ASHEVILLE A team can’t get beaten 23 straight times without also getting beaten up.
By the end of a 7-59 season, the Charlotte Bobcats’ confidence was punctured, so part of the new coach’s job is to readjust attitude as much as technique.
Coach Mike Dunlap keeps reminding his players to push back when the Miami Heat or Los Angeles Lakers start playing bully. That goes hand-in-hand with an emphasis on attacking, physical defense.
Dunlap says there’s a crucial difference between “respect’’ and “reverence’’ in how you treat your opponent. Respect is good, reverence is corrosive, particularly for a team coming off the worst season in NBA history.
“We’re coming from a ditch, so the confidence in what our expectations are has to be stated clearly,’’ Dunlap said.
Many of these players came from college basketball’s top programs, so all this losing was both foreign and disorienting. Co-captain Gerald Henderson, who played at Duke, loves the new agenda.
“With the kind of team we were, how people look at us, you’ve got to have that attitude or we’ll just get run over like we were last year,’’ said Henderson.” To come up from where we were at, you’ve got to dig, you’ve got to fight. That’s the only way.’’
Henderson said the thing he liked best about playing for Mike Krzyzewski was, even after four national championships, Coach K was fiery. He sees a flicker of that in Dunlap’s approach.
“When you play for him, you better have it, too, or you’re not going to play,’’ Henderson recalled of being a Blue Devil. “It starts on the defensive end, and Coach Dunlap is the same way.’’
Dunlap has spent about three-quarters of practice time at training camp on defense. He introduced offensive concepts informally over the summer, but right now his priority is obvious. During practice Wednesday night he shouted, “Our highest value in this franchise is defense!’’
Bad as the offense was last season – the Bobcats averaged just 87 points and 41 percent shooting – the defense, particularly at the rim, was horrible. Center Brendan Haywood, claimed off waivers from the Dallas Mavericks, will help address that, but it has to be a collective effort and involve some creativity.
Dunlap experimented with some pressing and trapping in Las Vegas summer league. You won’t see that constantly – no NBA team can, playing four games in five nights – but Dunlap knows being conventional won’t cut it.
“He’s got a lot of ideas about what to throw at teams to surprise them,’’ Henderson said. “I think you’ll see at least four minutes of pressing every game …not just to turn the ball over, but to keep the other team from getting into multiple plays. He’s ahead of the curve that way.’’
Ask Dunlap who has impressed him defensively and he rattles off a half-dozen names: Henderson, Haywood, Bismack Biyombo, Ramon Sessions and both rookies – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor.
But Dunlap saved special praise for point guard Kemba Walker, saying he’s constantly gotten his hands on the ball, changing possession for easy transition baskets. Dunlap didn’t expect Walker to be so good on the ball. Walker said that’s partially about the freedom the coaching staff has given him to take risks.
“He’s saying to each one of us, ‘Be tough and trust in each other,’ ‘‘ Walker said. “He’s given me the freedom to really pressure the ball, with the understanding that if I get beaten, I can trust in my teammates that they’ll help me out.’’