Life hasn’t been much fun of late for the Charlotte Bobcats. Just seven victories were notched last season, setting a record for the lowest winning percentage in league history. With a 25 percent chance for the first pick in the 2012 draft, they watched helplessly as the New Orleans Hornets -- with a 13.7 percent chance -- hit the lottery six weeks after David Stern secured a new owner in Tom Benson (#ConspiracyTheoryGold). Then came this season’s tease. The first 12 games got off to a surprising 7-5 record, prompting some to wonder if this perennially downtrodden franchise had discovered the right coach in Mike Dunlap and unexpectedly turned a corner toward respectability.
Cue an 11-game losing streak still alive as the Bobcats take the Staples Center floor.
Winless since Nov. 24, whatever tinge of momentum felt nearly one month ago has since evaporated. Meanwhile, the Lakers come home having earned one of their most convincing wins of the season, and excitement is growing at the prospect of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol soon in uni. (The latter perhaps tonight, fingers crossed.) It would appear the Lakers are playing with the wind at their backs. Here are three things to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
1. Defending without fouling
By nearly every measurement, the Bobcats aren’t very good at this whole “putting the ball in the basket” thing. They average just 96 points a night and have racked 100-plus just six times, with three(!) of those benchmark moments requiring overtime. Their overall shooting percentage (42.2) ranks 27th in the NBA, while the clip from behind the arc (34.0) is a slightly improved 21st. Their offensive efficiency (98.2) makes them a bottom-five team.
However, the Bobcats do possess one (relative) strength offensively, and that’s getting to the line. With 25.3 nightly trips, the Bobcats are fifth in the league for attempts, matching their free-throw rate (30.5). They also shoot nearly 77 percent as a team, which makes preventing free throws a worthwhile plan. In particular, damage is being done by Ramon Sessions, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson, all of whom average at least four charity stripe appearances while converting at least 80 percent of those tries. (Sessions’ 5.8 free throws off the bench, tied for 10th highest with Russell Westbrook, are a fairly amazing feat.)
On the season, the Lakers have done a decent enough job at keeping opponents off the line, but cranking up that effectiveness would essentially put out what little light Charlotte possesses. This quest begins with perimeter defense. Sessions and Walker both take about half of their shots at the rim, and if allowed to run roughshod toward the basket, it’s likely only a matter of (quick) time before Dwight Howard finds himself in foul trouble. From there, everyone needs to communicate and avoid picking up cheap fouls as the result of preventable breakdowns.
2. And speaking of defense ...
The Bobcats play very little of it. They allow 103.9 points per game, and that’s as one of the slowest teams in the league, which naturally reduces the number of possessions in a game. As a moderately paced squad, the damage wrought by allowing opponents to hit 45.9 percent from the field (sixth worst), and 37.7 percent from behind the arc would be stupefying. The inability to defend is compounded by a wretched job keeping opponents off the offensive glass and few turnovers induced.
In other words, the Lakers offense may not yet represent the beacon of consistency, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe any theoretical hiccups Tuesday would come as the result of Charlotte’s prowess. Frankly, L.A. could generate decent looks if the offense were run through Earl Clark, assuming everyone’s on the same page and playing with a common purpose. Which brings me to my next point.
Despite staring up at the .500 mark for the majority of this season, the Lakers have a startling -- and inexplicable -- tendency to play down to the level of competition. Opponents with similarly losing records are seemingly viewed as wholly inferior, rather than an unpleasant look in the mirror. Maybe it’s reflective of this team’s video game starting five (when intact). Or the eight rings owned between Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Or how this franchise’s glorious history makes title contention feel like a right of passage.
Well, as this season has made crystal clear, tradition and star power don’t guarantee automatic success. There’s no question that the Lakers are the superior team. But at present, these Lakers haven’t developed enough chemistry or pedigree to assume victory can be achieved through sleepwalking. A blowout win is certainly possible, but only if the Lakers are willing to put in the same work necessary to beat the Thunders and Heats of the world. The choice is theirs.