It's hard not to get excited about this time of year if you're a basketball fan. Last season we were denied a normal basketball schedule, and all of the news coming out of the NBA was bogged down by the lockout.
Fans didn't get to look at the rookies their team drafted because there was no summer league or training camp. Rookies didn't get the opportunity to test the NBA waters before diving in, and veterans didn't get a chance to build the chemistry necessary for a professional sports team to succeed.
All of this was extremely apparent in the Charlotte Bobcats, perhaps more so than any other team in the NBA. The Bobcats had a fragile core to begin with, and a ragtag group of newcomers and rookies coming in with fairly little NBA experience.
Veterans like Corey Maggette and Tyrus Thomas were either injured or completely ineffective on the court, and try as they might, rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo just couldn't keep the team afloat.
Things are different this year though. The Bobcats added quality pieces in the draft, free agency, and by trade. Walker and Biyombo now have a season and a full summer under their belts. Incoming rookies Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor showed promise in summer league, and other players at Bobcats summer league looked great as they led the Bobcats to a 4-1 record.
The first game of summer league was the first time the organization had seen a win in almost 30 games, and there were strong feelings of enthusiasm to be had by all.
Will the success carry over into the regular season? Who's going to be the best performer of this season, and will the incoming rookies and new veterans live up to the hype?
I'm going to attempt to answer those questions, but it's important to keep in mind that the NBA is a volatile league where anything can happen.
I guess we should start out with one of Charlotte's biggest strengths going into next year, and that's their depth in the backcourt. Despite not retaining D.J. Augustin (now with the Indiana Pacers), the Bobcats managed to get better at the one and two.
They added Ramon Sessions to replace Augustin, Ben Gordon as a three-point specialist to open up the court, and Jeffery Taylor in the draft. Taylor's primary position is SF, but he has excellent shooting mechanics and can drop a three, so it stands to reason he could play the two if necessary.
Kemba Walker will be returning from a respectable rookie season in which he averaged 12.1 PPG, and Gerald Henderson will be back after the best year of his career, averaging 15.1 PPG.
Altogether, the four main guards (Walker, Henderson, Sessions and Gordon) make up a solid backcourt that is easily the Bobcat's biggest strength.
Walker improved his shot selection skills as last season went on and he also improved his passing. It's going to be a tough decision on who should start at the point between Sessions and Walker, though both will likely see equal playing time.
Same for shooting guard. Henderson and Gordon are two very different shooting guards that provide excellent variety of play. Henderson is more of a slash-to-the-rim type of player and he has a solid mid-range jumper, but can't shoot a three-pointer. Gordon is the complete opposite—one of the best three-point shooters in the game, but can't do much else.
All of these guards should score at least in the double digits. If one of them doesn't, it will be considered a letdown.
Well, there's no point in beating around the bush. Tyrus Thomas kind of sucked last year. Thomas embodied all of the negatives that defined the Bobcats last year—poor work ethic, young and raw, lethargic, and a bad attitude.
You can't say he didn't; we all know he did.
But I'm still a fan of Thomas. I wrote an article not too long ago (here) about the decision the Bobcats were facing this offseason: Thomas is set to make $8 million over the next three years, and he has drastically underperformed.
He was given his first real chance to start and it ended up being a complete disaster. Despite being handed the starting job on a golden plate, Thomas only managed 18.8 MPG, 5.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG, and an embarrassing .367 FG percentage, nearly 100 points below his career average.
He was just bad. He didn't try, he got into arguments, and by all accounts he was part of the problem in the clubhouse. Thomas is entering his sixth year as a pro basketball player, and, in such a young clubhouse, Thomas should be held accountable for helping pick things up, not flipping the table over.
All that being said, I think Thomas is in for a much better year. He'll have the opportunity to play for a vastly improved team. Charlotte's backcourt is going to be pretty solid (see previous slide), and he'll also get the shot to be matched up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the other side or the basket. The 'Cats new coaching staff is a big deal too; Thomas seemed to have a lot of problems with the coaches last year.
Don't expect him to put up 15 PPG and 10 RPG. Don't even expect him to start very often. But with a lineup that is very thin at PF, Thomas should get plenty of minutes, and he could be in for a much better year.
I think Jeff Taylor will end up proving to be the steal of the draft. A lot of draft boards had him going in the 20's, yet somehow (quite fortunately for the Bobcats), Taylor was there for the first pick in the second round.
Jeff Taylor was one of three Vanderbilt players selected, the last one of the three to be picked. Center Festus Ezeli was picked immediately before him at 30th overall, and SG John Jenkins was selected 23rd overall. Strangely, I think Taylor is the best of the three, leading me to believe that the teams that drafted Ezeli and Jenkins were drafting for need over talent, a big no-no in sports.
Taylor is a prime example of drafting for talent. The Bobcats had already drafted SF Kidd-Gilchrist at No. 2 overall, and they could have easily tried picking up a big man with their 31st pick, something they needed more than another rookie SF. But GM Rich Cho made the right decision and drafted for talent.
He's going to have to sit a lot this year. He is going to be the second fiddle to MKG's virtuoso, but he'll still come in for some great minutes. He is versatile enough to play SG as well, so he could get time for both positions.
Taylor is more refined than MKG right now. He has excellent shooting mechanics, is much better shooting a three than MKG, and is nearly equal to MKG's famed defensive tenacity.
I honestly think Taylor will be a starter eventually. He has the talent, the drive, and the physique to start at SF and/or SG, and I expect him to come off the bench very effectively this year.
10 PPG and 4-5 RPG is not that far-fetched, especially with his ability to hit three-pointers.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was drafted second overall, so it makes sense that he'd be in the top 3 for NBA Rookie of the Year honors right?
Well, some people don't really think so, and they have some solid reasons. MKG enters the league as one of the most unrefined picks in the lottery, drafted almost entirely because of his physical traits, defensive skills and potential.
But as far as Rookie of the Year goes, there seems to be some other draftees who can step up and keep MKG out of the top three.
I don't think it's going to happen, though. I don't think MKG is going to finish lower than third. Not with the situation he's having thrust upon him and the duties he's expected to cover.
It's very likely (in fact, probable) that MKG gets around 30 minutes per game in his first season: the Bobcats got rid of their two other small forwards this offseason (Corey Maggette and Derrick Brown) in order to make room for MKG and Taylor.
But MKG is a fierce player who is going to thrive in Coach Mike Dunlap's new play scheme. MKG is a high-velocity player, incredibly good at creating turnovers and scoring in transition from those turnovers. He's great at attacking the rim, and has a good (but ugly) mid-range jumper that is going to require teams to spot him with a man constantly.
He should manage to provide excellent statistical output for the Bobcats, who are pretty much laying the franchise in his lap and saying, "please, please do something with this."
I think he will.
Henderson had all sorts of team accolades at the end of last season. He was the team's highest scorer, the team's most improved player and MVP, and whenever he was on the court, he pretty much looked like the only one who knew what he was doing on Charlotte's side.
Henderson has excellent size for the position, he's an incredible athlete, and he possesses some great tools that have really started to show themselves.
He's a hard scorer, similar to MKG. The bread and butter of Henderson's scoring output is in transition and attacking the rim either for a murderous dunk or stepping back for a soft floater. He's an excellent defender, and over the course of last season and this offseason he has proven to fans, coaches, and other players that he is a good leader.
That's why the Bobcats made him the team's captain. Hard working, athletic, and tough-nosed defending is what Coach Dunlap is going for this year, and Henderson has all of those qualities covered.
The Bobcats picked up Ben Gordon this offseason, causing pretty much everyone to wonder who is going to start at the two-spot. I honestly can't imagine the Bobcats starting a game without Henderson on the court if he's healthy. He's too good and too important for this club.
If Henderson continues to improve, he's going to make a case to represent the Bobcats in the NBA All-Star game. Corey Maggette said at the end of last season that Henderson is a future All-Star, and I have to believe him.
That kind of optimism is hard to come by if you like the Bobcats.
This one might be kind of a stretch, but why not?
Bismack Biyombo was drafted pretty much entirely because of his physical talent. He stands a tall 6'9" with a ridiculous, pterodactyl-like wingspan of 7'6". When drafted, he had virtually no offensive talents, but was already a great defender, capable of guarding the best of the best in the paint.
Biyombo blocked almost two shots in only 23.1 minutes per game. The only reason it wasn't higher is because Biyombo took a little more adjusting in getting used to how tough refs are in the NBA. He got into foul trouble often, so he had to back his approach off a bit on defense.
But still, you can't teach wingspan, you can't teach instinct, and you can only marginally teach shot-blocking aptitude. Biyombo has all three of those things.
He showed his potential in a couple of his big games against the Orlando Magic when Dwight Howard was still trying to whine his way to a new city. On March 6th, Biymobo scored 10 points, drew in 15 rebounds, and blocked an impressive seven shots. He did all of this playing in the center against the best center in the game.
Howard has two inches on Biyombo, but Biz plays with a constant chip on his shoulder and almost takes it personally when someone else gets a rebound over him. Not that there were many rebounds getting past him that night, but it still proved what he's capable of.
Biyombo will have to play two spots this year. The Bobcats don't have a lot of great size, so he might be forced to play some center and some power forward, even though I think he's more suited for center.
Regardless of the accolades he receives at the end of the season, I think it's fair to say that he'll end up being regarded as one of the better defensive big men in the game, capable of being Charlotte's own Serge Ibaka.
With the Bobcats claiming Brendan Haywood off of waivers to play center and hopefully young Bismack maturing, Charlotte may have some freedom with what they want to do with Byron Mullens.
I've said it a million times: "Byron Mullens is a shooting guard trapped in a center's body." Sure, he's seven feet tall and it even appears that he bulked up a little bit this offseason so he can play the boards more aggressively, but at the end of the day, we all know what Mullens is itching to do.
Shoot the ball.
He's just not the kind of player who finds solace in grabbing rebounds and defending the paint. It usually looks like he has about one thing on his mind on the court, and that is shooting the ball.
At times, that can make the Bobcats better. Other times...well, not so much. He's still struggling to find consistency in his jump shot which is honestly understandable, considering the fact that in his first two seasons as a professional with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he only got 139 minutes combined.
Byron is still figuring out what kind of player he is, but when I look at him I see more Dirk Nowitzki than I see Dwight Howard.
Not saying he's as good as either of them, but Byron is just a shooter. Howard gets his points in the paint, while Nowitzki has a soft shooting hand and can make a jumper. That's Byron Mullens.
Now that he has a full season under his belt, Mullens will have to show coaches he has matured as a player. That means understanding that he has to do more on the other side of the ball, and not running down and shooting a three-pointer every possession.
Moving him to PF makes sense; I think it's a position he's more naturally suited for, and I think he'll find consistency there to play the way he wants to play. He could become a very dangerous weapon this year.
I feel like this is an article where, in the process of writing it, I kind of vindicate myself of last season's Bobcat team.
I know the Bobcats are going to be better this season. There's no way they could be worse, and they added enough talent to at least stay competitive. They're not going to get blown out every night like last year.
A major problem with last year was just the way Paul Silas coached the players. He emphasized a strong fundamental approach, but with a young team like the Bobcats it just looked lethargic. The players on the team were just too raw to play that style of basketball, and it showed in the box scores.
Fortunately though, Mike Dunlap has a good idea on how to keep this team competitive and make them exciting again. To put it simply, apply pressure, score in transition, repeat.
It's obviously more complicated than that, but that's the basic gist of it. Dunlap wants the Bobcats to set the tone for defense early in the game, and he wants his team to be in better shape than everyone else.
With a team as young as this, there really is no excuse for them not to be the most conditioned. Fresh legs, hungry attitudes, and more talent.
Dunlap is going to push this team to its limits, and even guys like DeSagana Diop are going to have to run a little bit. Of course, hopefully Gana doesn't get much playing time. That would mean an actual good player is hurt or something, and we don't want that. Not when you have Diop waiting to come stand in the paint. Literally. He might even carry his chair out there and try to block shots from there.
But seriously, the defense and high-paced transition offense is going to benefit the Bobcats in a big way. Guys like Kemba Walker, MKG and Gerald Henderson are going to absolutely thrive in this style of play.
Okay, I already know how a lot of people feel about this one. I've kind of tossed this idea out there in a few articles, and not many people were having it. The general consensus for this season seems to be around 25, topping out at 30.
I'm doomed to forever be an optimistic sports fan, though. I look at how much the Bobcats improved their personnel this offseason, I look at what Mike Dunlap is doing as a coach, I look at their summer league performances, and I completely buy into the idea that the Bobcats can push to win 30-35 games.
Especially when you look at the rest of what went on in the division. A case can be made that the only two teams in the division got better are the Washington Wizards and the Bobcats. Miami added Ray Allen, but I'm not even going to count that—it's going to be hard for the Heat to get any better, even with one of the best three-point shooters of all time on their team.
The Bobcats added a lot of talent (MKG, Taylor, Gordon, Haywood, Sessions) and performed well in the summer league. Kemba Walker looks like he's ready to take the next step from respectable rookie season on a horrible team to respectable sophomore season on a better team, and Biyombo looked like he made strides in his post game.
The Bobcats are going to have more options, and their starting lineup will be one that actually commands a little bit of respect. They're going to push other teams to keep up with them and their pace, and few are going to be able to actually keep pace with this young team's legs.
For those reasons, I think the Bobcats are going to win quite a few games this year. They're not going to make the playoffs, they're not going to compete with the top teams in the league, but they're going to be competitive and win some games. I guess that's all you can ask for out of a team that only won 10 percent of their games in the previous year.
Losses... so many losses.
Wait, what? How did this happen?
It's pretty simple, really. As I mentioned in the previous slide, the Bobcats and the Wizards improved while the Hawks and the Magic got worse—the Magic in particular.
The Hawks are still potentially a playoff team, but they're going to need someone else to step up and lead the team with Joe Johnson leaving for Brooklyn.
And the Magic? Well, the Magic just straight up bulldozed this season. They've all but tied a white table cloth to a stick. This was always meant to be the season where the Magic were supposed to start their reboot. No one anticipated Dwight Howard to stick around after this year. With all of the horrible contracts they still have to deal with, things just aren't going to be pretty in Orlando.
The blue and white won't be igniting for a few seasons, and they're going to be worse than the Bobcats this year.
For years, Orlando fans have been spoiled. High-seeded playoff teams and getting to watch the best center in the game work his magic (pun only slightly intended); it was all doomed to crumble sooner or later.
The Magic adopted a very firm "win-now" attitude several years ago when they drafted Howard and continued to trade for players at the end of their prime who were still performing well.
As a Bobcat fan, I have a hard time finding sympathy. The Magic did this to themselves, and they've been spoiled for the better part of a decade anyway. But still, they really got slammed by Howard this offseason, and they were so desperate to get him out of town that they accepted a terrible package for him. So now it's a mixture of young, raw, inexperienced players with a few old players who were only marginally good in their prime.
Sound like anyone you know? The Magic have become the Bobcats.
Any Orlando fans reading this, I really am sorry. It's going to be a tough year for you guys. Just know that I know how it feels.
Good news for Bobcats fans though. We won't have to watch the Bobcats sit on the floor of the division constantly and we don't have to watch D12 swatting our shots anymore. Those reasons alone are enough to get me jumping up and down in my seat.