Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Charlotte Bobcats 2006-2007 Team Preview

I should probably begin this analysis with a polemic on why I am qualified to assess our orange-clad Quadrupeds of Destiny. Well, I can sum it up with two words, four numbers, and one hyphen: January 11th – February 1st. This refers to that grizzly stretch last season when the Bobcats lost a staggering thirteen games in a row, "culminating" with a 10-point loss to Atlanta, for god’s sake. I watched every last painful minute of this stretch—every missed shot, every inadvertent ball hitting an un-alert Matt Carroll in the face, every Bernie Bickerstaff head-slap of frustration, every uncomfortable moment of commentator Matt Devlin attempting to talk “jive”—all of it. One of the games I actually taped. Need I say more? I love this team on a Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction level.

Even more crazy is the fact that I’m actually eager and thankful to cheer for this team. How is that possible, you ask? Simple: I used to be a Knicks fan. Growing up in the suburban NYC-area, I cut my teeth on the grittiness of Xavier, Patrick, and Starks, only to watch in disillusioned shame as the Knicks matched, overtook, and have now lapped their MSG-roommates the Rangers in horrific free-agent overpayments. Thus when I relocated to quaint little North Carolina a few years ago, it was time to start afresh with a new home, a new career, and a new NBA (and NFL) team. Granted, the Knicks and football Giants pushed me out as much as the Bobcats and Panthers pulled me in.

Even when I move back to New York next year, I’m staying true to the Bobcats and Panthers. I’m pretty sure my time here in North Carolina will mark the greatest epoch of my lifetime: I got married, enjoyed the carefree times of grad school, and basically took a nice long swim in Lake Me. So I’ll be commemorating my blissful period in this land of lush foliage via everlasting love of its sports franchises…assuming Bob Johnson doesn’t pull the plug, sell the team, and they end up being, like, the Las Vegas Aces or something. Christ, what then for me, back to the Knicks!? Let’s talk about this team before I slit my wrists...

Last year, rebounding killed us. We ranked 24th in the league in rebounds/game, and we were particularly atrocious in defensive rebounds. The reasons for this aren’t exactly mysterious, considering Emeka Okafor (10.0 RPG) missed 56 games and goofy center Primoz Brezec (5.6 RPG) has the approximate upper-body strength of Napoleon Dynamite. If only Sean May and Brezec could conduct some kind of body-fat transplant, the two would even each other out nicely. Speaking of May, he’ll need to step up his 4.7 RPG somehow, and playing more than 23 games would be a good start. It got kind of annoying to see him sitting on the bench every night in dress-casual with a vaguely diagnosed “bad knee,” looking somewhat less than remorseful about not suiting up. Meanwhile, Gerald Wallace, all 6-7” of him, ended up playing a considerable amount of time at the 4 with the two NCAA golden boy champs sitting out. He did a pretty decent job (7.5 RPG) thanks to his athleticism and hustle, but obviously this is not his optimal spot. Melvin Ely also got plenty of run from the injuries and has a decent post-up game, but he tended to collect his third foul roughly midway through the first quarter, resulting in a pretty feeble 4.9 RPG. Ely is definitely not starter material at this time. Rookie Adam Morrison will hopefully see lots of time at the 3, but he’s not exactly known for his rebounding prowess. So the bottom line is, May and Okafor need to assert themselves on the boards (rather than the fast food line). Maybe they can work out a scheme where Morrison distracts opponent would-be rebounders with his mustache, or have Brevin Knight hop on Brezec’s shoulders—I don’t know, get creative with it…

All right enough about rebounding, because as putrid as it was, the shooting was even more foul. The ‘Cats were dead last in shooting percentage last year. A few of the bigs actually have some nice touch though. During his brief stay on the active roster, May displayed a pretty rainbow shot and some soft-touch banks--Brezec too. In fact, even though I like to tease him, Brezec (12.4 PPG) is all hustle, running around with his arms constantly up and his head on the swivel, looking comically similar to a 7th grader trying his hardest on a fundamentals drill at practice. And for whatever reason, there’s this spot about 12-feet off to the right side of the hoop where he literally does not miss (though it can be maddening to wait for his high-arcing shot to finally come back down and reenter the atmosphere). And Ely has the ability to back his way in for an easy turnaround layup. Assuming they stay healthy, the Forwards are big, solid, and youthful upfront.

I guess I should also mention 27-year-old rookie Walter Herrman, except—quite honestly—I have no f---in’ idea who he is. Apparently, he’s 6-9”and he put up 10.5 PPG last year, but this was in a Spanish league, and that’s like telling me you’ll give me 8 million Russian rubles; I have no idea what that’s worth. Coach Bickerstaff recently referred to his foot injury as “a good thing”—huh? Doesn’t sound like Ely’s backup job is in danger. The other “major” acquisition was getting-long-in-the-tooth Othella Harrington, who along with hulking Jake Voskuhl, should be good for mop-up minutes.

The main question here is how to configure everyone. Last year it started with dependable Brevin Knight on point and Raymond Felton subbing in for him. Then it flip-flopped. Then they were both out. Then Matt Carroll would randomly act like he’d just shot-gunned a six-pack of Red Bulls and either make or grab his own rebounds for 10 3’s in a row while running 5 windsprints at full speed around the perimeter. Coach Bickerstaff would shrewdly ride Carroll’s bender as long as he could and then sub in for him once he went into withdrawal. This year, I think Morrison’s play will dictate things—will he start or sub, and will he better at the 2 or 3? Depending on where Morrison ends up, Wallace will fill the gap. Knight and Felton at the 1-2 concurrently actually isn’t so bad, it just makes for a thin bench.

Part of the logjam has also been handled by thankfully saying goodbye to Kareem Rush, who basically ran around last year with the trigger permanently off “SAFE,” a threat to fire from anywhere on the court at any time. Rush was probably the single biggest reason our shooting percentage was so woeful. Felton, like Rush, would also occasionally get in his head that he’s Deadeye Dick last year. In fact, the worst thing in the world would be when he did hit a long range jumper early, because he tended to think it gave him carte blanche to fire at will for the next 5-6 possessions. But I really need to just show Felton some love—much as it pains me to respect a Tar Heel! Raymond got better and better as the season went along last year, and from February on he proved he could actually take games over. He’s got a kind of awkward, straight-up dribbling style, but he can flat-out fly up the court. Even though it probably doesn’t sound like it, I’m really excited about his accelerated progression along the learning curve.

The two primary backups, Bernard Robinson and Kevin Burleson, did well in emergency extended playing time last year with Knight missing 23 games. If nothing else, they provided some unintentional comedy by allowing us to see Coach Bickerstaff—who clearly would not have been playing them nearly as often otherwise—look increasingly exasperated. They’re also both jacked.

And finally…don’t forget the steals! Last year Wallace and Knight finished 1-2 in steals—what! Oh yeah, I said it, what! It’s a scrappy bunch, I just someone like Morrison doesn’t go too far and pull a Reggie Evans, if you catch my drift.

I honestly believe that 8th seed in the playoffs is not an unrealistic goal for these guys. Hey, we did take 26 last year and that was with substantial injuries. It’s also no secret that with the exception of the Central Division, the East isn’t particularly deep. Figure someone from the Atlantic will go (basically because someone has to), the Central could conceivably send everyone, and the Heat should be a shoo-in from the Southeast. That leaves us scrapping with the Magic and Wizards for the right to get swept in the first round…

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