The Bobcats, for the first time in their existence, are feeling the weight of expectations now that they're coming off of their first-ever Playoff run, and they may be in for a rough go of it in their bid to repeat (and improve upon) that success.
First, the ‘Cats should be given credit for making an early season move last year to net themselves Stephen Jackson and then a subsequent mid-season trade that brought them Tyrus Thomas, as both were instrumental pieces in Charlotte making the post-season for the first time in the organization's history. Those acquisitions demonstrated both a willingness to spend and a realistic evaluation of team needs, both areas of want in the history of the club, and they suggested a newfound talent for building a basketball organization in Charlotte.
However, to respond to that achievement by trading away Tyson Chandler and then losing starting point guard Raymond Felton (without replacing either) has once again raised questions as to this team's ability to make sensible offseason improvements to account for what the team needs to improve. That's without even mentioning the reunion of owner Michael Jordan with onetime whipping boy Kwame Brown, a storyline richer in humor than in savvy for this basketball club.
The serious issue at hand here, though, is losing Felton. While not re-signing him made a lot of sense in a lot of ways, mostly because of his 40% shooting and paltry 5 assists-per-game in the Playoffs, he was the team's starting point guard and he has still not been replaced. Remember that this team was 24th in the league in offensive efficiency already, and losing their only starting-calibre point guard (regardless of mediocre he played at times) is going to hurt that standing. The Bobcats leaned heavily on their league-leading defense last season to get to the Playoffs, but they still need some measure of offensive composure to compete in the NBA. This year the Bobcats are hoping that a platoon of sophomore disappointment D.J. Augustin and a broken-down Shaun Livingston can get them by while the club relies even heavier on the playmaking skills of Boris Diaw, one of the best passing forwards in the NBA.
If Diaw can hold down the playmaking fort, then another peril faces this club, and that is the aforementioned spike in expectations. Prior to last season, no one ever expected much of this organization and this organization provided little in return as recompense. Poor drafts, poor on-court play, poor use of cap space – this team was a disappointment in just about every field. However, they snuck into the Playoffs last year on the back of a strong second-half rally and that is going to ramp up people's appetites in Charlotte, once an NBA hotspot in the days of the Hornets. Forgotten is the fact that this team was only two games above .500 when they qualified. Also forgotten is how thoroughly Orlando abused them in their four-and-out series in the first round. All people seem to remember now is that this team made the Playoffs last year and that bigger and better things are expected to come from that achievement. Since this roster made zero upgrades in the summer and must now fend off improved teams in New York and Indiana that are vying for their post-season berth, the Bobcats are looking to be in bad shape as it pertains to repeating last year's success.
As of this writing, the Bobcats are still in possession of Erick Dampier's $13-million non-guaranteed contract, and they could still manage to turn that asset into help in the post or at the point guard spot before the season tips off. Until we can see what this team can do with that contract, however, there can be no illusions that this club has much of a shot at doing anything beyond booking a trip back to the NBA lottery.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – Shaun Livingston
If you want a reason to be worried, here it is. Livingston was once considered the next great thing at point guard spot when he was drafted by the Clippers fourth overall in 2004. However, a devastating knee injury has had him struggling to make a meaningful comeback in the NBA for two years and despite opportunities in Miami, Oklahoma City and Washington, he's done little to show that he'll be able to regain the form that had so many so excited for his future. Let's keep in mind that Livingston was only ever a player trading on potential, even before his injury. He never ‘arrived' as an NBA star, and so the most anyone could reasonable expect from him, even if he's fully recovered, is an intriguing backup option because of his size and handles. If this team wants to return to the Playoffs, though, they'll need to upgrade this spot well before the trade deadline to keep their record above water.
SG – Stephen Jackson
Much like he did when he first arrived in Golden State, Jackson acted like a man reborn after his trade to Charlotte. He would up averaging 21.1 points for a team in desperate need of that kind of offensive juice (even if it was on a pedestrian 42% from the field) and his commitment to pressure defense helped prevent this team from losing it's trademark upon his arrival. The scary part about Jackson, though, is that he has a history of wearing out his welcome with teams rather quickly. Last year with Golden State was the first time he'd reported to a third training camp with the same team, and he did so loudly demanding a trade out of town. At 32-years-old one hopes he has matured and found a home in Charlotte, but head coach Larry Brown is a fickle man and if Jackson starts to even hint at a return to a less seemly attitude, he could find himself if Brown's doghouse pleading for a seventh career relocation before season's end.
SF – Gerald Wallace
For years Wallace was the basketball pundits unheralded darling, the do-it-all forward who played with such an irrepressible passion for the game that he earned the nickname ‘Crash' for his propensity for receiving hard falls (and bad injuries). Brown committed to playing Wallace exclusively at the small forward spot last season (previous coaches had played him heavily as an undersized power forward) and that led to him playing a career-high 76 games and afforded him his first-ever All-Star berth and an invitation to play with Team USA this summer (he was cut before he reached the World Championships, however). Wallace, it can be said, has finally arrived at age 28 and will look to continue his stellar all-around play after his first trip to the Playoffs in six years. As an original Bobcat, no player on this team wants to see it maintain its upward momentum as badly as he does.
PF – Boris Diaw
This team would love nothing more than to start Tyrus Thomas and his new $40-million contract in this spot, but without a tested point guard, Diaw needs to start for this team. The Bobcats were +2.8 points when he was on the court for the club last season, which was important for the third-lowest scoring team in the NBA last season since they needed to squeeze every point they can get out of this roster. Despite having lower assists last year than in his first year with the club (4.0 versus 4.9), he was assisting at a higher rate last season, and this team simply needs that ability on the court as much as possible this year. If they can trade for a point guard then Diaw and his $18-million left on his deal will be next out the door, but for now the club needs him to much to ship him anywhere.
C – Nazr Mohammed
Mohammed is a perfectly serviceable backup centre, but as a starter on a club looking to make some noise this year, he's a little less-than-stellar. The Bobcats were willing to swap-out Tyson Chandler to acquire Dampier's deal because they felt that they could parlay Dampier into more assets that could help all over the roster. Instead, they've been unable to tempt teams with his non-guaranteed money and that left the team without a dynamic centre, or even a single centre option that would start on most NBA teams. Point guard is the bigger area of worry on this club, but if they can address that spot before training camp then centre moves to the top of that “most wanted” list.