NBA Season Preview: The Charlotte Bobcats

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This post was written by Rob Mahoney.

Last season: 44-38, which was good enough to score the Bobcats their first playoff appearance in franchise history. They’re taking steps forward (talent upgrades, internal improvement), even if they’re marching further into the desert (temporary fixes, financial commitments, bad draft picks) with no oasis in sight.

Head Coach: Larry Brown. The man needs no introduction, but the new and improved LB might. After systematically alienating his players at practically all of his previous coaching stops, it’s been so far, so good for Brown in Charlotte. Maybe his eyes wandered to the open Clippers coaching job earlier this summer or maybe they didn’t, but regardless, Brown’s Bobcats were the top defense in the league last season in spite of some obvious roster limitations.

Key Departures: Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, Raja Bell, Theo Ratliff, Stephen Graham, Larry Hughes, and any semblance of offensive success.

Key Additions: Shaun Livingston, Kwame Brown, Matt Carroll, Eduardo Najera, Sherron Collins, and lots of heavy sighing.

Best case scenario: Charlotte makes a move or two to acquire (1) a point guard worthy of a starting job (2) some young talent, all while maintaining or improving their relative place in the Eastern Conference.

For that to happen: Michael Jordan is going to have to charge up that Bluetooth headset I’m sure he has, dial, talk, rinse, and repeat. Over and over and over again. Charlotte needs a trade in a bad, bad way.

The Bobcats were this close to essentially trading Boris Diaw for Devin Harris straight-up (though D.J. Augustin was possibly involved) as a part of the now-dead four-team Carmelo Anthony deal. That acquisition would have given Charlotte exactly what they need for the time being, as Harris is a bonafide building block who would have conveniently filled the Bobcats’ biggest positional void.

Hope isn’t dead, but Charlotte need to do something. Raymond Felton was quite valuable last season, even though he was the clear third-billing behind Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson. Augustin isn’t ready to step into that role and may never be, which puts the Bobcat offense — which was already a miserable 24th in the league last season on a per possession basis —  in an impossible spot. They aren’t loaded with talent, and the talented pieces the Bobcats do have aren’t all that straightforward (What’s the best way to utilize Tyrus Thomas? Gerald Wallace? Stephen Jackson?). Now, a point guard who plays like he’s completely lost confidence in himself will have to make the most of it, and I fear that ‘most’ won’t be very much.

If Charlotte is going to take a step up, they’ll have to relieve Augustin of the starting gig he’s clutching with sweaty palms.

More likely the Bobcats will: Que será, será, and Charlotte será tough to watch at times. The offense could easily go from blech to ungghghghg, though the Cats should still be among the league’s elite in free throw rate. Congrats?

It won’t save them. It can’t. They need ball-handling and playmaking fast, and no one should be deluded into thinking that the current backcourt crew is satisfactory. Augustin hasn’t shown the aptitude as an NBA player yet. Giving Jackson free rein shouldn’t even be considered an option. Shaun Livingston is a fine addition to the team, but he’s not steady enough (in either health or production) to play major minutes. Even Raymond Felton’s biggest critics would concede that he’d be a saving grace under these circumstances.

Still, the defense will be there. Even though losing Felton and Tyson Chandler will likely mean the end of Charlotte’s run as the best D in the league, the Bobcats will still be a top five defense next season. On top of that, Wallace will remain very productive and one of the NBA’s most engaging watches. Jackson will continue to pour in the points while picking up a few assists and almost as many turnovers. Tyrus Thomas could continue to find success with the Bobcats, but I won’t for a second presume to know what Thomas will accomplish in any given year. Boris Diaw will fill in the gaps, Nazr Mohammed will have another quietly successful offensive season, and Matt Carroll could even resurrect his career from the three-point specialist graveyard.

There are bright spots in Charlotte, and enough of them to make the Bobcats a current favorite for one of the East’s final playoff seeds. Nothing is guaranteed, though. Charlotte didn’t get any better in the offseason, and with six Eastern Conference teams as locks for April (Miami, Orlando, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta), there isn’t much room for error. The most likely outcome lets the Bobcats slip in the playoff door, but is that good enough? Shouldn’t the Cats be building something from their first-ever playoff appearance last season?

Obviously. This just isn’t their time, and that’s the Bobcats’ ownership and management’s own doing. Playoff appearances mean a lot to a small-market team like Charlotte (and you better believe they mean a hell of a lot to a player like Wallace), but the Bobcats overall strategy isn’t going to take them much further. They can continue to tinker in order to keep their heads above water, but this is what we can expect from Charlotte until they change course. It’s not all that sunny, but it’s playoff basketball.

Prediction: 40-42 and a playoff spot. They’ll fight. They’ll defend. They’ll lose to one of the conference’s elite teams. Hope it sounds cozy, Bobcat fans.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.

Report: Lance Stephenson to work out for Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 30:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass the ball around Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers at the New Orleans Arena on October 30, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two years ago, Lance Stephenson was 23 years old and nearly an All-Star.

Now, he’s stuck trying out for a team without an open regular-season roster spot.

Brett Dawson of The Advocate:

The Pelicans have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Chris Copeland, Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson on unguaranteed deals.

In other words, Stephenson is trying out just to enter a competition for a roster vacancy that doesn’t even exist.

New Orleans has taken major steps to add perimeter help this summer, drafting Buddy Hield and signing E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill. If he somehow makes the team, Stephenson likely wouldn’t make the rotation, even with Tyreke Evans injured.

Still, Stephenson is just 25, and he showed major talent with the Pacers just two years ago. He made positive contributions to the Grizzlies last season, too.

But a disastrous stint with the Hornets and an underwhelming run with the Clippers weigh down his résumé.

Stephenson probably did enough in Memphis to prove he still has NBA-caliber ability. More than anything, he’ll have to convince the Pelicans – and other potential suitors – he has the right attitude to work in the league.

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.