What An Unexpected Ride
This past season for the Charlotte Bobcats served up an entertaining mixture of speculation, anticipation, disappointment, surprise, frustration, and a general sense of curiosity. Heading into it, the team had made a deal to unload the financial burden of Tyson Chandler and had no Draft selections to boost their roster. The team’s training camp began with real questions around DJ Augustin’s ability to lead the team as a starter and the growth of Gerald Henderson and Derrick Brown in their second year in the NBA. It was assumed that Tyrus Thomas would build upon his success from a previous late-season run after arriving in Charlotte, and most thought he would eventually replace Boris Diaw as the team’s starting power forward. The Bobcats looked to have their strongest players, Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson, on the wings and aimed to make it through the year with a cobbled assortment of players at the center position.
That was all pre-season talk, though. Larry Brown was trusted to take the team further than the quick sweep we witnessed in their first Playoff appearance. If Larry saw a roster need that had to be filled in order to reach the post-season, it seemed only logical that the organization would find a way to give him what he demanded. Eventually, that logic evaporated as the team seemed to lose games and lose interest in running Larry’s system. Interestingly, the only roster acquisitions that seemed to satisfy Brown were the minor free agent signings of Dominic McGuire (D-Mac) and Shaun Livingston. Otherwise, the Hall of Fame coach was expected to plug in the likes of Matt Carroll, Kwame Brown, Eduardo Najera, and Sherron Collins to forge a better on-court product.
Stumbling Out of The Gates
Early on in the season, it seemed that the Bobcats were just taking a little longer to “mesh” than most other squads. Those following the team could have argued that the level of talent on the roster was deeper than ever before. With so many middle-tier players on the payroll, it appeared that the front office had planned to either make due with a roster below the salary cap or leave some flexibility to make a trade to improve the team. As the Cats stumbled in the standings, speculation over the next move certainly followed. Coach Brown had set a pattern in place since his arrival. If he didn’t like what was happening with the team’s play, he would find a way to shake up the roster. Fans knew this and it was expected that a roster move was sure to happen. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, or DJ Augustin that were shipped out. The organization decided to send Larry Brown out of town.
While it was easy to support Brown when the team had experienced an increasing level of success, the Bobcats management seemed to catch on to the “Next Town Brown” template. With the team struggling and playing less and less entertaining basketball by the week, it only felt naturally to look to the future. Raising the question of “How does this team get better” probably shook GM Rod Higgins to face the tough truth that the Bobcats were financially frozen and their on-court product was on the decline. Perhaps, the team reserved a bit of blame for Larry Brown. Overall, it seemed that the team’s performance had slid far too much and improvement wasn’t going to be delivered by the old, griping, and disheartening coach. The Cats had no money to really improve the team, and needed to begin to develop their young guys – players that Larry Brown had glued to the bench.
The arrival of Paul Silas brought an equal dose of curiosity and excitement to the team. After recurring blow-out losses under Brown, the Bobcats quickened the pace and let DJ Augustin play to his strengths. Surely, Michael Jordan had to have felt some comfort in his decision to switch coaches. Not only had the team become better and more entertaining on court, but the younger talent on the roster had begun to show improvement and playing time under Coach Silas. The improved play of DJ Augustin was astounding, and it just seemed to be a bit confusing as to why no one had seen this from the young guard until Brown’s departure.
As the Bobcats had crossed the mid-point of the season, they were finding a way to improve their record despite their ailing big men. Gana Diop was shelved for the season with a tough achilles injury, and Nazr Mohammed seemed to have run out of luck with several nagging injuries. The All-Star break came and went for the team, as the club had no participates (Rufus doesn’t count) in the Association’s annual celebration of peak performers. So, most of the club returned from the short vacation to talk big about making a run at the Playoffs. Actually, that didn’t seem so outlandish at the time. Despite the 9-19 hole that they had dug for themselves to begin the year, Charlotte was sitting around the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference standings. With plenty of games to go, it was expected that the club could rebound and save their season. Heck, some thought the Cats might even try to nab someone to help make that push before the trade deadline.
Well, things really went in the opposite direction. Once again, Michael Jordan’s Bobcats were active at the league’s trade deadline. Though, this time around the team wasn’t looking to acquire talent.
So, what would you have thought if someone had told you back in September that during the 2010-2011 season the Bobcats would fire the best head coach that the franchise had ever seen, trade away the All-Star that fans loved, and still close the season with Stephen Jackson on the roster? Well, it played out just about like you would have thought. The team was shaken apart, as to leave Larry Brown’s “vision” in the dust and adjust for the future. Gerald Wallace was about as heartbroken about being traded to Portland as his Charlotte fans were. And, good ol’ Cap’n Jack made it through the season with a load of technical fouls, showed his clutch abilities throughout it all, and his body fell apart in late March after carrying the team for most of the year. Oh, and the guys that were expected to help Stephen Jackson never did come through as the Cats surrendered to the Draft Lottery by April. Tyrus Thomas was unable to return from his knee surgery and fellow power forward Boris Diaw brought it once in every four or five games. The team limped through the end of their schedule with Kwame Brown as the only true center.
Oh, and what would you have thought back in the Fall if someone told you that the Bobcats would be starting Kwame Brown? Surprisingly, he wasn’t as bad as you would have thought. Let’s not consider him the franchise center, but he was valuable for the team on both sides of the floor.
Quiet Close to the Season
So, the Bobcats headed down the last weeks of the season with a fading hope of another Playoff appearance. Though, what may have been more important for the team was the manner in which their younger and newer players seized the opportunity in the playing time given to them by Paul Silas. During the final games of the season, Gerald Henderson was often the team’s primary offensive option. He showed his strengths, while learning to become an efficient guard. Clearly, young Gerald had big shoes to fill with the departure of “Crash” Gerald. Luckily, the team didn’t see him recoil.
Looking forward, Charlotte has a lot of decisions in front of them. Clearly, the organization has made a concerted effort to enter the “rebuilding” stage. The off-season should provide the team with the ability to improve as they hold a load of salary cap flexibility, young talent, and Draft selections. Still, it’s apparent that the team has holes, and will work to fill them as they build. Next season’s rookies can’t be expected to carry the team, and the free agent class isn’t all that “star-studded” this summer. With Jordan’s efforts to free up his options, he’ll want to make the most of each of his assets whether it be Draft picks, cap room, or promising players on the Bobcats roster. The 2011-12 season could just serve as a stepping stone for the club as they continue to develop, grow, and wait for the right additions via free agency. So, a short season due to a lock-out might just be exactly what Jordan and Co. are forecasting. If the rebuilding Cats are going to be really bad next year, let’s hope it’s only for 40 games or so.