Well, despite my best attempts to be realistic about the season before it started, it appears after the 1st quarter of the season that I was slightly (significantly) overly optimistic. Rather than in contention for the final playoff spot, Charlotte is sitting at 14th in the Eastern conference at 7-15. I know they are only 3.5 games out of the 8th spot – but having to climb several teams to get there is tough. How about this: Hollinger's playoff odds calculator gives the Bobcats a 10.8% chance of making the playoffs – worst in the East, and behind even Washington, who sits at 16.5% (due to their recent “hot” streak, as recent performance is a significant factor in the tool).
The Bobcats struggles have again (just as last year) come despite a home-heavy early schedule. Charlotte has played 14 home games already (most in the league), to just 8 road contests. At home, they only managed to go 6-8, not exactly the stuff of a contender. The 1-7 mark on the road? That ties them for the fewest road wins in the league, with Washington and Oklahoma City (though OKC has had 3 more chances, so the Bobcats are not technically the worst). In the Bobcats favor, they have played a somewhat difficult schedule…sort of. When looking at their opponent's winning % (when not facing the Cats), Charlotte has faced a Strength of Schedule of .526 – the 7th toughest mark in the league. When you look at the actual competition the Bobcats have faced on the court though, their competition looks less impressive. Charlotte has faced a cumulative (again, numbers from when not facing Charlotte) opponent with an offensive efficiency of 101.7 and defensive mark of 104.8. That is not exactly terror-inducing and in fact is kind of close to facing the Bobcats (well, prior to the last night's blowout dinging their numbers a bit). Why the discrepancy between expected difficulty and actual? Well, one small part – who was injured when they played the Bobcats? When the Jazz played the Cats, we basically had their second string against the whole game due to various missing players. But the far more significant factor in those opponent numbers? The blowouts.
Charlotte has already lost 6 games this season by 10 or more points, including 5 of those that were by 16 or more. Blowouts=lots of scrub time. It has given the Bobcats a chance to boost their perceived ability (when measured by scoring margin/net efficiency) by making things semi-respectable against the second (and lower) teams of their opponents.
I know that previous paragraph points in 2 different directions regarding the Bobcats actual ability. Yes, they have played a relatively tough schedule early on, which means they be slightly better than we think. But they have also performed so poorly at times that their numbers are skewed by weak competition from within all the difficult games. What to make of it? Well, it is clear the Bobcats are far from an elite team, as blowouts by Cleveland (twice), Dallas, and New Orleans can attest. But they have also managed to beat New Orleans and Miami, 1 an expected title contender in the West and the other looking like a likely playoff team in the East. Outside of those 2 “resume” wins (we will pretend the Bobcats are trying to get invited to the NCAA tourney), the Bobcats have managed to win games they should…some of the time. A short-handed Utah team, Philly (at home), Indiana (the road win), Minny, and the Thunder. Not exactly the most impressive group of wins. But at least they were not losses. Which is how I kind of feel about the loss to Milwaukee at home (and on the road) and the road loss to New York. If the Bobcats are going to be a decent team, those were games they needed to win. But they did not and here we are.
Where is that exactly? Well, the Cats have 60 games left to play, with 33 of those on the road, to 27 home games. An upcoming stretch of Chicago, at Memphis, Golden State, and Washington starting next week will give the Bobcats a chance to make a move back into the playoff picture. The question is, are they equipped to do it?
Coming into the season, one of the big questions was how much would Sean May contribute? The Bobcats seemed to have their best overall depth in their brief history, with a viable player and backup at every position – except the 4, where there were only question marks. And, until yesterday, they had been answered – just negatively. Sean May is still not back in playing shape, and Alexis Ajinca has a couple of years before he will be ready for the NBA. So, the Bobcats have gone small, with Jared and Gerald splitting large portions of games at the 4. The Bobcats have, not surprisingly, struggled to rebound with these small lineups. Yesterday, however, brought massive change to the team. Boris Diaw and Raja Bell replace Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. So, now the Bobcats do have an actual power forward to send out there (though not much of a rebounder) in Diaw. But answering that question leaves a new one: Can the Bobcats score without Jason Richardson?
Well, we will start to find out soon (throwing out last night as the trade and severe short-handedness with Gerald already absent gave the Cats virtually no shot). My gut reaction: They can manage – sometimes. The Bobcats are adding a very good passing big man, which may give Emeka more scoring opportunities. Jason's departure also means we should see a larger role for Gerald again. With Jason on the court, Gerald has scored at a rate of 14.8 points per 40 minutes. Without J-Rich, that number goes up to 17.2. Another reason for optimism: D.J. Augustin. The rookie has exceeded expectations and is already showing some very impressive scoring ability. Will increased chances for Emeka (maybe), Gerald, and D.J. offset Jason's loss? Maybe – despite his prolific number of 3s made – he is not an efficient scorer, at only 1.19 points per shot. That number for Gerald is 1.34, for D.J., 1.33, and Emeka – 1.47. While the Cats may turn the ball over more with these guys trying to get theirs, the improvement in efficiency may be enough to offset it.
No one expected the transition to be easy with Larry Brown, though we may have hoped for immediate success. In reality, the Bobcats are probably where we should have expected, struggling along, showing flashes, but still deficient in talent to really compete. An attempt has been made to improve the team. What happens over this next quarter season should give us a good opportunity to see how successful an attempt it was.