It would be hard to imagine this version of the Charlotte Bobcats not being an improvement over last seasons.
Its not just that they finished with the worst record in NBA history (7-59). They averaged only 87 points and lost by nearly 14 points per game. Its one thing to lose a lot of games, worse still when you lose those games by so much.
The games start for real with Fridays opener at home against the Indiana Pacers. The Bobcats have a new coach and five new players, most of whom will be in the rotation. What has coach Mike Dunlap accomplished in a month of preseason?
Its clear this team looks better defensively, particularly when playing the trapping, takeaway style Dunlap advocates. The Bobcats hope this defensive approach creates turnovers for easy scoring opportunities. They averaged about two more steals per game than their opponents in the preseason, compared to a two-steals-per-game deficit last season.
Fixing the offense seems a bigger challenge. The Bobcats continue to struggle to score 90 points per game. Searching for a way to keep his best scorers in the game, Dunlap has leaned toward small ball, using 6-foot-5 Gerald Henderson as a small forward and 6-7 rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a power forward. Results from this experiment have been mixed.
Gauging improvement this season might be less about how many games they win and more about whether they stay competitive most nights. Consider four things that must happen for this roster to start the climb toward the playoffs down the road:
Finding a reliable point guard
From Brevin Knight to Raymond Felton to D.J. Augustin, the Bobcats have had a series of temps at a crucial position. Now theyre hoping Kemba Walker, with support from Ramon Sessions, can provide stability.
Walker had a rough rookie season, shooting 37 percent and committing a team-high 119 turnovers. Dunlap told Walker to stop jumping in the lane without a plan for what to do with the ball. Walker seems to have listened. His preseason game against the Bucks was telling: 20 points and seven assists over 40 minutes with zero turnovers.
Dunlap described Walker as an unusual player who can do some things very special. Asked to elaborate, Dunlap made three points: That Walker has the tenacity to play hard even when hes tired. That he can make ridiculously hard shots. And that he impacts the defense by frequently deflecting the other teams passes.
Thats a good foundation, but Walker is still a work-in-progress as a classic NBA point guard. Hes cutting down on mistakes and selecting better shots. The next step is upping his assists from his preseason average of 3.8 per game. That involves seeing plays in the making, which only comes with more experience.
Developing young talent
The single best thing about the Bobcats preseason has been power forward Byron Mullens performance. Hes the teams second-leading scorer at 14.8 points per game and the leading rebounder at 5.6.
Seven-footer Mullens arrived in a trade from Oklahoma City just before the start of last season. He has rare shooting range for his size, but when he first showed up he seemingly had no feel for how to play defense.
Thats changed. Rounding off his preseason numbers, hes averaging about six rebounds, a shot blocked and a steal per game. His foot speed is well suited to the scrambling defense Dunlap employs. Hes never going to be an enforcer, but hes demonstrated of late that he doesnt have to be a defensive liability.
This is important. Dunlap says he can play Mullens longer because he doesnt have to sub him out in defense-first situations. This certainly wasnt the case last season.
The results with others have been mixed. Big man Bismack Biyombo seemed overwhelmed early by all the things he was asked to do. Leaving him at center, where there are fewer switches than power forward and where he can rely more on instinct, might be the best course.
Forward Tyrus Thomas continues to be an expensive mystery. His length and quickness seem ideal for the way Dunlap wants to defend, yet his performance this preseason hasnt been consistent.
Adding complementary free agents
Fans hoped the Bobcats would make a big score in free-agency last summer. Neither Sessions nor center Brendan Haywood (claimed on waivers from the Dallas Mavericks) is a big scorer, but both will help.
Sessions ability to defend shooting guards allows Dunlap to play Sessions and Walker together. This is important in addressing the scoring problem. With two point guards to initiate pick-and-rolls on either side of the lane, the Bobcats can create a predicament for opposing defenses.
Haywood might not be dynamic, but hes solid as a post defender and this is a spot where the Bobcats desperately needed help last season. Opposing teams were constantly scoring at the rim and earning trips to the foul line. Haywood can repel some of this and should be a suitable mentor for Biyombo, one of this teams more important young assets.
Maximizing the 2012 draft
The Bobcats picked second in the first round (Kidd-Gilchrist) and first in the second round (Jeff Taylor). Those two should stabilize the small forward position in Charlotte for a long time.
Whether either one has star potential is a harder sell. Kidd-Gilchrist brings energy, defense and ball-handling, but his jump shot is mechanically flawed. Dunlap dabbled in playing Kidd-Gilchrist as a power forward in a small-ball lineup to mixed results.
Taylor looked like a revelation in summer league, both as a defender and a jump-shooter. But he shot 29 percent in the preseason and averaged a foul for every 7 1/2 minutes played. Its hard to get steady minutes until things like this improve.