In the 2011-12 season, the Charlotte Bobcats put together one of the worst NBA seasons of all time. The team went 7-59 after the season started late due to a lockout, finishing with the worst winning percentage of any team in NBA history at .106. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, though: Anthony Davis.
Davis was incredible in his single collegiate year, winning virtually every available individual award and leading his Kentucky team to a 38-2 record and national championship. He was a dominant force on both ends of the floor, and was the consensus top prospect in the 2012 NBA Draft. Most analysts believed that he would be able to turn a franchise around single-handedly, with some comparing him to Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett.
Unfortunately for the Bobcats, they didn’t get Davis. Despite having the highest odds to win the first pick during the draft lottery, Charlotte fell to the second pick and would have to settle for Davis’ teammate at Kentucky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kidd-Gilchrist endeared himself to Kentucky fans through his defense, athleticism, and high motor, and had drawn pre-draft comparisons to Andre Iguodala and Charlotte favorite Gerald Wallace.
Four years and one name change later, the team and their fans have accepted and grown to love MKG, who has established himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Unfortunately, his offensive game has not improved to the point many fans would have hoped. It’s no coincidence that the Hornets have their first top-10 offense in the year that MKG has barely been able to play due to injury. That imbalance in his game – dominant defense and lousy offense – makes him an interesting case study. In some ways, he’s basketball’s Mario Mendoza. Does his elite defense make up for the fact that he actively hurts his team’s offense when he’s on the floor? If not, is it time for the Hornets to move on?
To accurately answer those questions, it’s important to understand just how good Kidd-Gilchrist is on the defensive end. His raw numbers (only .6 steals and .7 blocks per game in his career) aren’t particularly impressive, but those can be misleading. The Hornets have a top-10 defense for several years in a row without forcing many turnovers, due to their conservative style of play on that end. It’s unfair to judge MKG on his lack of steals when the team as a whole doesn’t register very many, since it’s not a point of emphasis for them. Once you start getting into Kidd-Gilchrist’s more advanced defensive numbers, however, the truth begins to come out. In every one of his NBA seasons, the Hornets have been significantly better defensively with him on the court:
Source: Stats Courtesy of NBA.com/stats
He was also in the top-five small forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus in both 2014 and 2015, the only two years that he’s been qualified (the only other year that ESPN has the statistic for is this year, and MKG’s only played seven games). And, since NBA.com started tracking the data during 2013-14 season, he’s forced opponents that he’s been guarding to shoot much worse than they normally would, both in the paint and on jump shots.
Kidd-Gilchrist is also an elite rebounder for his position, especially on the defensive end. Last year, he rebounded at a better rate than any qualified perimeter player, pulling in 14.4 percent of all available rebounds while he was on the floor. That kind of number is run-of-the-mill for a big man – comparable to someone like Tyler Zeller or Trevor Booker, each of whom ranked slightly above him. It’s a great number for a small forward like Kidd-Gilchrist, and it’s just another way he manages to help the team without a great offensive game.
His major issue on the offensive end is a complete lack of a jump shot. Teams are so unconcerned with his shooting that they can play far off him and cramp the spacing in the paint. There is reason to be hopeful that his jumper can improve, though. He’s worked hard to re-do his famously ugly shooting form, and actually shot well in a small sample size this year. After not taking a single three-pointer in 55 games last season, he shot 3-7 in the 7 games he played this year. Of course, seven shots isn’t nearly enough of a sample to be meaningful, and he was pretty open on most of those shots:
Here, Kobe Bryant is guarding MKG and isn’t even pretending to be worried about a three-pointer. Even when Kidd-Gilchrist receives the ball and begins to shoot, Kobe turns around and tries to get in position to snag the rebound. That has to be one of the most wide-open shots ever, and MKG has to be able to make those. If he’s only making looks like that, opposing coaches won’t worry too much about him.
Still, the uptick in three-point shots, from taking none at all last season to one per game this year, signifies that both the team and MKG himself are more confident in his jumper. It may never be a particularly reliable weapon for him, but if he forces opponents to respect his shot at all, it’ll be a very positive development.
The spacing was especially bad last year, when the other perimeter players for the Hornets were Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker. While both were good players that were very important to the team, neither could stretch the floor, a vital ability for a modern NBA offense. Now, with Henderson gone, Kidd-Gilchrist out, and Walker’s offensive improvement, the floor feels wide open for a team that’s struggled so much with spacing in the past.
Of course, there are downsides to giving an offensive player so much space, even if he can’t shoot. Kidd-Gilchrist has learned to leverage the space that defenses give him to become a great cutter. As SBNation’s Jason Patt wrote in a defense of MKG's contract, he was in the 75th percentile on points per possessions on cuts last season. Here’s an example of one of those cuts, from this season:
Kidd-Gilchrist starts the play here in the left corner, guarded by Doug McDermott. As Kemba Walker attacks the paint after a screen by Spencer Hawes, McDermott steps up to cut off Walker’s path to the basket. It’s his responsibility as the help defender to protect the rim, and he’s not worried about leaving MKG alone for a corner three. As soon as Kidd-Gilchrist sees his defender move over, though, he’s making his cut to the basket. Walker sees it and hits him with a pass, and MKG finishes with an emphatic dunk.
His history with injuries should worry some fans, but they seem to be mostly unrelated to each other, which suggests that it may just be bad luck rather than a recurring problem that should keep supporters up at night. Of course, it’s also possible that he’s just injury-prone in general, and fans should expect him to miss multiple games every year. His health is a concern, but we don’t know if it will continue to be an issue.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s elite defense and rebounding combined with his cutting on offense make him a net positive for the Hornets, especially if he’s surrounded by capable shooters (which he should be when he returns, assuming the team retains Nicolas Batum). If he can improve his jump shot to even slightly below league average, he could become one of the most dangerous and effective players in the entire NBA, with the ability to hurt teams on both ends of the floor. Even if he can’t put it all together on offense, he’s still a very valuable player on a reasonable contract that wants to become the best defender in NBA history. Oh yeah, and he’s still only 22 years old.
The Hornets have succeeded in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s absence, but that shouldn’t make anyone write him off. This guy is great, and the best for him and his team is still yet to come.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats