The buzz (pardon the pun) around the team was at a recent high headed into Charlotte's final season under the Bobcats moniker. The team boasted a litany of positive, arguably chest thump worthy news: a new head coach who worked his way up from deep within the ranks of the NBA coaching pantheon and who immediately assembled an impressive squad of assistant coaches. A promising rookie in Cody Zeller who gets to be the understudy to the team's prized free agent haul, Al Jefferson. A nice off-season of free agency that, in addition to the Jefferson signing, saw the team bring back the consistently undervalued duo of Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts as well as the veteran bench spark in Jannero Pargo. A change in team philosophy that focused on defensive consistency, something the Cats desperately needed the past few seasons. All of these elements combined to create a level of cautious optimism not felt in the Queen City since the beginning of the 2009 season. So, after two weeks of regular season play and an exciting 3-4 start what have we learned about our team? Well, that's somewhat difficult to answer considering the team's centerpiece has only played in 2 games. What we have seen on the court is nowhere close to a polished or finished product, but let's dive in anyway.
Let's begin with the good news. For starters, the change in philosophy has already paid dividends. Our prized free agent's ankle injury has kept him out of all but 2 games, forcing Coach Clifford to go with the same 5 starters from last year. Yet, under Clifford and his staff's tutelage the same squad that ranked dead last in total defense last season currently resides as the 14th ranked defense in the league (down from 7th place after Monday night's rough performance against Atlanta), holding opponents to an impressive 96.6 points per game. They also rank 1st for fewest fast break points allowed, a massive improvement over last season's abysmal performance (again, dead last in the league). We have seen much crisper defensive rotations, especially in the paint, which is even more impressive considering Big Al's lack of playing time. We have seen our perimeter players take more of a leadership role on defense with Walker and Henderson constantly communicating with the rest of the squad and helping to shore up wing rotations. In short, we have seen a huge improvement in every aspect of the game on the defensive side of the ball.
We've seen last year's top draft pick take strides forward. While Mark Price's overhaul of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's shot mechanics is still a daunting work in progress, we've witnessed MKG be more intelligent with his shot selection. He's shooting a pleasantly surprising 56% from the field while averaging 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and nearly 2 blocks per game. A large chunk of his scoring still comes from his ability to get to the rim but his mid range game is slowly becoming more consistent which is all any Bobcats fan could ask for. He is showing some positive momentum on offense and seems to grow more confident with every game while his defensive tenacity continues to make him a tough draw for opposing perimeter players.
We've also seen Kemba become a more vocal floor general. While I've mentioned his improved communication on defense, he's also taken a more vocal leadership role on the sideline and the locker room. While this was former head coach Mike Dunlap's chief complaint about the team's franchise point guard somehow new head coach Steve Clifford has managed to get Kemba to take those reigns. His key stats have taken a dip when compared to last year's numbers but his command of the team on both sides of the ball and his willingness to get in the face of teammates is exactly the kind of growth the coaching staff and fans alike were desperately hoping for. Besides, everyone is confident that his numbers will continue to rise, as he gets more comfortable in Clifford's system and learns to play with the new pieces around him.
Last but not least, we've seen solid and, more importantly, consistent performances from Josh McRoberts. One of the true "glue guys" in the league, McBob was considered a high free agent priority by the Cat's front office and his play to start the season shows why with averages of 27 minutes, 9 points on 42% shooting, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal per game. He's currently boasting the highest 3-point percentage on the team and is tied for the lead in free throw percentage. He has solidified his spot as the starting PF, allowing Cody Zeller to ease into his rookie season. Which brings me to the other side of the conversation…
The bad. Cody Zeller has been bad. After what can only be described as a dominant and eye opening preseason the top pick of the Bobcats has virtually disappeared. Looking tentative and sometimes just outright lost; Zeller has shown very little of the potential that had analysts around the country labeling him as the preseason favorite for rookie of the year. He has struggled where you always expect a rookie to struggle: fouls, turnovers and defensive rotations, but he has also struggled with rebounding and free throw shooting. Zeller is in a great position to succeed, being able to sit behind consummate professionals like Jefferson and McRoberts without being heavily depended on for on court production, so we can expect bigger and better things as the season goes on but every Cats fan was hoping for a stronger start than what we've seen from the #4 overall pick in the draft.
We've also witnessed a slow and somewhat ugly start from prized sophomore Jeff Taylor. Heralded by the coaching staff for his vast off-season improvements and expected to compete for playing time with MKG, Taylor has done little to live up to the preseason hype. He's averaging nearly 5 minutes more per game than his rookie season, seeing the court for a full 23 minutes per game, yet he has seen his numbers dip in every category with the exception of points per game and rebounds per game. He's shooting an abysmal 17% from long range, has only managed to sink 54% of his free throws and has doubled his turnover percentage from his rookie campaign. After a strong preseason showing Taylor has continued to cede minutes to MKG due to the latter's strong play.
Lastly, we've seen some fairly glaring chemistry issues. While defensive communication has shown an obvious improvement we have seen a lack of communication on the offensive side of the ball and a lack of fire and passion on the sideline. Walker and McRoberts appear to be the vocal leaders on the court and on the bench, but the leadership seems to start and stop with the two of them. Maybe this can be attributed to Jefferson missing 5 of the first 7 games and a lack of on court familiarity among the starters. Maybe it can be attributed to the new coaching system and staff. Maybe we can chalk it up to Coach Clifford's recent health scare and absence from the team. Regardless of the reason, it has been surprising and needs to be addressed. Considering that, in Jefferson's absence, the starting 5 have been the same 5 from last season it is safe to say Charlotte fans were expecting to see a little more energy, enthusiasm and communication from the team.
The season, like the bulk of the Bobcats roster, is still very young and there are still plenty of details to iron out. Jefferson's return to the starting 5 massively changes the offensive approach to the game plan and the team's identity, so we have yet to really see our squad's true potential. At this point, we can only hope the positives we've seen continue to grow and the negatives we've seen begin to slowly fade away. We're only 7 games into our last season as the Charlotte Bobcats and we're still trying to figure out who we are. While we all know it will take some time, we also all expect a big improvement over the last 3 seasons. The rest of November sees us square off with the likes of the Heat, Pacers, Bulls and Nets so we will face some stiff competition as we continue to try to establish our identity. This writer/fan has nothing but optimism for this team and the direction it is heading. However, if you happen to find yourself taking a dip towards the pessimistic side and/or having a team identity crisis just remember one thing: