Real Problem with Bobcats: Larry Brown or Michael Jordan?

| by David Berri

Last season, the Charlotte Bobcats won 44 games while posting an efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 1.55. Although this mark wouldn’t be impressive for most NBA teams, Charlotte’s efficiency differential in 2009-10 was the best differential in franchise history (a history that dates back to 2004-05).

The team’s success resulted in the first playoff berth in team history. Unfortunately, the first playoff win proved elusive. Nevertheless, Charlotte fans were optimistic at the end of last season.

This past summer, though, Raymond Felton departed for New York. Felton produced 8.9 wins for the Bobcats in 2009-10; while posted a 0.162 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. Although Felton was not the most productive player on the Bobcats, without his nearly nine wins the Bobcats would have missed the playoffs.

Despite this loss, Michael Jordan – the owner of the Bobcats – was very optimistic when the season started: “I think we’re going to be a better off team than we were last year.  We’re together, we’re coming off some success from last year. Granted, Raymond’s not here. …At the minimum, we should make the playoffs.”

Larry Brown – the team’s head coach – was less optimistic. As reported: “A day before training camp opened, Brown said, ‘I died’ when Felton left, then questioned his team’s front line.”

After 28 games, it looks like Brown’s assessment was closer to the mark. The team has only won nine games and Charlotte’s efficiency differential of -6.2 matches what the team achieved during its first season in 2004-05.  And now Brown – in a move that says “I can’t win with this group” – has left the team.

Of course, some might argue that the coach was the actual problem. In other words, MJ did assemble a collection of talent that could win if only the Bobcats had the “right” coach.

Readers of Stumbling on Wins know that I am skeptical of the “right” coach argument. Still, let’s look at the team and see if we can figure out the problem in Charlotte.

Finding the Problem in Charlotte

The following table reports the Wins Produced of each player on the Bobcats this year. It also tells us how much Wins Produced has changed from what we would have seen if each player maintained the per-minute performance [specifically ADJ P48] we saw last year. As one can easily see, the player whose performance has changed the most is Gerald Wallace.

Had Wallace maintained what we saw last year (with the minutes and position played of his year), he would currently be on pace to produce 18.25 wins. Although Wallace still leads the team in Wins Produced in 2010-11, he is on pace to produce nearly ten fewer wins than his 2009-10 performance would suggest.   

If Wallace had maintained his productivity, this team would currently be on pace to win 35 games. Yes, that isn’t quite as good as what we saw last year. But Wallace’s decline explains much of the difference between 2009-10 and the Bobcats after 28 games this year.

So why has Wallace declined? When we look at his numbers, we see that Wallace is offering less with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, shooting efficiency from the free throw line, and rebounds. He is also committing more turnovers and personal fouls, and swiping fewer steals. Of all these changes, it is the declines seen with respect to shooting that are having the biggest effect. 

Okay, Wallace is offering less with respect to a number of statistics. Is this coaching? Wallace had his best season [in terms of ADJ P48] last season (although his mark of 0.501 wasn’t much different from the 0.498 mark he posted in 2005-06). So Wallace had played well for Larry Brown.

What about the loss of Felton? Well, Wallace posted his two best career marks with Felton as his point guard.  But in 2007-08 –with Felton as his point guard – Wallace posted an ADJ P48 of 0.317 (a bit off what he is doing this year). 

So maybe Wallace is hurt? Or maybe his shots just aren’t falling? Or maybe…  well, maybe I don’t know (although I suspect people will offer some “answers” in the comment section).

Is it Brown or Is it MJ?

It is clear that the Bobcats would be a better team if Wallace was producing like he did last year. Yes, the team is getting less from Nazr Mohammed (who is now 33 years old) and Boris Diaw. But again, the declines in Wallace’s production seem to be the most important change.

In defense of Larry Brown, even if Wallace produced as he did last year the Bobcats would still not be as good as they were in 2009-10. Again, Felton isn’t in Charlotte anymore. And although D.J. Augustin is posting the best numbers of his career, he is not quite as productive as Felton.

Okay, Augustin isn’t quite Felton.  But he is posting a WP48 mark that is above average (average WP48 is 0.100). And on the Bobcats, only Wallace, Tyrus Thomas, and Derrick Brown are posting better WP48 marks than Augustin. Yes, this team doesn’t have many above average performers (and last year, only Wallace, Thomas, and Mohammed offered WP48 marks beyond what Augustin is offering this year).

Despite this lack of talent, the latest story (from Adrian Wojnarowski ) is that MJ wants to trade Augustin – along with DeSagana Diop and Matt Carroll – to the Clippers for Baron Davis. Diop and Carroll are currently producing in the negative range (in very limited minutes). But according to the automated Wins Produced numbers of Andres Alvarez, Davis is currently producing in the negative range in more minutes. In defense of Davis, last season he posted a 0.112 WP48 with the Clippers. Such a mark, though, isn’t much different from what Augustin is giving the Bobcats this year. When we factor in the difference in these player’s ages – Davis will be 32 before the season ends while Augustin is only 23 – it is hard to see why this trade works for Jordan and the Bobcats.

The article from Wojnarowski also notes that MJ didn’t want to draft Augustin originally. The player Jordan actually wanted was Brook Lopez, but Larry Brown insisted on Augustin. According to the automated numbers, Lopez is currently posting a -0.050 WP48. In fact, only four players – Andrea Bargnani, J.J. Hickson, Earl Barron, and Timofey Mozgov – have produced fewer wins than Brook Lopez this season. Yes Lopez – like Bargnani – can score. But this season Lopez is an inefficient scorer and is simply not rebounding. In sum, given what Lopez is doing this season no one should regret passing on his services.

Let’s summarize where I think the problem lies in Charlotte. 

  • Larry Brown was one of the few coaches we found to have a statistically significant impact on player performance (Brown’s impact was only significant at the 10% level).  Yes, Wallace has declined. But I am not sure that is about Brown (I am not sure why that has happened, but I don’t think it is about Brown). 
  • Even if Wallace had not declined, though, the Bobcats were not likely to be as good as they were last year.  This is because MJ hasn’t been able to find very many productive players. 

And now we hear Jordan really wanted Brook Lopez and he might want Baron Davis. If these stories are true, that again doesn’t speak well of the talent evaluation skills of Jordan.   Remember, Jordan once drafted Kwame Brown with the first pick in the draft (a player who is once again with Jordan in Charlotte) and Adam Morrison with the 3rd pick (a player who Jordan could easily have again).  So the track record is not encouraging.  And it is this track record that leads me to think the problem in Charlotte wasn’t the person making the dinner, it was the person buying the groceries.

Let me close by saying I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and/or a Happy Holidays!!  And although Phil Jackson doesn’t want to work on Christmas, I think most NBA fans are happy he is. Jackson should also remember if he coached the Bobcats, he probably wouldn’t be working on Christmas (yes, Jackson is good, but even the Zen Master couldn’t save this collection of players).  But then — like Larry Brown (and now Paul Silas) — Jackson would have other issues to worry about.

- DJ