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Sifting the Rubble (01/21)

January 21, 2010
The NBA's Hottest Team
The Charlotte Bobcats

by Kevin Pelton

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Some would say that picking a team of the decade may be a little premature, given we've not quite completed three weeks of the 2010s yet. Nonetheless, suffice it to say that the early, early, early frontrunner is an unlikely candidate: the Charlotte Bobcats. Wednesday's blowout win over the Miami Heat was the Bobcats' sixth consecutive and improved them to 9-1 in the month of January. Even accounting for the fact that seven of the 10 games have been played at Time Warner Arena, where Charlotte is now an incredible 18-4 this season, the Bobcats have the best schedule-adjusted point differential of any team this month.

Team            Adj. PD
-----------------------
Charlotte        10.2
Utah              9.6
Cleveland         7.1
L.A. Lakers       6.3
Memphis           6.1
Denver            5.0
San Antonio       3.7
Oklahoma City     3.7
Portland          3.4
Toronto           2.5

Charlotte's season could be broken down into three sections. There were the first nine games of the season, when the Bobcats were excellent defensively but far and away the league's worst offensive team. That changed when Charlotte dealt for Stephen Jackson. The addition to Jackson, along with some regression to the mean from the Bobcats' other players, helped the team become competent offensively. Between the trade for Jackson and the end of December, Charlotte went 9-12 with a +31 point differential. Then there are the last 10 games, during which the Bobcats have been putting tons of points on the board while remaining as stifling as ever at the defensive end.

Dates          ORtg   DRtg   Record
-----------------------------------
10/28-11/14    93.4   101.3    3-6
11/16-12/30   103.8   102.7    9-12
1/2-present   113.8   101.4    9-1

Over the course of the season, the 113.8 Offensive Rating Charlotte has put up in the last 10 games would rank the team second only to the Phoenix Suns in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Bobcats' Defensive Rating would lead the league over the course of the season. That's not saying much, though, since Charlotte is second in the league defensively overall, trailing only the L.A. Lakers. The real surprise has been the Bobcats' ability to put the ball in the hoop, heretofore a major liability.

Instead of an addition making the difference, the most likely cause seems to be a subtraction. In late December, starting center Tyson Chandler was diagnosed with a stress reaction--the precursor to a stress fracture--in his left foot. While the run did not start immediately after his injury--the team was 1-2 in three games to close out 2009 without Chandler--he has missed the sensational last 10 games. Chandler spent time in a protective walking boost and only resumed running this week. Charlotte has been a better offensive team without the limited Chandler, who has used just 14.4 percent of the Bobcats' possessions this season while on the floor.

In Chandler's absence, Charlotte has gotten good minutes from Nazr Mohammed, his replacement in the starting lineup who is playing the best basketball of his career and shooting 57.6 percent from the field while using possessions at an above-average rate (22.6 percent). Another factor is the time the Bobcats have spent with small lineups on the floor. When Chandler was healthy, the team played true centers (Chandler, Mohammed, DeSagana Diop and a handful of minutes for Alexis Ajinca) about 39 minutes per game. Since Chandler went out, Diop and Mohammed have combined for just under 30 minutes, meaning Charlotte is spending nearly a third of games playing with a forward--usually Boris Diaw--in the middle. These lineups, which often move Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace down a position to make room for Flip Murray, offer improved floor spacing and shooting.

On paper, replacing Chandler with the offensive-minded Mohammed and smallball should translate into an improvement on offense, if perhaps not one so dramatic as the Bobcats have seen. The expectation would also be that some or all of that improvement would be given up at the defensive end, especially using the 6'8" Diaw in the middle. That has not been the case. Instead, Charlotte has been crushing teams defensively, culminating in last night's dominant effort against the Heat. Miami mustered just 65 points and a 73.1 Offensive Rating, the lowest allowed by the Bobcats this season. From what I saw of the game, Charlotte did a great job of contesting shots, with smaller players flying around the floor and rotating well defensively. The numbers also show the Bobcats putting opponents on the free throw line less frequently in the last 10 games without sacrificing much in the way of shot defense.

This all raises the question of whether Charlotte is better off without Chandler. The Bobcats are 11.1 points worse per 100 possessions with Chandler on the floor this season, a trend that was apparent but not as extreme before he was injured. Chandler's individual stats are little better, and a drop from his best year ins New Orleans. When he returns, I would suggest giving Chandler Diop's minutes but continuing to use the small lineups. With Diaw in the middle, the Bobcats have outscored opponents by 5.9 points per 48 minutes.

The downside of that strategy, and part of what makes the way Charlotte has played this month unsustainable, is that it has meant a lot of minutes for the Bobcats' starters. Wallace has averaged 43.4 minutes per game since Chandler went out, Jackson 40.0 and Diaw 37.3. Larry Brown has been relying heavily on that trio of players all year long, and an injury to any of them would be painful.

Charlotte also can expect to cool down from beyond the arc. After hitting just 30.7 percent of their three-pointers in the first two months of the season, the Bobcats have heated up to 43.6 percent in the month of January, helping explain why their offense has been so potent.

Despite those more ominous notes, Charlotte has established itself as the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference. Miami may be just a half-game back in the standings, with Toronto also close, but both of those teams have been outscored on the season while the Bobcats have a +2.1 point differential. So far, the East has looked like a four-team conference, but Atlanta, Boston and Orlando have all struggled for various reasons in the month of January while Charlotte is surging, so it is possible that the Bobcats could end up making some noise in what would be their first trip ever to the postseason.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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