Fork 'Em: Charlotte Bobcats
"Love bravely, live bravely, be courageous, there's really nothing to lose." -Jewel
And really, what says "Charlotte Bobcats" like Jewel?
The Lottery is littered with teams that failed to meet expectations. Their hopes broken, their efforts for naught, they're left with nothing but frustration and depression. They limp towards the offseason with hope for nothing more than pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.
You don't get that feeling from the Bobcats.
People and websites that don't pay attention to the league will mention the Bobcats only as a punchline for this season. They'll mention that they finished 3-5 games out of the playoffs, that they finished only 3-4 games better than last year, and that they finished with three consecutive losses to playoff teams.
But that won't tell you the whole story.
If you ask the Miami Heat, the Detroit Pistons, and the Boston Celtics about the toughest games of their last two weeks of the season, I'd bet they'd all mention the Bobcats. The Bobcats were hanging in position to push for the eight spot. But Ray Allen hit a couple of wild ones, Raja Bell missed a big one, Dwyane Wade did his thing, and Will Bynum (?!) set a record, and that's why the Bobcats find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. And in each of those games, there was never a sense that the game was in hand for the other team. Every time the superior clubs would kick the Bobcats off the ladder, they'd claw their way back up and start gnashing their teeth at ankles. They didn't have the talent, experience, or savvy to get over the hump. But there's something to this team, maybe.
The Cats that started the season were certainly worthy of scorn. Discombobulated. Incomplete. The same mediocre club they've been since their inception. While Larry Brown brought a superior feeling of professionalism and certainly made an immediate impact with Emeka Okafor, the team was just not able to compete. Then in a trade that came out of nowhere, they shipped Jason Richardson to Phoenix for Raja Bell and Boris Diaw.
The trade on the surface was an outright disaster; trading your leading scorer for an over-the-hill defender and a combo forward who'd never been able to be successful in any traditional role. I had long been a critic of Phoenix's emphasis on Diaw in key situations, because they had better players on the floor and he was always jack of all trades, master of none. Yet Charlotte presented an opportunity for him to thrive. And Brown knew just how to use him.
The addition of Diaw and Bell changed the dynamic of the Bobcats dramatically. By providing a high elbow post presence and a forward that could drive to pull attention from Okafor and clear driving lanes, the team turned into a different beast. Rookie D.J. Augustin started to click. Raymond Felton actually became a pretty good basketball player (though Larry Brown may have a difference of opinion on that). And Gerald Wallace woke up. As opposed to the Wallace that had been trying to take over dominant roles, he did all the things in between that can help you win games,and he made some highlights along the way. By the end of the season, the Bobcats were fierce. They were still beatable, but you were going to have to fight them for 48 minutes.
Okafor made the most strides this season. He fed off the freedom of movement Diaw and DeSagana Diop allowed and got his coordination down to be a beast on the boards. His numbers weren't up, but his efficiency was. And he wasn't as relied upon; instead, he was part of a system, which helped him.
This isn't to say that the Bobcats were a great team. They weren't. Raymond Felton's trigger finger cost them games. Their best win of the season, a thriller over the Lakers in L.A., cost them Gerald Wallace (due to Andrew Bynum's reckless foul) for several weeks. They lack a scorer who can go one on one and get them a bucket in crunch time. And they're certainly not a young team. I wouldn't describe them as old, as they have young pieces. But if they're going to make the next step, they need to find a scorer to go along with the defensive nucleus and who fits in the system. The question will be if they can do so without adding impact rookies or big-name free agents.
For their fans, the Bobcats were at times infuriating, disappointing, and potentially a franchise delaying the inevitable, which was a first-round playoff exit, maximum. But Larry Brown accomplished a lot this season. He rehabilitated his image after the New York disaster, formed a cohesive veteran unit out of a team that came into the season depending on Sean May and Adam Morrison, and very nearly pushed the Bobcats to the playoffs. To count Brown out as long as the gears are still turning would be a mistake.