Charlotte Bobcats' adjustments have led to early success

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comNovember 18, 2012 

This is a before-and-after story: The Charlotte Bobcats have played eight games. In the first four, opponents averaged 110 points and 50 percent shooting. In the next four, opponents averaged 89 points and 37 percent shooting.

They were 1-3 in the first four and 3-1 in the next four. Clearly not a coincidence.

What changed? Some of it was scheme. Some of it was attitude. The coach, an experimenter by nature, pulled back on his pressure defense and matchup zone. Those are weapons and he’ll keep using them. Just not over-using them.

And the players realized that in a defense-first agenda, they were under-performing big time.

“It’s about our energy,” said forward Byron Mullens, who was never seen as a defender before this season. “And it was coach really getting on us.

“We can be really good on defense. It’s all the emphasis in practice.”

From Day One new coach Mike Dunlap said this team would value defense above all. It seems the message registered after a lifeless 107-99 loss in New Orleans to the Hornets. The Hornets aren’t a particularly good team and they toyed with the Bobcats in the second half.

Dunlap adjusted. He backed off on the gadget stuff – frequent pressing and heavy reliance on a matchup zone. And the players stepped up their effort dramatically.

Dunlap said he realized too many players were being asked to defend in “space.” That’s coach-speak for asking a player to cover more ground than he reasonably can.

“We were kind of confused at times,” said point guard Ramon Sessions. “He would call that and some would go back in man and some would go back in zone. We were on different pages. We’ve played a lot of man lately and that’s been good.”

NBA teams have incorporated zone defenses the past few years, but it’s not typically their base scheme. It wasn’t base for the Bobcats, either, but they used it frequently. Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle noted the Bobcats played 47 defensive possessions in zone in the teams’ first meeting. The Mavs made nine of 19 threes against that scheme and won by 27.

“Playing a zone is already different in this league. A lot of guys don’t do it,” Sessions said. “And when you press, too, and then you play zone, you wonder: Do I pressure the ball or sit back?”

Fellow guard Kemba Walker said part of the progress is improved communication. Defense is about calling out screens and covering for each other. That requires familiarity, and the Bobcats have six new players this season.

“We were giving up way too many points – that was just a little ridiculous,” Walker said. “We did a better job of communicating. After that New Orleans game, coach really emphasized where we should be in our rotations.”

None of this particularly surprises Sessions, because this team has a good work ethic, and that counts for plenty on defense.

“I knew we’d have to scramble a lot. We didn’t have the best talent,” Sessions said. “But this is a working team.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129

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