Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on an too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or us would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Charlotte Bobcats
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to Be Cheerful
As of publishing this post on Monday afternoon, the Charlotte Bobcats have around $11 million in cap space and a couple of roster spots to fill. They need one or two minor signings to vault above the NBA's salary cap floor, which is enviable, and they have workable space to swing a trade or attempt to sign a starter, as the team has a long way to go just to move back up to that 34-win strata that we saw them somehow claw toward in 2011-12.
That's about as cheerful as things will come, with this crew.
The worst jokes are usually the most accurate, the chicken did really cross the road to get to the other side, and Michael Jordan likely wanted no part of having a 2011-12 season because he wanted no part of watching or being held responsible for this Bobcats team. He probably wanted a $47 million salary cap so he could claim his Bobcats over it, and he probably has all those holes in his jeans because his ex-wife won a whole lot of denim in the divorce settlement. OK, that last joke isn't that bad.
(Yes it was. And the Bobcats will be, too.)
This roster is appalling. Few players leave you shaking your head about shot selection as much as Stephen Jackson, and yet Jordan somehow decided to trade Jackson for one of those few, landing head-down chucker Corey Maggette last June. The team is scrambling to re-hire Kwame Brown, desperate for 68-year old coach Paul Silas to find a way to mix rookie guard Kemba Walker into an uninspiring mix featuring young point man D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson, while wondering if Joel Przybilla will even play this year.
Also, they're waiting on waiving DeSagana Diop during this offseason, because they'd just have to spend just as much money to make up for his salary to meet the team's minimum salary requirement. Dumping him with the amnesty provision would have allowed Charlotte to chase after a max-salaried free agent but, well, using "the amnesty provision would have allowed Charlotte to chase after a max-salaried free agent." Charlotte can't have that. Also, in order to vault over that minimum salary cap, Jordan might ignore Chauncey Billups' dire warnings and sign the point guard to the one position that his youngsters need reps at. Marvy.
This will be a miserable basketball club that will feature enough long arms and aggressive athletes to pull out wins and keep some games close, but the abject lack of scorers and creative passers will leave the Bobcats in the hunt for the top pick in next June's draft.
And even in the first year of that player's rookie deal, he might be the second highest-paid player on the team. I wonder what MJ can get for that pick?
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Charlotte Bobcats
I'm so excited for you!
There have been several very likable Bobcats during the team's seven years of existence. Gerald Wallace made die-hards fall in love every time he launched, and we've all long since elected Stephen Jackson to serve a lifetime term as the mayor of our heart, and Emeka Okafor's seriously the nicest bus driver, and Primoz Brezec was a Slovenian gangsta, and so on. But Charlotte hasn't had a basketball star -- a true matinee idol type, a swaggering sort who can command attention and respect -- since George Shinn made Baron Davis go to the Big Easy.
Now, they've got Kemba Walker -- national champion, consensus All-American, newest of the New York guards and recipient of the ninth overall pick. And I think he really could be it.
To be fair, there's plenty of reason for skepticism. For starters, he's not even going to be a starter, as fourth-year man D.J. Augustin returns as the 'Cats incumbent point guard. Plus, we've seen plenty of NCAA luminaries go to Charlotte and wither on the vine, and the odds haven't been too great for NYC backcourt prospects of recent vintage, either. He's a strong kid, but at just 6-foot-1, Walker's likely to have a tough time on the defensive end. And running point in the pros as a rookie is a tall order no matter what type of talent's around you, and the Bobcats sure don't look to have a ton of offensive talent (more on that later).
But few rookies seem as capable of legitimately thrilling moments out of the gate as Walker. That crossover, that stop-and-go, that elite quickness, that sudden burst to the bucket, all punctuated by that megawatt smile ... it all seems tailor-made for getting fans off their seats and being the thing they're still talking about on the car ride home after another 11-point loss. That's cold comfort, I know, but for a franchise whose only signature face is its owner and whose sole successful season came courtesy of a bruising lunchpail defense that didn't exactly stir fans' hearts, it's a start. A tiny spark.
Kemba Walker may turn out to be another Bobcats draft pick that doesn't really turn into anything. But he's also the first Bobcats draft pick that seems like he could really be something. And for a fanbase looking for an anchor, that ain't nothing.
I'm so worried for you!
To the naked eye, there didn't seem like a whole lot about the Bobcats' offense in 2010-11 that you'd really call "exciting," and the stats confirm the suspicion. According to Hoopdata, Charlotte played at the league's fifth-slowest pace last season, posting the NBA's sixth-worst points per 100 possessions mark, and ranking in the bottom third of the league in field-goal percentage (23rd), 3-point percentage (29th) and free-throw percentage (21st). Add in the fact that the Bobcats enter this year having traded away Jackson and Wallace -- neither true centerpieces of efficient, top-tier offenses, but the team's top two scorers in each of the past two seasons, all the same -- and it looks like Charlotte's going to have a lot of trouble scoring the ball again this year.
Making matters worse, their primary scoring additions -- veteran swingman Corey Maggette, whom coach Paul Silas has said will be the focal point of the Charlotte offense, and rookie Walker -- don't seem equipped to fill the holes the Bobcats really need filled.
Throughout his 12-year career, Maggette's made his bones as an efficient wing scorer who racks up points by getting to the rim, using his muscular frame to absorb contact and making frequent trips to the free-throw line. He perennially posts a fantastic free-throw rate, getting to the line as much as or more than many low-post players, and converts freebies at about an 82 percent clip. Similarly, during his time at UConn, Walker earned a reputation as one of the nation's best at getting to the rim and drawing contact; he attempted the seventh-most free throws in the country last year. He also frequently used the combination of his slashing talents and his strong handle to create space in the mid-range game. (Just ask Gary McGhee about that.)
But while more free throws are great, getting to the line was actually one of Charlotte's strengths last year, as the team posted the NBA's sixth-best free-throw rate in 2010-11. The Bobcats offense also didn't suffer because they didn't get to the rim enough; in fact, only the Denver Nuggets attempted a higher percentage of short-range tries than the Bobcats last year.
Instead, Charlotte's issues seem to have much more to do with balance, floor spacing and shot-making. More than 61 percent of the Bobcats' shots came either right at the rim or from 16 to 23 feet away from the basket, with relatively little damage being done from mid-range, and the team did hardly any work from distance, ranking 26th in 3-point attempts, 27th in 3-point makes and 29th in 3-point percentage.
Neither Maggette nor Walker seem likely to solve the long-range problems — the former's a career 32.3 percent 3-point shooter, while the latter managed a 32.6 percent mark in three years at Storrs. Maggette's never had an especially strong mid-range game, and while Walker told the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell that mid-range shots are "where my money is," that he hit just 42.8 percent of his field goals in college suggests you can't bank on him to be cash when he lets it fly in the pros.
On top of that, the Bobcats returns just one player who hit at a better-than-league-average clip from 3-point range last season (holla back, Matt Carroll) and they've added no other shooters via trade or free agency. If you can't knock down shots, you can't spread the defense, and a packed-in defense leaves precious little space for slashers to operate, no matter how gifted they are. It's great that rebuilding has finally started in earnest in Charlotte, but on the offensive side of the ball, it's shaping up to be a loooong year.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Bismack Biyombo continues to sit on a folding chair at Bobcats training camp, unable to join in his teammates' reindeer games as he awaits the resolution of a civil court case to decide how much Charlotte will have to pay to buy the seventh overall pick out of his contract with Spanish team Fuenlabrada. The suspense is killing me; I'm sure he's not digging it too much, either.
Charlotte's reportedly working on bringing back free agent center Kwame Brown to bolster a frontline presently staffed by a single center: DeSagana Diop. That wafer-thin rotation is why getting Biyombo on the court and in the swing of things as soon as possible is so important for the Bobcats -- while teaming the Congolese big man with the likes of perpetual chaos demon Tyrus Thomas to wreak havoc in the paint and on the boards is potentially awesome, making sure that Boris Diaw doesn't have to play center is, and should always be, paramount, especially since Boris "kind of picked-and-choosed when [he] was practicing" while playing in France this summer. ("I took my Mondays off" is officially the most Boris Diaw thing to say.)
The sooner new Charlotte general manager Rich Cho can extricate Biyombo from the contract and get him in the mix, the sooner we'll find out if that crazy 7-foot-6 wingspan and explosive athleticism will really change games for the 'Cats. I can't wait, which is what makes the fact that Bismack has to wait all the more maddening.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
Charlotte Bobcats: Gang of Four's "To Hell With Poverty"
As one of the few owners with direct business interests on the sides of both the league and players, Michael Jordan had a peculiar lockout. In his role as small-market attack dog, Jordan pushed for major concessions from the union. In his role as head of Jordan Brand, he had to make sure his endorsed players remained marketable to the general public, which for the most part involved not making them look like selfish, overpaid jerks. It should be easy to see how he could have difficulty juggling the two roles.
For the Bobcats, there's no such duality -- Jordan is simply a small-market owner who doesn't seem to have much of a coherent plan for the organization. Last June, he oversaw a draft that brought Kemba Walker, a promising young point guard who unfortunately must play next to another small point with many of the same skills in D.J. Augustin. On top of that, the Bobcats traded away their best asset, Stephen Jackson, for notorious ball-stopper Corey Maggette, who could put in the worst 25-ppg average in NBA history this year. If Jordan had more of an idea of what he wanted to do with his franchise, his anti-player actions this summer might have come across as part of a principled stance. Instead, they just looked like angry rantings from a man who helped create (and still profits from) the same player-centric system he now professed to hate.
Still, it's hard to argue that Jordan wasn't sincere in his desire to turn the Bobcats into a more profitable venture. Stuck in a questionable market with little to get excited about on the court, Jordan likely wanted to lash out at a world that rewards players who don't play in minor NBA cities like Charlotte. It's a sentiment also expressed in Gang of Four's 1981 single "To Hell With Poverty." The refrain -- "To hell with poverty/ We'll get drunk on cheap wine" -- is at its most basic level an act of rage against the economic machine. In the face of a stacked deck, the best solution is to tell the world to piss off and get hammered.
However, that action does little to change the system itself. It's an act of futile aggression when substantive action is more likely to make things better; buying and drinking cheap wine primarily helps the corporation who produces it. Similarly, while Jordan may have a legitimate argument against the NBA system, it's hard to be sympathetic when his best response involves drafting a player who makes another young guy redundant and trading one bad contract for an even worse deal. Why should we help the Bobcats if they're just going to fritter away every chance they get?