The first thing I thought of after news broke Tuesday afternoon that the Charlotte Bobcats had fired head coach Mike Dunlap was the scene in "Major League II" in which radio announcer Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) narrates the aftermath of pitcher Rick Vaughn (pre-the-worst Charlie Sheen) convincing manager Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) to let him pitch to slugger Jack Parkman (David Keith), who was hitting "a shade under .900 against Vaughn."
"Obviously, Taylor's thinking ... I don't know what the hell he's thinking," Doyle says.
Firing Dunlap isn't some grave sin in and of itself; it's not like he'd proven himself to be a Coach of the Year candidate in waiting during his lone season at the Bobcats' helm or anything. No, it's more the "lone season" thing. Wasn't the whole point of veering away from the retread path to try something different? To acknowledge that just trying to get back to being good enough to get wiped out in the playoffs wasn't a goal worth striving for? To accept that rebuilding takes time, commitment and clarity of vision?
If so, then what does changing course after one year accomplish?
“[General manager] Rich Cho and I conducted our season-ending review and met with Coach Dunlap to reflect on this season. As an organization, it was decided that we needed to make a change with the head coach position,” Higgins said. “We want to thank Mike for his contribution and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”
Higgins was a bit more forthcoming in an email sent Tuesday to season ticket-holders. In that email, which was obtained by Steve Reed of The Associated Press, the team president wrote that he and Cho "'ultimately decided that [Dunlap] was not the right fit to lead our team into the future' and that 'in order to reach our goal of reshaping this franchise into one that can sustain long-term success, we needed to make this change.'"
"We believe our head coaching position will be an attractive one to potential candidates," Higgins said in the email. "This offseason, we will have an excellent opportunity to acquire a quality player with a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and we could have up to $21 million in space under the salary cap to add players via free agency or trade, so the foundation is solid for someone to come in and continue to build on our on court performance.
"With a young core that includes Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, we feel positive about where our team is relative to our plan."
For one thing, the relative draw of the 'Cats gig is a matter of some debate — this time last year, Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski termed it "one of the least appealing coaching jobs in modern NBA history", and Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press on Tuesday, citing Charlotte's relatively talent-poor roster, owner Michael Jordan's unwillingness to pay top-dollar for a coach and the fact that the last guy got run out of town in just one season. (Don't expect Stan Van Gundy or Jerry Sloan to come beating down the door for this gig.)
For another: Um, what's that "plan" again, exactly?
Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knew when Paul Silas was sent packing last year that the Bobcats were at the very beginning of what promised to be a long rebuilding process; after all, when your team finishes with the worst single-season winning percentage in NBA history, it stands to reason that righting the ship is going to take some time.
This, it seemed, was why Jordan and Cho tapped Dunlap, an assistant at St. John's University who'd earned a reputation as a tactician and taskmaster at the college level but had little pro experience — get a coach with a sharp Xs-and-Os mind and a penchant for discipline, hand him the reins of a young and inexperienced roster, and let them grow on the job together. And yet, despite presiding over a roster that a staff of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Gregg Popovich couldn't coax into a winner, Dunlap received just 82 games worth of rope ... even though, while still absolutely dreadful, the Bobcats made demonstrable improvements in some areas.
For starters, Charlotte's dismal 21-61 record (.256 winning percentage) more than doubled last year's historically awful 7-59 (.106) mark. The Bobcats posted better field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages this year than last year, making for improved effective field goal (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) and True Shooting (which also factors in the value of free throws) percentages. They turned the ball over on a lower share of their offensive possessions than they did last year, too.
With Dunlap relying more on small-ball lineups and looking to push the pace, Charlotte averaged three more fast-break points a game than last year (finishing seventh in the NBA in that category) and took three more free throw attempts per game. Their already abhorrent defense (allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions in '11-'12) got even worse (108.9-per-100 in '12-'13) thanks to Dunlap's reliance on a woefully ineffective paint-packing zone scheme, but the offensive gains (from scoring 92.3-per-100 last year to 98.3-per-100 this year) gave them the league's second-biggest jump in efficiency differential this year.
Some of the credit for those incremental improvements, of course, belongs to Kemba Walker taking a step forward in his second year and some roster augmentations — Ramon Sessions was a nice addition, rookies Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor look like keepers, and Josh McRoberts was a fun late-season arrival. But as Ben Swanson of Bobcats blog Rufus on Fire noted, "Dunlap seemed to at least instill the players with a better work ethic, making for a team that competed a lot more than last year." That seems like a pretty big deal, what with another lottery trip in the offing and more youth on its way into the fold, but apparently the 'Cats think they'll be able to lure another coach who brings both that competitive fire and a more successful schematic approach to making chicken salad out of chicken scratch on the defensive end.
"The search for [Dunlap's] successor will begin immediately," according to the team statement. The Bobcats used the exact same language this time last year after "parting ways" with Silas last April; that search led them to Dunlap. One suspects the Bobcats' front office hopes to turn up better results this time around.