Friday, November 16, 2012

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Expedited Delivery

I am watching a good amount of Bobcats basketball these days. No, I’ve not moved to Charlotte. No wagers were lost. My remote is just fine, thank you.

You see, the 2012-13 Charlotte Bobcats are actually pretty good and, yes, a pleasure to watch. Alright, maybe “pretty good” ought to be graded on a curve, but 4-3 for a squad whose unconscionably inept predecessors found a win in every nine outings a bridge too far is cause for optimism, if not out and out celebration. Playoff talk is a bit premature, but a meteoric (yes, meteoric) rise to 11th, even 10th, in the East is not out of the question. Given the state of affairs in Washington and Detroit, the forthcoming slap of reality heading for Orlando and the prospect of injuries derailing a mid-pack squad (like you can’t see the Sixers losing Holiday while Bynum YOLO’s his rehab into February), as many as five East teams could end the season look up at the ‘Cats.

Beyond the strong start, the Bobs boast a perimeter trio (apologies to former Lakerland hero Ramon Sessions and future poor man’s Jason Terry, Ben Gordon) capable of serving as the foundation for, I dunno, something positive. Gerald Henderson (currently out with a sprained left foot, but due back by December) is not a star, but the fourth year man is a solid defender and possesses a mid-range game that should make him a solid glue guy for some time. Then there’s the 2011-12 preseason Hype Rookie of the Year, Kemba Walker. A disappointing rookie year under his belt, Kemba’s a different player this year (a great read on his improvement from Ben Swanson at Rufus on Fire), both statistically, where he is more productive (19 points, 5.1 assists and 2.9 steals per game, compared with 21.1, 4.4 and 0.9 a year ago) and more efficient (51.4% True Shooting, 86.5% FT, 25.1 USG, compared with 46.4%, 78.9% and 25.2 a year ago), as well as in presence. The team is looking to Walker be its star, and this year he’s down to give it his best shot.

As valuable as Walker has been to this team, however, the most valuable member of the Bobcats might be a man whose NBA resume consists of just seven NBA contests, largely against subpar competition. It’s worth noting, however, that this “subpar competition” is even a thing, given the rust standard for subpar competition set by this franchise over the past decade.

That Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s efficient, all-around contribution from the starter’s pistol has contributed to a world in which the Charlotte Bobcats are no longer dismissed out of hand is an achievement unto itself. You might once again point out that it’s only been seven games. I’d counter that small samples are more likely to work against a 19 year old at the start of his rookie campaign than they are in his favor. In barely two weeks, Gilchrist has not only shown himself to be NBA ready, but made a huge impact at both ends of the floor. He’s not a polished offensive player – as evidenced by a .67 Assist/Turnover ratio and a Turnover Rate (13.75%) well above the league average (~10%) for a swingman – but does an excellent job of playing to his strengths – setting screens for others, crashing the boards and getting to the bucket.

At 6’7”-230, MKG is built for the NBA game. Beyond that, he is a hypercompetitive workaholic that just knows how to play the game. He’s rarely rattled or out of control. Absent are the mental lapses and boneheaded plays that are so common in players this young and inexperienced. In short, bad stuff seems to happen less frequently when MKG is on the floor. Do the numbers bear it out?

Join me if you will, at center stage of the Comically Small Sample Size Theater, where we will consider…

In just under 28 minutes per game, Gilchrist is averaging 11.1 points with a True Shooting Percentage of 54.5%. He’s attempting 3.4 free throws per game, connecting on 79.1%. More impressive is his .46 Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA), nearly double the league average for swingmen (.242) and tied for fifth (with Manu Ginobili) among 2s and 3s.

Of his 8.7 field goal attempts per game, nearly two thirds (5.6; of which he’s making 64.1%) are at the rim. In fact, of his 27 made field goals, all but three have come from within four feet. The only other shot he’s dialing up with any frequency is the dreaded “long 2,” though he’s attempting just 1.9 shots per game from 16-23 feet out. He’ll do well to avoid a Josh Smith-esque fetish for the feel of the 3-point line on his heels, but reality is that an 18.5 Adjusted PER is not bad for a guy with a sub-20 Usage Rate that wasn’t supposed to contribute much offensively right away. And we haven’t even grazed the good stuff!

On the boards, MGK already ranks among the best at his position, and is potentially one of the best offensive rebounders of the non-big lot. Of his 6.9 rebounds per game, 2.4 – best among NBA swingmen – are corralled at the offensive end. His rebounding rates do little to hurt the argument: his 13.3% Total Rebound Rate ranks in the top 10 among swingmen and his 17.6% Defensive Rebound Rate places him in the top 20 among wings. Again, however, it’s on the offensive glass where he is at his best, sports an 9.1% Offensive Rebound Rate, more than double the 3.5% league average for swingmen (15+ minutes per game), trailing only Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker (12.6%) and Magic rookie Moe Harkless (12.5%).

And then we’ve got the defensive end, where Gilchrist was supposed to earn his NBA stripes – and has not disappointed. He’s averaging more than a steal per game, though this is owed almost entirely to five against the Mavericks on November 3. He has, however, immediately established himself as one of the NBA’s best shot blockers on the wing. MKG is averaging 1.7 blocks per game (only Andrei Kirilenko’s 2.0 is higher among non-bigs), swatting 5.1% of the shots with which he’s presented – 15th in the league, ahead of both Josh Smith and Joakim Noah – and has blocked a shot in all but one game thus far, with multiple blocks on four occasions.

Impressive in a vacuum, certainly, but what’s truly incredible has been MKG’s impact on the overall performance if the Bobcats – who have ascended from historical atrocity to, well, loftier heights. It’s frankly staggering. Credit where is it due to his teammates for their work, but man…

Per, when MKG is on the floor the Bobcats secure 51.7% of available rebounds, compared to just 43.3% when he’s on the bench. Interestingly, on the offensive glass the dropoff is slightly less pronounced – 32% with MKG on the floor; 27.5% when he’s off – while at the defensive end, Charlotte is grabbing an awesome 71.8% of available boards with MKG on the floor, and 60.7% when he is not.

Crazier still, in the 194 minutes in which MKG has seen the floor, the Bobs’ offense is a fantastic 13.8 points per 100 possessions (106.6 vs. 92.8) better than in the 147 in which he’s sat, while at the other end the Bobcats are a whopping 11.5 points per 100 possessions better (97.9 surrendered, compared with 109.4) when he plays, compared to when he does not. If my math is correct – well, actually, assuming the gift of reading numbers has not yet deserted me – the Charlotte Bobcats are a silly 25.3 points per 100 possessions better when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is on the floor than when he is not.

For the sake of comparison, the New Orleans Hornets are actually a point per 100 worseTWENTY points per 100 worse on D – with Anthony Davis on the floor (Note: Davis has played v. the Spurs, Bobcats and Rockets and got hurt 14 minutes in against the Jazz, while sitting against the Bulls and 76ers), and Portland – they of the “war crime against competitive endeavor” second unit – is nearly eight points per 100 better with Damian Lillard on the floor, though it’s worth noting they’ve been outscored when Lillard is on the floor (-2.2/100) as well as when he is on the bench (-9.9/100).

Now, unless Gilchrist has immediately hit the ground running as one of the greatest players in NBA history, the impact of his presence on the floor is likely to regress some. The overarching fact, however, is that MKG – drafted as much for his capabilities without the ball as for those with it – has delivered all the Bobcats dared hope for as they spent the #2 overall pick to secure his services, and in so doing is playing a vital role in inspiring hope in a situation that very recently was completely desolate.