NBA PM: Walker, Bobcats Making Progress
The 2012-13 NBA season hasn’t gone quite as planned. One month into the season, there have already been plenty of surprises. The Los Angeles Lakers struggled and fired head coach Mike Brown shortly after he finished learning everyone’s name. The New York Knicks exceeded expectations and currently have the league’s best record despite missing Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert.
However, the biggest early-season surprise has been the Charlotte Bobcats.
The Bobcats are currently 5-4, which is the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference and the tenth-best record in the league. Charlotte’s drastic turnaround came out of nowhere. The team’s average margin of victory is 5.4 points and they have quality wins over the Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves.
For most teams, a 5-4 start is considered mediocre. However, for Charlotte, this winning record is an enormous step in the right direction considering last year’s team took nearly two and a half months to win five games. The 2011-12 Bobcats didn’t have their fifth victory until March 6, and by then the team had already accumulated 31 losses. Charlotte finished last season with a 7-59 record and their.106 winning percentage was the lowest of any team in NBA history.
The Bobcats entered this season on a 23-game losing streak, just three games shy of the NBA record for consecutive losses, which the Cleveland Cavaliers set when they dropped 26-straight games during the 2010-11 season. Now, if the Bobcats can win two of their next six games, they can match last year’s win total in the first month of this season, which would be a huge accomplishment for this up-and-coming team.
So why is Charlotte suddenly competing on a nightly basis?
Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap deserves a lot of credit for the team’s turnaround. Dunlap, who didn’t have any NBA head coaching experience when the Bobcats hired him in June, has been a perfect fit for this young team. He’s a disciplinarian who holds his players accountable and teaches them to be professionals. Dunlap is also an excellent motivator. The players have bought into Dunlap’s system and he has his team believing that they can win each and every game, which wasn’t the case last year.
Bobcats general manager Rich Cho has also played a crucial role in the team’s rebuilding effort. Charlotte failed to win the draft lottery after last year’s miserable campaign, but Cho didn’t let that ruin his offseason. He spent the summer working the phones and making significant changes to the roster. He acquired six new rotation players, who have all come up big for the Bobcats and helped the team forget last season’s struggles. The Bobcats signed Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood, traded for Ben Gordon and Hakim Warrick, and drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor.
While these additions have helped the Bobcats put last season’s struggles behind them, perhaps the biggest reason for Charlotte’s early-season success has been internal improvement. Returning players such as Kemba Walker, Byron Mullens and Gerald Henderson among others have continued to develop.
Walker, in particular, has looked much more comfortable as a sophomore. In his first season as a full-time starter, the 22-year-old point guard is averaging career-highs across the board including points (18.8), assists (5.5), rebounds (3.9), steals (2.5), blocks (.4), field goal percentage (.423), free throw percentage (.860) and PER (20.33). The transition from NCAA to NBA was somewhat difficult for Walker and he struggled with all of the losses last season. Now, he looks like the comfortable and confident star that became a household name during his three-year stint on the Connecticut Huskies.
“I have been his biggest fan,” Dunlap said of Walker. “I’m a big Kemba guy. I know his high school coach. I coached against him when I was at St. Johns. I’m glad we have him and they don’t.”
“I looked at a lot of film from last year and I thought there was more to come, more of what I was used to seeing when I was in the Big East and had to coach against him,” Dunlap said. “I knew that better days were ahead. We just opened the game up for him a little bit, gave him some pick-and-rolls and trusted him.”
Dunlap opened up the game and Walker has done the rest. In Charlotte’s five wins, Walker has averaged 22.8 points, which is exactly what Dunlap wants to see. He doesn’t want to see Walker blending in with his teammates. He wants to see Walker demanding the ball and taking over games. Dunlap knows Walker as the Big East star who can singlehandedly win games if necessary. That’s what he wants to see in Charlotte. He loves when Walker gets that special look in his eyes, as if to say, ‘This is my game.’
“He’s a one man wrecking crew,” Dunlap said of Walker. “His improvement has been remarkable. What’s happening with Kemba right now is that he was a high draft pick, which we all know, and there is reason for that. His team won the national championship in college and everyone in this room can agree that he was the impetus for that championship. He’s an unusual player and he can do some things that are very special. That talent, it has to be developed.”
Walker has made huge strides even since Dunlap took over several months ago. The Bobcats have a chart that tracks how often players deflect passes and make positive defensive plays. Walker leads the team in almost every category. He has been Charlotte’s best player on both ends of the court.
“He’s more tenacious with his on-ball defense,” Dunlap said of Walker. “He’s top three in deflections, hands on balls and stuff like that. Offensively, he’s just being fearless and getting to the rim.”
“He’s like Cam Newton, a quarterback, finding his voice, running things, taking responsibility for our plays and calling certain things instead of me calling them,” Dunlap said. “That’s all in his development.”
Walker admits that he’s much more comfortable this season, but also credits last season’s struggles for helping to shape him into the player that he is today. He had been a winner for his entire life, and accumulating loss after loss made him mature and motivated him to work harder than ever before.
“Guys are on the same page this year and are buying into what Coach [Dunlap] is trying to bring to this organization,” Walker said. “We are all gelling together really well right now. You can’t really ask for much more than that at this point of the season.”
“We had to go through some things to grow,” Walker said. “I feel really good and really comfortable now. It’s all because of my teammates and my coaching staff, they keep me confident. My bigs set some great screens for me. Gerald, Ben and guys on the wings are moving. All the credit goes to the other guys. I feel like if my coach believes in me, I can go out there and be as confident as I can be. It’s all about trust and all about confidence. When I’m confident, my teammates are confident and we just make things happen. Having trust in me is definitely a huge deal.”
Walker has also benefitted from the addition of Sessions, who is averaging 16.6 points and 4.2 assists off the bench for the Bobcats. The veteran point guard has taken some of the pressure off of Walker and offered advice to help him become more mature and poised.
“[Calmness] is his greatest asset,” Dunlap said of Sessions. “I think that Kemba can learn some of that from him. The youthful exuberance and some of the charisma that Kemba has gets Sessions going as well.”
While the Bobcats have been a surprise from the outside looking in, the players in the locker room insist that they expected this success. In fact, they believe they’re better than their record indicates. Walker loves his team’s mentality and says that they’re a group that’s never going to give up.
“That’s who we are and that’s how we are going to be all season hopefully,” Walker said. “When we are down, we are not going to put our heads down. We are going to try our best to close the game out and try to keep pushing. We don’t want to give up.”
Last year, the Bobcats gave up on far too many occasions, sometimes accepting defeat before the game was even underway. However, that’s no longer the case in Charlotte. The new-look Bobcats have put last year’s struggles behind them. Now, they expect to win every night and, if all goes as planned, they hope to fight for a playoff spot late in the season.
Several Teams Interested in Curry: Free agent center Eddy Curry has received interest from several NBA teams, according to sources close to the situation. Five teams have been in contact with Curry and expressed some level of interest in his services.
Curry last played with the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 4.5 points and 2.0 rebounds in two games earlier this season. He was released by the Mavericks two weeks ago so that the team could open a roster spot to sign Troy Murphy.
The 29-year-old center spent the majority of the preseason with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 8.4 points and 3.6 rebounds. When given the chance to start for the Spurs during the preseason, Curry delivered with 11 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes of action.
Curry’s preference is remain in the NBA, but he’s also considering a number of overseas teams, including one lucrative offer from a team in China.
Wizards Can’t Win a Game: The Washington Wizards are the only remaining winless team in the NBA, sitting at 0-9 on the season.
Entering this season, the Wizards had playoff aspirations after the team added veterans such as Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to their young core. They finished the 2011-12 season on a six-game winning streak and seemed poised to make some noise in the Eastern Conference.
However, Washington’s new pieces haven’t come together and significant injuries to John Wall, Nene and others have the Wizards once again looking like a lottery team rather than a playoff contender.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to get used to winning,” Ariza said. “It’s still early. In the next couple of weeks or so, we’ll get John Wall and Nene back and try to get them going to try to help us win.”
Once Wall and Nene return, the Wizards should be able to compete on a nightly basis. However, the team must try to stay afloat until their two most important players return. If Washington digs too deep a hole during November, it’s unlikely that they’ll find themselves in the playoff hunt come April.
“The pieces are here,” Shaun Livingston said. “It’s just about them coming together. It’s just about the little things coming together. We’re still in it. In the East, especially, we’re not totally out of it. We have just got to get [a win] on the board.”
“Every game, we’re there,” Bradley Beal said. “It’s just a matter of executing down the stretch and making sure we’re making the right decisions. If we do the small things we’ll be fine. We just have to get back to the basics.
“The thing I like most about this team is that we fight and compete,” Beal added. “We might get down, but we always keep fighting and don’t quit. It’s really frustrating now, but eventually that will turn into wins. I think we could have won more than half of the games we played. Our intensity is there, our competitiveness is there and everything that we need to do is there, all the way up to the fourth quarter. I think the fourth quarter is what really kills us.”
Wizards head coach Randy Wittman has made some changes to the starting lineup such as replacing Trevor Booker with Jan Vesely and replacing Bradley Beal with Jordan Crawford. However, the team continues to struggle.
“We have to keep fighting because we are right there in these games,” Wittman said. “It’s about the team, it’s not about individuals. I thought making a change was needed. As coach, I’m trying to find some balance and we don’t have balance right now. We just don’t have consistency right now. I’m going to continue to look for different combinations and try to find who is playing well together.”
“We got to stay up,” Crawford said. “We got to get a win. We can’t be down on ourselves. We still got to play the games. We got a lot of games left.”
The Wizards will try to snap their nine-game losing streak tomorrow night when they take on the Atlanta Hawks.