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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Updated: October 1, 4:58 PM ET
Hollinger's Team Forecast: Charlotte Bobcats

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

MJ and Larry Brown
Larry Brown and Michael Jordan might be smiling more often if the Bobcats make the playoffs.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

It was a wasted opportunity, really. Charlotte had all the pieces in place to finally make a push for the playoffs and establish itself as a real, live, NBA franchise, but the front office bungled it with some bizarre moves that included typical frugality and a disastrous coaching hire.

I should point out that not all the damage was self-inflicted. The Bobcats lost both Adam Morrison and Sean May to season-ending knee injuries before ever playing a game, so they were short-handed from the get-go; May's loss in particular left a gaping hole at power forward. But from there, the Michael Jordan-led front office was more than happy to fire a few more bullets at their feet.

For starters, there was the decision to let then-GM Bernie Bickerstaff go and hire an untested Sam Vincent as the replacement. Vincent had served only one season on an NBA bench, and that was a fairly low-on-the-totem-pole assistant's gig in Dallas. While Bickerstaff's track record wasn't perfect, his teams were prepared and played hard. Vincent, on the other hand, never seemed to have his players' respect -- in fact, they openly questioned his substitutions and play calls for much of the year.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 32-50 (Pythagorean W-L: 27-55)
Offensive Efficiency: 102.1 (23rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.8 (23rd)
Pace Factor: 94.1 (15th)
Highest PER: Jason Richardson (18.48)

They had reason to. One particularly bizarre episode involved his heavy use of Jeff McInnis at point guard. Retained for the league minimum largely because the Bobcats were too cheap to spend money on a real backup (this was also why they let Brevin Knight go), McInnis nonetheless started for half the season -- after Vincent felt the urge to move Raymond Felton to shooting guard and start him at the point.

McInnis was dreadful, rarely scoring or assisting and playing virtually no defense, but somehow he stayed in the lineup until the front office mercifully stepped in and cut him just after the All-Star break. It was the second straight season in which the Cats gave huge dollops of playing time to a player who was perhaps the worst regular in the league -- Morrison held that distinction a year earlier -- and once again it was a major reason they failed to make the playoffs.

Once McInnis left, Felton was reinstated at the point and the Bobcats played much better from that point onward, even though their second-half schedule was the league's hardest. Charlotte improved from 26th to 16th in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break and had a far better point differential, despite the fact that most of the games were on the road against good teams. Unfortunately, the damage had been done and it was too late to mount a playoff charge; Charlotte finished five games out.

The McInnis episode wasn't the only head-scratcher. Vincent kept second-year forward Walter Herrmann glued to the bench, even though he had played well in a late-season run by the Cats a season earlier and the team was scrounging for quality depth. Eventually he and Primoz Brezec were dealt to Detroit for Nazr Mohammed -- and the three years and nearly $20 million left on his contract -- without so much has a draft choice coming back for Charlotte. They can't afford an extra million to keep Knight, but they can afford this?

Then there was the Gerald Wallace saga. After a midseason concussion -- his fourth -- the team got very worried about the pounding he was taking as a small-ball power forward and vowed that he'd only play small forward. They went back on their promise within a matter of days. While part of this was based the simple logic that their best lineup had Wallace at the 4, it also seemed to needlessly endanger their most talented player.

Aided by those blunders, Charlotte scuffled along in mediocrity. The Bobcats ranked 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and although they won 32 games they had the point differential of a 27-win team.

Offensively, the Cats were notable for an inability to make foul shots and a knack for rejection. Charlotte hit just 71.4 percent from the stripe, ranking 29th in the league, and what's strange about that is that they were an above-average 3-point shooting team. But key scorers like Jason Richardson (75.2), Wallace (73.1) and Emeka Okafor (57.0) couldn't seem to master the art of the wide-open 15-footer, and there weren't any high-percentage guys to offset their misses.

This was particularly damaging because the Bobcats got to the line a lot -- they had the league's 10th-best rate of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt. If the Bobcats had been even average at the stripe, they would have scored more than one additional point per game, and likely would have had about three more wins as a result.

As for the blocks, Charlotte had 7.3 percent of its shot rejected last season, easily the highest mark in basketball (see chart). It's no secret why: Most of their players weren't good finishers around the basket, especially in the frontcourt. Okafor had 12 percent of his shots stuffed, an amazingly high total, while Wallace (9 percent), Mohammed (8 percent) and Matt Carroll (7 percent despite rarely driving) also were frequent victims.

% of Own Shots Blocked, 2007-08 Leaders

TEAM % BLOCKED
Sacramento 6.89
Charlotte 7.26
Minnesota 6.87
Chicago 6.78
Atlanta 6.43

Defensively, the Cats were a disappointment; the talent was there to be a pretty good defensive team even with a lack of frontcourt depth. The biggest problem was rebounding. Charlotte was 19th in opponent true shooting percentage and forced an above-average number of turnovers, so overall it would have had a decent defense if it could grab a few boards.

Alas, the Bobcats couldn't. They claimed only 71.0 percent of opponent misses, the third-worst rate in the league; do the math and you'll see that, as with the foul shooting, this cost them slightly more than one point per game relative to the league average.

Though Charlotte was playing with an undersized frontcourt much of the time, Okafor and Mohammed were well above average for centers in defensive rebound rate. The real problem was pairing McInnis and Felton in the backcourt: McInnis is just about the worst rebounder in captivity, while Felton was below average for a point guard, let alone a shooting guard. At least this bodes well for the coming season, because such foolishness won't be repeated.

After the season, the Bobcats made sure of that. They ejected Vincent from the pilot's chair after one season and hired the most experienced coach they could possibly get: Larry Brown.


Biggest Strength: Long-range shooting

This is why the Bobcats were at their most effective with Wallace playing power forward -- they could space the floor with their shooters and get opposing defenses strung out trying to defend them.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Bobcats make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

Richardson, obviously, is the cornerstone. In his first season with the Bobcats, he nearly broke the franchise career record for 3-pointers, with his 243 bombs leading the league, and he nailed 40.6 percent of his tries. The top wing reserve, Carroll, is another ace shooter who hit 43.6 percent from downtown. Morrison, if his knee allows, should give the Bobcats a third high-quality deep threat.

Those three can open the floor up for Felton and Wallace to drive; though Felton and Wallace also take their share of 3s -- more than they probably should. Wallace made 32.1 percent and Felton just 28.0 percent (yet another reason moving him to shooting guard was a bad idea).

An additional factor will be May, who isn't a long-range threat but is deadly from 15 to 18 feet. His presence in the high post will provide more room for Okafor to operate on the blocks, and if he's in at the 5 then the middle will be emptied out for Charlotte's drivers.

Biggest Weakness: Health

On paper, this looks like a pretty good team. The difference is that on paper nobody hurts his knee or gets a concussion. In real life, it's a bit different, and Charlotte has several key players who are major injury question marks.

Foremost among them is May. A talented power forward who can shoot, pass and rebound, he has played only 58 games in his three pro seasons thanks to knee and conditioning problems. Actually, the two go together -- because he's carrying extra weight, it puts even more of a pounding on his vulnerable knees.

If he can't go, it exposes a frontcourt that lacks depth, and might create a cascading injury problem. May's absence would cause Wallace to play more minutes at power forward, where his recent problems with concussions would be of particular concern. And that's not the only malady he has suffered in recent years. While Wallace is an electrifying leaper, his high-wire act often puts him in harm's way and he doesn't have the muscle to shrug off all the contact.

Then there's Okafor. Though he played all 82 games last season, he has a history of back problems and missed big chunks of time in his first three seasons. As the anchor of the defense, the Bobcats can't afford to lose him for long.

The other worry is Morrison, who comes off knee surgery after a horrendous rookie season. The Cats are going to need him as a wing reserve on some nights, but he was one of the slowest players in basketball even before he hurt his knee; one shudders to think what will happen if his quickness has been further compromised.


Outlook

In assessing Charlotte's chances, one of the biggest factors is the health of May. He's been an extremely productive player in his few NBA minutes, but can't stay on the court; I projected him to play half a season, and how he does against that estimate will have a big impact on the Bobs' final record because their frontcourt is so shaky behind him and Okafor.

But perhaps a bigger factor will be Brown. The Bobcats had enough talent to make the playoffs last season even without May -- they just made some horrible personnel choices and needed a coach who had a coherent system for maximizing their talents. Given Brown's defensive acumen, it's highly doubtful that Charlotte will be 23rd in defensive efficiency again, especially with an anchor like Okafor and a flyswatter like Wallace in the mix.

Compared to last season, positives linger up and down the roster. Augustin can't possibly be as bad as McInnis was, so that's an upgrade even if he goes through some rookie growing pains. May and Morrison won't contribute any less than they did a year ago, and might provide substantially more. Felton should benefit from not being yanked around between the two guard spots, and Mohammed will be in the lineup for a full season instead of half of one.

That's not to say it's all fine and dandy in the Queen City. The Bobcats' operation still smacks of minor league from top to bottom, and one doesn't get the impression that management will make any cagey in-season moves -- especially any that involve spending money. But between having so many high draft picks in recent seasons and finally getting a real coach, I give them a slightly better than 50-50 shot of making their first-ever playoff appearance.

Prediction: 40-42, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him,
click here.