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For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the Charlotte Bobcats.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
As bottoming-out goes, this resembles Napoleon's exile or Electric Light Orchestra's contributions to the "Xanadu" soundtrack. Not only did last season's Charlotte Bobcats set a record for NBA futility, turning in the worst winning percentage in league history, they did so while working with parts that weren't certain to carry over into the hoped-for Next Era. Tyrus Thomas, sure to be released. Kemba Walker and Bismarck Biyombo — OK, I guess. Corey Maggette, clearly a rental. Paul Silas, deserving far better than the ignominy that his team's record handed him.
The village had to be destroyed, though, after years of meddling and shortsighted patchwork. The problem in Charlotte is that years of mismanagement by owner and former personnel boss Michael Jordan had salted the earth well before the lean-tos he created were burned down by current GM Rich Cho. Jordan has done well, so far, in backing off and letting Cho run his team; but in fairness to cynicism the duo hasn't exactly had to come to loggerheads yet — Cho and Jordan agreed that payroll must be slashed, and the drafting of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second overall pick last June was a no-brainer.
Potentially relationship-defining loggerheads await, but for now the Bobcats are going to take baby steps. As wonderfully documented by the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell and NBA.com's John Schuhmann, new coach Mike Dunlap has gone to great lengths to dissuade his already-lacking team from lining up for shots that would barely help the 1986 Boston Celtics stay in games, much less the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats. The long 2-pointer is to be eschewed, and Dunlap is to be credited for having the confidence to attempt to make a clear initial mark in his ascension from an interim NCAA head coach to the head man of a team owned by Michael [Franklin!] Jordan.
No amount of spreadsheet assistance will significantly help this crew, though. Especially when Corey Maggette — though he was dogged with a 1940s-appropriate field-goal percentage while missing 28 games — has been jettisoned for an upgrade in Ben Gordon (plus potential lottery pick), but one that shoots half as many free throws per minute and tosses up plenty of long twos along the way. MKG, the rookie, is really the team's only significant addition, and Thomas' mercurial ways remain mainly because it was cost prohibitive to waive a guy they'd have to still pay while investing in a minutes replacement.
The youngsters will be a year better, and Gordon is an upgrade over Maggette. The youngsters weren't starting quality to begin with, though, and Gordon is the guy that could barely get off the bench for a Detroit Pistons team that lost over 60 percent of its games last year. Baby steps, to be sure, and another miserable watch to behold in Charlotte.
Cap space, eventually, and two smart ones at the GM and head coaching position working for the biggest, erm, "competitor" in sports. And babies, spread out over nearly six months of steppin', probably can only step to about six more wins, pro-rated.
Projected record: 15-67
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Having nothing left to lose means nothing is (or should be) off limits. One benefit to hitting rock bottom is that there's nowhere to go but up, and nothing but opportunities to improve after such a massive fall. That's the opportunity facing the Bobcats following last season's historically wretched 7-59 campaign, and first-year coach Mike Dunlap seems intent on taking advantage of it as best he can by experimenting to maximize Charlotte's still developing roster.
Last year's Bobcats struggled in just about every facet of the game -- they featured the league's least efficient offense and defense in terms of points scored per 100 possessions; they made the league's fewest shots, hitting an NBA-worst 41.4 percent of their field goals and 29.5 percent of their 3-pointers; they grabbed the league's fourth-lowest rate of rebounds on both the offensive and defensive glass; only three teams forced opponents into turnovers less frequently; and so on. Relative to the other 29 NBA teams, there wasn't a single thing that the Charlotte Bobcats did well. The best they could hope for was league-average, which they approached in turnover rate and reached in free throws taken per field goal attempt. (Cue the ticker-tape parades for adequate turnover and free-throw rates.)
The downside, then, is that Dunlap inherits a team with absolutely nothing on which to hang its hat. The upside is that with no superstars in need of placating, no historical legacy that must be served and no established identity to speak of, he can just try a whole lot of different things and see what sticks. Fast-paced four-hour practices designed to improve conditioning and decision-making when fatigued? Sure. Putting a governor on sophomore Kemba Walker's athleticism by telling him to stay out of the air to see if slowing him down speeds up his development at the point? Worth a shot.
Giving second-round swingman Jeffery Taylor, whom the coach thinks can be a defensive stopper behind No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist off the bench, the green light to foul out for the first third of the season so long as the fouls result from aggressively attacking opposing wings? Sounds good. Betting big on small-ball lineups intended to push pace (the 'Cats played slower than league average last year, finishing 17th in possessions averaged per game) in the hopes of creating offensive mismatches and trap-heavy defensive pressure with the backcourt speed and quickness of Walker, Gerald Henderson, Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions? Why not? Why not try everything? What have you got to lose?
Dunlap knows that this year is about figuring out what he's got in the cupboard, mixing ingredients in a quest for something, anything, that works. If nothing else, that could make the Bobcats difficult to predict night in and night out, and over the course of an 82-game season, unpredictability can be worth at least a few wins if favored opponents are napping.
What Should Make You Scared: A talent deficit at virtually every position and the prospect of any gains being incremental at best. It will, however, only be "a few wins." Charlotte still profiles as the worst team in the NBA this season because, despite some sound moves by general manager Rich Cho over the summer, this is still a roster in desperate need of more good players.
As noted above, the Bobcats are going to rely heavily on their backcourt in a variety of small-ball lineups this season, but outside of the steady-if-unremarkable Henderson (solid wing defense and a team-leading 15.1 points per game last season, albeit on field-goal and 3-point-shooting marks that, while both career highs, were still below league-average), that will mean relying largely on hope. They have to hope that Walker can find cleaner looks near the basket than he did as a rookie and actually finish them, after making fewer than half his attempts at the rim and just 28.8 percent from between three and nine feet, according to Hoopdata; improving his 36.6 percent field-goal mark (fifth-worst in the league among players who got at least 1,000 minutes last year, ahead of only Jason Kidd, Ricky Rubio, Lamar Odom and Earl Watson) is essential to revitalizing Charlotte's stagnant offense.
They have to hope that Gordon (whom Dunlap wants to be the team's closer, should they get close to enough to closing) will be more productive in a reserve role in Charlotte than he was during his three seasons with the Detroit Pistons, where he shot well from deep but rarely looked especially invested or interested in being the same kind of aggressive scorer he was for the Chicago Bulls. They have to hope that they get the version of Sessions who shot nearly 50 percent from the field and knocked down triples during his 23-game regular-season stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, rather than the tentative bricklayer who shot his way out of Hollywood (and a starting job elsewhere) during L.A.'s disappointing playoff run. They have to hope Reggie Williams can find the stroke that made him one of the league's more intriguing bargains after two sharpshooting years with the Golden State Warriors (49.5 percent from the field, 35.9 percent from three, 83.9 percent from the line as a rookie, 46.9/42.3/74.6 in Year 2) before falling off a cliff once he hit North Carolina (41.6/30.8/72.5). They have to hope that Matt Carroll and Cory Higgins ... um, don't play.
And even if they get better-than-expected play from all of their backcourt pieces, the 'Cats will still be fighting an uphill battle up front, where the Bismack Biyombo-Byron Mullens tandem -- which played 467 predictably dreadful minutes last year in lineups that scored an average of 92.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing 106.9-per-100, according to NBA.com's lineup data tool -- will be outgunned just about every night. Biyombo and Mullens should both be better in their second full season of regular NBA playing time, but they're far from world-beaters, and when they hit the bench, they'll be spelled by the less-than-confidence-inspiring duo of amnesty victim Brendan Haywood and AARP opponent Tyrus Thomas.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Charlotte Bobcats were legendarily bad last season, so much so that they didn't really have an identity beyond "the worst ever." They do have a couple promising players, though, and those young men have enough similar skills that the Bobcats look like they could become a defense-oriented team once they mature. Bismack Biyombo and first-round pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist certainly have the talent and levels of effort to succeed in that sort of system.
The issue, of course, is that the Bobcats still suck. It's hard to imagine them matching (or even coming close to) last season's level of wretchedness, but it's very likely that they'll be among the two or three worst teams in the NBA. Simply put, they have no one who can score with regularity. In that reality, it's hard to imagine that their young players — especially Kidd-Gilchrist — can focus on their strengths when the team needs so much.
At Kentucky, MKG thrived in large part because he didn't have to be a focal point of the scoring; the lineup was so loaded that he could take shots as they came and score largely within the flow of the offense and transition. The Bobcats don't have that luxury, and second-overall picks are usually expected to carry a large portion of the offense's responsibilities. The question, then, is if Kidd-Gilchrist (and by extension the entire team) will be able to develop into veterans naturally, or if the needs of a professional basketball team — even if they take a long view of success — will interfere.
The latter wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Russell Westbrook, for instance, was supposed to be a defensive specialist with limited offensive skills when the Thunder drafted him in 2008, and he's managed to become one of the best scoring guards in the league. That example, and the general difficulty of predicting the future of a team with no apparent strengths, emphasizes just how little we know about the 2012-13 Bobcats. They might have a basic idea of the team they want to become, but their identity will only reveal itself over time.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]