is the 7th-best mark in the league. And, entering Monday’s game against Oklahoma City, they sat at 58.3%, which was the BEST mark in the league.
That sound you just heard was your own mind blowing.
While all of this is good news, there are a few trends that won’t continue and should be noted. First of all, teams are shooting just 71.3% on free throws against Charlotte, the fourth-lowest percentage in the league. Unless there’s something special about the Bobcats that scares people into missing free throws (Byron Mullens’ homely mug?), that number will regress back towards league average. Second, and more importantly, the Bobcats have been disproportionately lucky in close games. They’re currently 6-0 in games decided by four points or less, and 1-6 in all other games. Statistically speaking, even for the best teams, close games aren’t really more than a coin-flip proposition, so that type of success isn’t sustainable over the long term. They have a negative scoring margin (-5.69, which suggests they should be 4-9, not 7-6), and they’ve done it while playing the league’s third-easiest schedule, according to the Strength of Schedule rankings on basketball-reference.com. As their schedule becomes more difficult (like, right now, for instance – their next 9 games are all against teams currently .500 or better) and their luck in close games regresses towards the mean, they’ll fall out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. That 45-point loss to the Thunder can be read as a violent regression.
The Bobcats clearly aren’t going to be a 13-win train wreck like some idiots predicted them to be (oh, wait, I did that? Forget I said anything then), but they also aren’t going to win 44 games, either (which is their current pace). A renewed prediction for Charlotte would probably put them around 25 wins, which, all things considered, is nothing to sneeze at a year after setting an NBA record for futility.