Halfway through last season, Charlotte Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins promised no hard right turn in approaching the NBAs trade deadline.
While Higgins isnt predicting a screech of the brakes and a yank on the steering wheel, his tone sounded different Thursday: The Bobcats are definitely in the market for some kind of change.
Were very active our owner wants us to be active, Higgins told the Observer in regard to the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
Higgins said owner Michael Jordan has given Higgins and general manager Rich Cho the green light to go out and make this team better I dont think theres any limits to what wed try to do.
That could range from pursuing a star player, to adding a complementary big man, to facilitating some deal between other teams to acquire a future draft pick. Higgins and Cho know, following a 10-29 start, theres still a lot of work to do between now and a playoff appearance.
That doesnt mean theyve discarded the plan they set out when Cho was hired to work with Higgins in the spring of 2011. When the Bobcats traded veterans Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson for draft picks and managed their salary cap toward future free-agent flexibility, they never saw this as a quick fix.
The plan hasnt changed: Acquire assets and build through the draft, Cho said during an hour-long interview with the Observer. Then you add in trades and free agency.
Higgins said that by the end of this week he and/or Cho will have spoken with every other NBA front office to gauge interest in making a deal. The Bobcats clearly need frontcourt help, as demonstrated by the 29-rebound deficit a franchise-worst they suffered last week in a home loss to the Indiana Pacers.
The Bobcats top rebounder this season, power forward Byron Mullens, is out with an ankle sprain. The team used the seventh pick in 2011 on center Bismack Biyombo, who has started 21 of the teams first 38 games this season.
The Bobcats knew they were drafting a project in Biyombo, whose offensive skills are still quite limited. Still, they expect to see progress from a player drafted so high.
Biz has to get better. But hes only 20 years old, said Cho, who was key to scouting and drafting Biyombo.
We need more help rebounding. For now that has to be by committee. Thats something were going to address, whether through the trade deadline or through the draft.
For now the Bobcats are a guard-centric team, which means first-year coach Mike Dunlap has played small ball much of the season. Playing guards Gerald Henderson, Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions together puts some scoring punch on the floor, but it makes the Bobcats particularly small.
Theres no real post-up threat offensively to make an opponent double-team near the basket. In fact, 6-foot-5 Henderson is probably this teams best post-up option.
The Bobcats selected the NBAs youngest player in the 2011 and 2012 drafts (Biyombo, followed by now-rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). Add in the development of second-year point guard Kemba Walker and second-round pick Jeff Taylor, and the Bobcats core is particularly young.
Our youth makes us strong, but our youth also makes us weak in a lot of ways because of our inexperience, Higgins described. We dont really know how to close out games. Thats the best way to put it without attacking anybody.
Is that frustrating to watch?
Some days, yeah, Higgins replied. But you cant get deterred.
Higgins and Cho addressed a variety of topics at the NBAs midseason turn
• On winning vs. player development:
Dunlap has frequently said he was tasked first with player development, which often shows up in his rotation. He leans toward youth over experience, as in playing Biyombo ahead of Brendan Haywood or starting Taylor over Gordon.
While that invests playing time in players more likely to be around for the Bobcats next playoff team, its probably cost the team some victories this season. They blew big leads against the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers,
Higgins said there are no mandates placed on Dunlap to always play the kids over the veterans. How, then, to strike the balance between developing youth and winning a respectable number of games this season?
Somewhere in the middle, because as an organization you always want to compete, Higgins said. Its a give-and-take. We never didnt want to win. But theres also a fine line about development, too.
• On whats been accomplished this season:
Higgins and Cho said the improvement of Walker and Mullens are measurable signs the Bobcats have made progress. Theyre also pleased with the consistent energy and leadership potential rookie Kidd-Gilchrist demonstrates.
Walker has particularly improved, looking more decisive at the point and leading the team in scoring, assists and steals.
Now that hes been basically given the keys to our team and you know what I mean, hes running our show, hes our quarterback his next step is to make us into a winner, Higgins said of Walker. And hes capable of that because he makes so many plays and hes so tough mentally.
Kemba is probably going to be as good as he wants to be. He has limitations with his size, but that doesnt stop him from the chance to be a great player.
Cho added that Dunlap has changed the player culture for the better.
When the guys come into the arena, they know its time to really work, Cho said. Thats the mindset Mike and the coaches have conveyed, and I believe the players think that.
Cho got Jordans blessing to add staff to the basketball-operations department. One of those hires was Jason Rosenfeld, a Harvard grad doing analytics. Among the things Rosenfeld does is a detailed scouting report of each upcoming opponents tendencies, both as a team and individually.
Cho provided a copy of the report, from a recent game against the Chicago Bulls, to demonstrate: Using thousands of data points, it showed, for instance, that the Bulls take the fewest corner 3s in the NBA, that most of their offense is side pick-and-rolls and that center Joakim Noah defaults to jump shots primarily from the left side of the lane.
Analytics is common in draft preparation. Its a little more cutting edge as a coaching tool.
• On what theyd say to frustrated fans:
Higgins: I would ask for patience. To Richs point, look to some of the models that have taken patience to get to a sustained level of a championship-caliber team. When you draft a (Tim) Duncan or a (Kevin) Durant, you can really build. Were hoping some of our young talent will get to that point where the Bobcats can build around them.
Yet its clear theyre open to change, too.
Were not afraid to trade, Higgins concluded. We know this model exists and were a young team. But by the same token, were not afraid to trade.