Blogcat's Take, 11/21
Anytime I feel like this, my first move is to check out the strength of schedule. According to ESPN’s RPI rankings, the Hornets have played the 13th hardest schedule in the league so far (even factoring in last night’s game vs. Philly). That seems high, considering we’ve had the Knicks twice, the Nets, and the Sixers, and we’ve steered clear of superpowers other than San Antonio. Even the Hawks and Bulls, who are the other really good teams we’ve played, have been somewhat underwhelming (though RPI actually ranks Chicago second overall, behind only Golden State). On the other hand, it’s unclear how many superpowers there are this year after Cleveland, Golden State, and the Spurs (and with Kevin Durant looking depressingly more like Ralph Sampson every year); the league appears to have flattened out somewhat. The other bit of counterevidence to my hypothesis that we secretly stink is that based on the Pythagorean Method (Pythagoras being the creator of the Triangle Offense), the Hornets should be 8-5 and therefore have actually gotten slightly unlucky. Add it all up, and based on point-differential and strength-of-schedule, RPI has the Hornets ranked 12th in the league—very solidly middle class and in good shape to make the playoffs.
Once I sorted on RPI ranking, though, that familiar feeling I call Hornets Dread crept back in. First of all, of the twelve teams ranked above Charlotte, we’ve played just three of them. Secondly, RPI, which doesn’t care about aura or previous seasons, has an unsurprising top 4—Golden State, Chicago, Cleveland, and the Clippers—but the next 7 are really interesting: Detroit, Indiana, Washington, Memphis, Miami, New York, and the Spurs. So if you’re keeping score by conference, Charlotte is the 8th Eastern playoff seed right now. But I’m alarmed that three teams that I’m pretty sure will be ahead of us in the playoff race—Boston, Atlanta, and Toronto—are currently ranked behind us. This makes me think that—just as you probably don’t think Iowa has a better football team than Ohio State, regardless of what’s happened so far—there’s a flaw with only ranking teams based on production to date.
This brings me to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), where Charlotte is ranked 18th overall and 9th among Eastern Conference teams, which seems a lot more plausible. There’s some real disparity between the two rating systems here, as Atlanta, Boston, and Toronto are comfortably ahead of us in BPI rankings, and the Knicks are behind us. The trouble with BPI is that when you look at the explanation for how it ranks teams, there really isn’t one. For instance, it says it factors in “strength of opponent,” but it doesn’t say how; ditto with other factors like “rest,” “distance traveled,” and “preseason expectations.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s all above-board and backed by liner regressions and correlation coefficients and beta coefficients and other subjects I faked my way through in school. But it does remind me of the scene in Jurassic Park where the amazing feat of producing gigantic live dinosaurs is explained away with a cartoon character talking about mosquitoes and sap.
Anyway, I still don’t like our chances to make the playoffs, and the (possibly smoke-and-mirrors) BPI agrees with me. Plus, at the beginning of the year, I didn’t even consider that the Knicks might possibly be good. The other wild card out there is the Milwaukee Bucks, who I’m convinced are much better than they’ve played so far. Because we still haven’t gone head-to-head with those teams who we’ll really be slugging it out with for that final seed—Boston, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Detroit—it’s still really hard to say either way.
When I try to look further, all I get is more murk. For all of the fretting about the Charlotte’s poor rebounding, the second-chance points allowed, the points in the paint allowed, the non-existent rim protection, and the hits we’ve taken on defense without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo, the Hornets have a defensive rating of 101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, which is 14th best in the league and a whopping 0.1 worse than last year—in other words, hardly the end of the world. It’s true that with MKG on the court last year, we had a defensive rating of 96.3, and with Biyombo on the floor, it was 98.7. But the key phrase in that sentence is “on the floor,” as MKG only played 55 games and Biz only played in 64 games. Taken as a whole, our collective defense has not suffered as much as you might think, if only because our best contributors last year didn’t play a whole lot to begin with. Also, our defensive rebounding percentage, 80.6% is the second-best in the league. On paper and controlling for pace, the defense has been pretty respectable.
Further, if you look at how we’re defending by zone, there are no obvious weaknesses. Check out this chart:
First of all, we’re treating the restricted area like Christian fundamentalists treat pre-marital sex: it is off-limits, period; you ain’t going there and you ain’t scoring even if you try. Second, although opponents are good at scoring whenever they get a shot in the paint outside of the restricted area, we’re fairly decent at denying them those shots. Third, yes, we’re all-around lousy at defending the mid-range, but think of protecting mid-range jumpers like juggling or riding a unicycle: if you had to pick a skill to be lousy at, you’d pick this one, because it’s pretty useless. This is because mid-range shots are the least efficient shots in the league, so even if you’re bad at defending it, it’s probably not that big a deal. Then there’s the left corner 3, which—like the non-RA paint—is a problem if we allow it to happen, but we’re really good at not allowing it to happen. And finally, for both the right corner 3 and the above the break 3, we’re good-to-decent about preventing them. All in all, it’s a pretty encouraging diagnosis of our defense.
Going one step further, if you look at the best teams at shooting in the paint and at the mid-range, our two biggest weaknesses, only Milwaukee and Detroit are in the top 15 in FG% in either category that we should worry about, and only Milwaukee is top 15 in both. The rest are either way better than us anyway (like Cleveland), way worse (like Brooklyn), or are in the Western Conference. None of those other 8th seed scrappers are a huge threat in those areas.
But this is all burying the lead, because the real story is how our offensive efficiency has absolutely skyrocketed from 97.6 (28th ranked) last year to 105.5 (4th ranked) this year. You already know the primary reason for this: the explosion in 3-point attempts and makes is having all kinds of positive trickle-down effects. The other, less-hyped advanced stat that’s driving our efficiency is that we’ve got the best turnover rate in the league. However, we were also #1 in turnover rate last year, so really it’s the 3’s. We could also theoretically improve if we could get our best shooters even more involved. For instance, if Marvin Williams, who has one of the best TS% (57.3) of any of the regulars but who also has the lowest usage rate (13.7%) would quit summoning his power of invisibility, we’d probably be even more potent. But the bottom line is, whatever our weaknesses on defense may be, they’re more than made up for by our offensive gains. And if you’re going to give me a pill that cures my cancer, I’m not going to complain about its acne side effects.
So at least for right now, I’ve pretty much failed in my attempt to justify my paranoia, which is a good thing. I still have that dread, but the best evidence I can find for it is that BPI ranking. There is also the existential dread of the unknown, which in this case is our lack of head-to-head matchups with the 8th seed contenders. But I’m not seeing a lot on paper that would spell outright doom for us, and I’ve tried pretty hard. I feel like a Republican trying to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton’s emails: I’m still pretty convinced there’s a smoking gun, and I’m more willing to keep wasting time and money to find it, but I haven’t found it yet.
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