Last season represented a major breakthrough for the Charlotte Bobcats, which probably says more about the franchise's ineptitude than anything. For the first time in their six-year history, the Bobcats made the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Few picked them to get that far, but thanks to an early-season trade for Stephen Jackson, a career year for Gerald Wallace and some solid coaching by Larry Brown, they surprised people and ended up winning 44 games.
Unfortunately, they ran into a terrible first-round matchup in the Orlando Magic and were swept away in four straight. It was a down way to end a surprisingly good year, and it brought many of the questions about the team's direction back to the forefront. Do the Bobcats have much room for improvement, with a roster that has little salary-cap flexibility and very little young talent? Did Brown mandate that the future be mortgaged in order to get that one first-round playoff exit? Was that playoff appearance sufficient to energize a downtrodden fanbase? Finally, and more fundamentally, can the Bobcats grow from that experience, or was that their highest water mark?
It's the final question that must be asked when thinking about this year's team. On paper, it's pretty much impossible to say the Bobcats got better. Point guard Raymond Felton departed for the Knicks, and while he wasn't a great player, he was certainly serviceable and a key to the team's improvement last year. Center Tyson Chandler is also gone, and while he struggled through injuries last year, he's another guy the team did not replace. The team didn't have a top draft pick, so there's no breakout newcomer in the mix. It's basically the same mix, but worse on paper.
As SB Nation's Bobcats blog Rufus on Fire writes, it's tough to tell where this franchise goes in the future.
The Charlotte Bobcats have spent the past two seasons under Larry Brown building up for... something. In the most optimistic light, they've been adding talent, whenever they could acquire it, in order to gain credibility in the local sports scene, build up a fan base more quickly, and perhaps get good enough to make noise in the playoffs until they get lucky in the draft and land a franchise player or two. The pessimist (cynic?) would say that Brown is merely trying to gild his legacy with an end-career "turnaround", bringing a team from the throes of expansion to the playoffs and leaving them on supposedly solid footing -- only to have everyone realize after it's too late to do anything about it that he'd mortgaged the next three years on two years of middling success.
As always, it's probably more complicated than that.
One thing we know, though, is that the Bobcats will play exactly like they did last year. Remarkably, it was Charlotte that finished with the league's best defense last season on a per-possession basis, and as Rufus on Fire writes, there's a chance it could be even better this year. The team will have a full season of defensive demon Tyrus Thomas, who signed a five-year contract extension this summer, and they also have lengthy Shaun Livingston, who signed a three-year contract after rescuing his career with the Wizards.
The Bobcats can throw out a lineup of Livingston, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Thomas, and whichever center they choose, and have four lockdown on-ball defenders. Add to that Larry Brown's commitment to defense and the players' demonstrated ability to work together at that end of the court, and the Cats will likely be in the running for best defense in the league.
So defense will be the key. Offense? Yikes. The Bobcats were pretty bad on that end last season, and probably will be worse this time around. Wallace was outstanding last season, but he'll probably have trouble duplicating his success. Jackson is a year older, and having him be the offense's primary facilitator was a dicey proposition anyway. Boris Diaw is still around, but he became even more passive last season with Jackson in town.
Then, there are the point guards. Without Felton, the Bobcats will have to turn to a committee of Livingston, disappointing youngster D.J. Augustin and whoever else they can find. Hoops Addict writes that this is clearly the team's weakness.
The biggest question mark for this team will be at the point guard position following the offseason departure of Raymond Felton to the New York Knicks, while the Bobcats have depth at the point guard position, it is going to be a point guard by committee situation in Charlotte until a worthy every day starter is determined.
Diaw's passing makes having a traditional point guard less essential, which in theory should give Augustin a leg up. But Augustin took a major step back last year, and has yet to earn Brown's trust. Plugging him in at the point certainly doesn't inspire confidence, which was one reason the Bobcats were so close to acquiring Toronto's Jose Calderon in a trade before owner Michael Jordan nixed it at the last second.
The one saving grace the Bobcats may have is Brown, a demanding coach that won't let his team take a step back no matter what the roster looks like. As long as they have Brown preaching the same style, the Bobcats look like a playoff team to me in the weak Eastern Conference. What do the bloggers say?
- Rufus on Fire: No prediction, except to say that making the playoffs "seems like a longshot."
- Hoops Addict: 48-34