During a summer that saw the addition of coach Steve Clifford and starting center Al Jefferson, the Charlotte Bobcats transformed from a comically poor defensive sieve to staunch defensive stalwart. Just take a look at the numbers:
Where ptsg — PPG, drtg — DRtg, dfgp — FG%, dfg2p — FG2%, dfg3p — FG3%, defgp — eFG%, dtsp — TS%, dtovp — TOV%, dft_fga — FT/FGA Ratio
*2014 statistics are sourced from basketball-reference.com, updated as of season-end
Most of these indicate a markedly better team defense year-over-year. The dramatic improvement in pace-adjusted points allowed (Drtg) is extremely impressive and can be largely attributed to holding opponents to a much lower shooting FG2%s. Based on opponent shooting %s, tov%, and FT/FGA ratio, the Bobcats appear to be playing a fundamental “pack the paint” defense with low amounts of gambling for steals (and possibly blocks), resulting in less vulnerable situations when players are prone to committing shooting fouls. The stark difference between allowed FG2% and FG3% indicates they are willing to sacrifice easier FG3A if they can protect the FG2 area. Combined with their low propensity for fouling, this strategy has worked, skyrocketing them from #28 to #5 in opponent TS%.
But how does MKG fit into all of this?
In the summer of 2012, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (MKG) was drafted #2 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats for his athleticism, competitiveness, and potential. He was a very raw prospect on the offensive end of the game, but it was almost a forgone conclusion that his lock-down defense would translate well to the NBA. And ever since he arrived in the NBA, he’s been tasked with shutting down opposing swingmen.
So when I saw that Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James dropped career high 62 and 61 points on the Bobcats, I was shocked. MKG must have been assigned to defending both of those players, so how could they both score career highs against the Bobcats? Allowing 60 points once in a season is generally not much for a double-take, but two 60-point games against one of the better defenses in the league drops another blip on the radar that warrants a deeper investigation. (This also sounds like an opportunity to use a little Bayes Theorem to predict that probability, but maybe at a later time.)
Without access to player/ball coordinate data or advanced play-by-plays, I analyzed the games the old fashioned way, with my eyes and a whole lot of pausing video. I was mostly interested in MKG’s individual defense, so I used a framework developed by Vantage Sports (blog.cacvantage.com) on shot defense. In their shot defense framework, they categorize shot attempts into 5 classes, verbatim from their blog:
Altered shot: Defender is within 3 feet of shooter and hand is up. Offensive player must change shooting angle or release point while in the air.
Contested shot: Defender is within 3 feet of shooter and hand is up. Offensive player does not alter shooting angle or release point.
Pressured shot: Defender is within 3 feet of shooter but does not have his hand up.
Guarded shot: Defender is within 5 feet of shooter but not within 3 feet.
Open shot: Defender is not within 5 feet of shooter.
It’s important to note that for this study I’m mostly interested in the process of MKG’s defense, rather than the results.
Against Carmelo Anthony 01/24/2014
Using this system, I tracked the 01/24/2014 NYK vs CHA game and identified all the offensive possessions which were finished by Carmelo Anthony (either through FGA, FTA, PF, or TOV). Below shows the shot defense that Carmelo trounced on his way to a career high. He was matched against MKG, Anthony Tolliver, Josh McRoberts, and Gerald Henderson as primary defenders, and occasionally against Ramon Sessions/Al Jefferson/Bismack Biyombo as PnR and transition mismatches.
Assuming altered and contested shots constitute “good” defense, the majority of Carmelo’s shots are well defended, 54% classified as being altered and contested. Comparing Carmelo’s defenders, it appears that MKG holds his ground very well–69% of Carmelo’s shot attempts are altered/contested when MKG is involved, whereas only 45% when he is not. On top of that, MKG does not allow him any open shots.
Before we even look at the results of these offensive possessions, let’s add more context to the Bobcats defense by determining how Carmelo uses his offensive possessions and how they are defended. It is well known that Carmelo heavily favors iso offense, and this game is no different. He employs it on 63% of his 41 offensive possessions. When faced against MKG as the primary defender, this number is even more skewed with Carmelo going iso on 12/14 (85%) takes.
When isolated against MKG, Carmelo attacks with an even distribution of both spot-ups and off-the-dribble moves. He’s able to draw two non-shooting fouls against MKG, otherwise Carmelo is clamped down by tight defense, 80% of his attempts against MKG are altered/contested. Against other Charlotte defenders, Carmelo is similarly challenged, though only 67% of his attempts are altered/contested.
The remainder of Carmelo’s offensive attack comes on 1) picks/screens (12%), and 2) transition/offensive rebound opportunities (24%). It’s to be noted that Carmelo very infrequently uses PnR to drop MKG as a primary defender and create mismatches. This is unusual considering the shot defense in PnR/screen situations are much worse, only 25% of these Carmelo’s shots were altered/contested by the Bobcats. However, he is often able to create favorable matchups in transition against the slower PF and smaller SG/SF that he guards on the other end. As expected, these are even more difficult to defend and only 14% are altered/contested.
Against LeBron James (LBJ) 03/03/2014
In terms of “good” shot defense, the Bobcats were worse against LeBron than Carmelo. As a team, they were able to alter/contest only 45% of LeBron’s shot attempts. With MKG involved, the shot defense against LeBron was unchanged at 44% altered/contested. This is a drastic change from his 69% rate against Carmelo, except there is a big difference. LBJ heavily uses PnR to break free from MKG. Isolating the possessions when MKG is the primary defender shows that he once again produces a high rate (62%) of altered/contested shot defense against LBJ. However, that also means that whenever MKG switched off from LBJ and becomes the secondary defender, shot defense is significantly worse evidenced by the fact that those helpless defenders failed to register even a single altered/contested shot. Interestingly enough, without MKG, LeBron could not get any open shots at all.
Looking closer into LBJ’s offensive possession usage reveals LeBron’s offense is vastly more diverse than Carmelo’s. LBJ most frequently employs the help of another player, in the form of a pick/screen, for 19 of his 41 possessions (46%). LeBron correctly used this strategy since an entire team effort from the Charlotte Bobcats could muster up only 4 total altered/contested shots against his PnR/screens. MKG was particularly vulnerable in these situations, unable to register a single alter/contest regardless of whether he was the primary or secondary defender.
In iso situations (37% of his possessions), the Bobcats were incredibly effective against LBJ, putting up good shot defense in 73% of those possessions!! MKG bolstered that defense, logging altered/contested shots in 89% of the 9 LBJ iso possessions against him.
Lastly, it is surprising to see that LBJ uses the fewest possessions in oreb/transition (17%). He was frighteningly effective in these, and Charlotte couldn’t get a single alter/contest against him in 7 opportunities. The good news for MKG is that he completely eliminates transition opportunities for LBJ, as all of his transition possessions come at the expense of other defenders. Also he gives up only 1 oreb possession to LeBron.
So… what does this all mean? Despite the scoring by Carmelo and LeBron, MKG played good individual defense, forcing a higher rate of altered/contested shot attempts than any of his other teammates. However, he and his team struggle in PnR and screen situations, which they’ll need to improve going into the playoffs. While Carmelo never took advantage of this, LeBron exploited this weakness time and time again. These two games also show MKG is superb in transition defense, completely eliminating these opportunities for both Carmelo and LBJ.
Too bad good defense was crushed by better (or luckier) offense.