Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why the Lakers can't beat the Charlotte Bobcats

Here's one of my favorite NBA trivia questions: the Los Angeles Lakers have a sub-.500 records versus two teams in NBA history. Which are the two?

The first is archrival Celtics. Not unexpected. The other? You'd guess maybe the 76ers, Pistons, Suns, Rockets, Knicks or another decades-old rival.

The other team? The Charlotte Bobcats.

Since the inception of the Bobcats in the 2004-2005 season, the Lakers are a feeble 7-8 against them, including a 30-point battering Charlotte took last night in Staples Center. The sample size has been pretty small, but shocking none the less. Since the 2004-2005 season, the Lakers have gone 370-226 (a .620 winning percentage), been to the playoffs 6 times, 3 Finals and won 2 titles.

The Charlotte Bobcats have won 225 games against 371 losses, good for a .378 winning percentage. They have finished over .500 only once, which coincided with their only playoff appearance (a sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic). They have already had four coaches and two owners in 8 years of existence. They are one of the least profitable franchises in the league. During the NBA lockout, the Bobcats were one of the teams most talked about in regards to team contraction. They are terrible, and have been so since their inception.

And somehow...the Lakers find themselves having lost 8 of the last 11 to the Bobcats, including two season sweeps. Not including last night's destruction of a 3-18 team, Charlotte somehow holds an average point differential against the Lakers of +5.1. In victories, the Cats have beaten the Lakers by a stunning 10.3 points on average. Home court advantage seems to be negligible to the Lakers; the Bobcats hold a +1 point differential on average at games in LA. The Lakers have played in 6 overtime periods in 3 games against the Bobcats, and have won none of the games.

Somehow, someway, every year when the Bobcats come to town, or the Lakers make their doomed journey to Charlotte, I brace for the worst. And every time, I'm still stunned at how badly we play against what is usually a NBA team ranging from mediocre to feeble. Yesterday, with a 12-9 Lakers team playing a 3-17 Bobcats team, I sent out an e-mail in all seriousness that said "How many points do you think the Lakers lose by tonight?"

So I started to do some research. How is this possible? How can this happen year after year after year? Unfortunately, the stats back it up; this is not just a Laker fan overreacting. I've come up with 3 good reasons:

1) The Lakers have been vulnerable to quick, penetrating point guards for the past 8 seasons

The Lakers cannot guard anyone that has a PG next to their name on the box score. Whether it's been Steve Blakers, Smush Parker, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and so forth, any penetrating guard with a modicum of quickness and skill will slapchop the Lakers defense.

The Bobcats have had four primary ball-handlers in their existence. Kemba Walker currently holds down that post, which was first Brevin Knight's in the inaugural 2004-2005. However, the two points that have really decimated the Lakers have been DJ Augustin and Raymond Felton.

I crunched a few numbers and take a look at each man's career averages and then his splits against the Lakers during each of their time in Charlotte:

Career in Charlotte: 13 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.4 apg, 41% shooting, 32% 3P shooting
Against the Lakers: 24 ppg, 3.9, rpg, 5.8 apg, 45% shooting, 30.3% 3P shooting

D.J. Augustin

Career in Charlotte: 11 ppg, 2 rpg, 4 apg, 40% shooting, 30% 3P shooting
Against the Lakers: 12 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4 apg, 45% shooting, 40% 3P shooting

AH-MAZING. These two, who were at the helm when the Cats took 8 out of 10 from the Lakers, have feasted on the porous Lakers defense like the salmon of San Juan Capistrano. Felton's point totals are stunning, but it's more the increase in shooting percentage associated with both players that stands out to me.

It's not just the point guards though. The Cats have had a bevy of slashers and shooters that have made the Lakers pay over the past few years with poor pick and roll defense. Off the top of my head, Gerald Wallace, Boris Diaw, Jared Dudley, Stephen Jackson, Raja Bell, Shannon Brown, Jason Richardson and even the mighty Adam Morrison (TWO-time NBA champion Adam Morrison, mind you) have all eviscerated the Lakers inside and out during their times in Charlotte.

But great guard play alone shouldn't immediately equal dominance, should it? The Lakers won two titles beating squads headed by Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul in this same time frame. Too bad the Lakers are giving the Bobcats a huge helping hand.

2) The Lakers have played down to their competition.

There's no way around it -- the Lakers have played down to their competition. Every time the Cats come into town, the Lakers dismiss them as a challenge or worthy foe, no matter what recent history dictates. It might be the personnel (are you going to be on your "A" game because D.J. Augustin is coming to town?), the minor league look of the team (those colors belong in the movie "Semi-Pro") or the stink of an expansion franchise still on them, but any way you look at it, the Lakers simply play below their potential against Charlotte. Out of the 40 active or defunct teams the Show has played in 60 years of Laker basketball, they average 100.3 points against the Bobcats - good for 29th out of 40. takes two to do the bone dance, as the old expression goes.

3) The Bobcats are getting up for Lakers games

The Cats have averaged 102.1 points against the Lakers, which ranks as 5th of their 29 other opponents. Putting this in perspective, the Lakers rank slightly above lock-down opponents like the Wizards and Knicks, but below defensive-minded teams like the Suns, Warriors, Kings and Timberwolves.

It's easy to say that a team "gets up" for contests against the Lakers. A lot of young, bad teams want to be the upstarts that beat the perennially high-performing Lakers, but it's not as easy to go ahead and get that extra motivation and energy no matter what the mindset is. The Lakers have dominated the Warriors over the past two decades, even though Golden State wants to beat their SoCal rivals just as much as Charlotte does. The Show hasn't lost a season series to the Clippers since 1992-1993, even with the big brother/little brother rivalry that's been brewing for years. It's really easy to say "Yeah, we're going to show the league that we're coming". Not as easy to do.

Whether it's the coaching or the mental edge they gained after winning a few games early on, the Bobcats just know that they own the Lakers.

4) The Bobcats' defense hasn't correlated with how bad or mediocre they've been

Charlotte's not just beating the Lakers with their guard play and a killer instinct. They're defending pretty decently as well. This is where they've ranked in defensive ratings the past 7 years:

2004-2005: 20th
2005-2006: 18th
2006-2007: 20th
2007-2008: 20th
2008-2009: 9th
2009-2010: 1st
2010-2011: 17th

Considering how bad they've been, the Cats (before this year) have had coaches that stress locking down over offense. They've stayed disciplined enough where they could elevate their defense to a relatively high level, which isn't crazy considering that they've constantly hovered above the bottom third of the league.

A lot of this points to coaching, and how well the teams are responding them. In that respect, Paul Silas, Bernie Bickerstaff, Larry Brown and Sam Vincent have done a fantastic job; they've gotten the most talent possible out of teams that regularly finish either 15th or below in offense. They've made their teams believe that they can beat the Lakers, and that their defense is good enough to shut anyone down.

With how bad the Bobcats are this year and a significant rebuilding effort in front of them, maybe the Cats Curse is nearing its end for the Lakers. After all, last night's 33 point victory was their largest margin of victory over Charlotte was their biggest ever by nearly 20 points.

Still...I'm just really happy we don't play them again this year.

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