Coach Larry Brown has the Charlotte Bobcats as close to competitors as they've been since their inception before the 2004-05 season.
Although the Bobcats' 12 victories through their first 29 games only has them on pace to post a win total in the low 30s (like they have in each of the past three seasons), there is more solidarity among the team and cause for hope among the fans.
A major reason for this is the emergence of a three-headed monster of sorts in Charlotte.
Since Stephen Jackson joined the team in mid-November, he has fit in nicely with Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton—meaning the team actually has options now in critical situations. Jackson and Wallace rest neck-and-neck atop the Bobcats' individual scoring sheet with 18.7 and 18 points per game respectively, and log more minutes per game than the rest of the team.
Felton has contributed nicely this season after an offseason that saw his status as a Bobcat in question because of free agency. He is just behind Jack and Gerald with 12.6 points per game and also logs the most minutes outside of the two go-to scorers.
It almost seems as if the Bobcats are easing their way into earning respect in the league, one piece at a time.
First, they got serious about a coach and hired Brown, a seasoned veteran of the NBA who has just about seen it all. Then, they made a move to bring in a legitimate No. 1 scoring option in Jackson, meaning Wallace didn't have to shoulder the burden of being the team's best defender, best rebounder, best leader, AND best scorer any longer.
Now the focus needs to be on bringing in a reliable big man. Back in July, the team traded its first-ever draft pick, Emeka Okafor, to New Orleans for Tyson Chandler, the oft-injured former second overall pick who has recently earned fame catching alley-oops from Chris Paul.
Okafor was a solid rebounder and a double-double machine during his tenure in Charlotte, and was also a constant shot-blocking threat. So far this season, Chandler has looked strikingly out of shape and lethargic, racking up more fouls than points on more than a few occasions.
Okafor has played in four more games than Chandler, but is just two-tenths of a rebound shy of a double-double average and has nearly doubled Chandler's block total.
Chandler has posted double-digit rebounds in just six contests, while Okafor has accomplished the feat 18 times. Wallace leads the Bobcats in rebounding, averaging 11.9 per game, while Chandler's average rests at seven.
Wallace casually called Chandler out along with Boris Diaw after a 110-102 home loss to Utah in mid-December, saying the team had no production from the "4 and 5" positions. Chandler responded by saying he was injured and that the team wasn't good enough for players to be pointing fingers.
If there is one player on this team that has the right to call his teammates out in the press, it is certainly Wallace.
Chandler's injury woes have come to light since then, as he is currently inactive due to a stress reaction in his left foot. He has mentioned that he won't be 100 percent until midseason, but hasn't done a very good job of convincing anyone in Charlotte that his 100 percent would be anything better than Okafor's on any given night.
Nazr Mohammed has filled in nicely for Chandler, and appears to display a greater work ethic in games. But it's unclear whether that is really because of Chandler's injury problems, or if Mohammed's rigorous offseason workout program is causing a solid turnaround.
Felton is only averaging a little over five assists per game, in large part because he doesn't have anybody to feed to down low in the post. With a solid option down low, Felton could become more of a true point guard and not be forced to shoulder such a large chunk of the scoring on a nightly basis, leading to more offensive consistency.
Perhaps the most glaring issue for the Bobcats this year has been their performance on the road.
At first glance, the team's 11-4 home record would lead the untrained eye to believe that the Bobcats were a top-flight team in the East. A more thorough look will reveal quite the contrary. The Bobcats are a sickening 1-13 away from Time Warner Cable Arena this year; which doesn't bode well for them if they do, indeed, make their first playoff appearance this season.
They haven't had any breaks on the road, losing by an average of almost nine points per game and failing to reach the 100-point mark. They have reached that plateau seven times at home and sport a 6-1 record in those games.
Their only road win was a 92-76 handling of the Wizards on Thanksgiving weekend.
The four home losses have all come against formidable opponents: Orlando, Boston, Portland, and Utah. Those teams are a combined 82-41 on the season. However, the road losses have not played favorites, with losses to everyone from the league-worst Nets to the LeBron-led Cavs.
There is no proven method for winning road games, but something must be done to fix the all-out failure that has been the Bobcats' road performance. They are worst in the league in points per game and free throw percentage on the road. It is still early in the season, so nothing is insurmountable at this point.
One thing that needs to happen fast, though, is the establishment of an identity.
The Bobcats do not rank in the top 20 in any stat category outside of steals per game (13th). They are 14th in free throw attempts, but are 29th in free throw percentage and we all know that free throws win and lose close games.
It is also unsettling that while they are such an inconsistent team on offense, the Bobcats also turn the ball over almost 16 times per game, second most in the league.
This team needs to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and work harder to balance the two.
If the season ended today, the Bobcats would hold the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference, and would be booking a flight to Boston to take on the Celtics for a pair of games.
That's not the position they want to be in, and they have a realistic shot of perhaps climbing as high as the sixth seed over the course of the rest of the regular season.
The top five seem to be locked up between Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, and Miami. After that, there is a logjam that includes Charlotte, Toronto, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York for the remaining three playoff spots.
It isn't unrealistic to wonder what the Bobcats would look like with consistent production from a big man down low and a road record that is even half as good as their home mark.
In his second season, coach Brown has almost all of his pieces in place, and is starting to see spurts of his team "playing the right way"; the team's slogan for the season. A little more consistency could make this the year the Bobcats finally get their feet wet in the postseason.
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