The Charlotte Bobcats are quietly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Since the new year has dawned, the Bobcats are 10-4, winning all but one of those games in a stretch win which they took nine out of 10.
The Bobcats' winning ways were recently derailed by three straight double-digit losses to playoff teams in Atlanta, at home to Orlando, and in Denver, the game which started their current six-game Western Conference swing.
Tuesday night’s overtime win in Phoenix will be used as a springboard into the meat of that road trip, as the Bobcats have two days off now to prepare for a stretch where they will play four games in six days before heading back to the friendly confines of Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Bobcats are still a team that struggles mightily on the road, but have made some progress in recent weeks. Tuesday night’s win was just the fourth road win of the season for Charlotte, three of which have come in January, where the team is .500 away from home for the month.
As the Bobcats wrap up their west coast tour, they will likely welcome Tyson Chandler back to the rotation. Chandler has been out for over a month with a stress reaction in his left foot. Chandler is “pain free” for the first time since the diagnosis, according to the Charlotte Observer, and hopes to practice some this week with the intention of playing towards the end of the road trip.
I find myself wondering if this is a blessing or a curse for this Bobcats team. Nazr Mohammed has stepped in nicely as the team’s starting center in the absence of Chandler, who before his exit from the lineup was playing a very lazy and sloppy brand of basketball. Granted, he was obviously playing hurt, but there comes a time when sucking it up and playing through pain hurts your team, and Chandler had clearly reached that point.
Mohammed is averaging 8.7 points and just under five rebounds per game in the 17 games Chandler has missed, over two points better than Chandler’s season average while falling short by two boards of his rebounding average. How many times over the years have we seen teams go on a run without a star player and then struggle to keep the same chemistry when he comes back? Not that Chandler is necessarily a star on this team, but the principal is the same.
The thing that has been most impressive about Mohammed doesn’t show up on the stat sheet though.
Nazr said before the season started that there was no reason this team wasn’t finishing better in the standings than their franchise-best 36 wins a year ago, and that as the most tenured player on the team he was going to take matters into his own hands to see to it that this group lived up to its potential. I’m not sure how much of this season can be accredited directly towards Nazr, but something is working.
In nearly every game I’ve attended this year, Nazr is the first Bobcat out of the tunnel shooting during halftime. He hustles up and down the court and plays solid defense without getting into any severe foul trouble—another area that Chandler has struggled in this season. In short, he gives 100 percent effort night in and night out, something I have not yet seen from Chandler in a Bobcats uniform.
Now, the return of a much healthier Chandler could be the push this team needs to make a legitimate post-All Star Break run at the Eastern Conference playoffs, but until Chandler starts to play in a way that justifies the Okafor trade, I won’t be the only one who isn’t convinced that Chandler is the answer at center. Above-average production from a big man in Charlotte would do wonders for the consistency of this team.
The Bobcats have avoided the injury bug for the majority of the year, and have not had to deal with any real devastating long-term injuries to date. If they can stay healthy and Chandler can increase his production coming off of the injury, then you will see this team in the playoffs. The scramble in the East right now is for the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth playoff spots. Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, and Atlanta have the top four seeds pretty much under wraps, with 5.5 games currently separating Orlando and Miami between fourth and fifth.
The difference between the fifth and eighth seed is only 1.5 games, so every contest counts—even in late January.