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Not a laughingstock for long

Solid group of young core players leads to bright future for Bobcats

Posted: Wednesday January 12, 2005 3:35PM; Updated: Thursday January 13, 2005 9:13AM
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The Bobcats really stink, don't they?

They're 8-23, a record that in most divisions would land them in the basement (thankfully for Charlotte, the Southeast Division is also the home of the Atlanta Hawks). Their coach and general manager is a guy who tanked with the Wizards six years ago, and their president is a man who will forever be known as "the guy who drafted Frederic Weis." (A distinction Ed Tapscott earned for himself in 1999 while running the Knicks). Things couldn't possibly be any worse.

Right?

Despite the Bobcats' woeful record, what Charlotte has done with its roster this season constitutes a minor miracle. Most expansion franchises have a plan going into draft night, and it can be summed up in two main points: 1) Draft young, inexperienced players who generally have lower salaries, and 2) Draft higher-salary players from teams willing to give up top draft picks for taking their dead weight.

While these guidelines seem simple enough, very rarely does a team come away from an expansion yard sale with anything more than a serviceable backup. But what GM/coach Bernie Bickerstaff and Tapscott were able to do last summer was acquire two rising stars in Primoz Brezec and Gerald Wallace, who, despite Richard Jefferson's protests, does have some talent. In addition, they were able to use their favorable salary-cap situation (roughly six million under their pre-determined cap number of 29 million) to move up two spots and select Emeka Okafor, who thus far has answered any and all questions about who the frontrunner is for Rookie of the Year.

In fact, Charlotte's abysmal record this season could prove to be the best thing that could happen to this young franchise. The 25-year-old Brezec, after languishing on the Indiana bench for three years behind Jermaine O'Neal and Brad Miller, has taken huge strides this season, averaging 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds in a little less than 30 minutes per game. To put that in perspective, Brezec never averaged more than eight minutes per game with Indiana and played in only 62 games over three seasons with the Pacers. The Bobcats were so high on him they signed the 7-foot Slovenian to a multi-million-dollar extension before he ever donned a Charlotte uniform.

"He's 7 feet. He can shoot. He has a great work ethic," said Bickerstaff last fall. "If he falls on his face, I can live with that."

With Brezec, Okafor and Wallace, the Bobcats have the type of young and talented frontcourt that will carry them into the next decade. What they also have is flexibility. Next season Charlotte will be allowed to spend 75 percent of the normal salary cap (around $36 million) and will have a high draft pick (its own) as well as that of Cleveland's -- a courtesy extended by Phoenix, who owned the Cavs' pick and dealt it to Charlotte in exchange for the Bobcats selecting Jahidi White in last June's expansion draft. With these picks the Bobcats have the option of drafting a point guard (hello, Chris Paul) and with their salary cap space they would have room to land a top-flight shooting guard (anyone seen Michael Redd?).

But they really do stink.

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Tough break for the Nets, who have lost Richard Jefferson. I got a lot of angry e-mail from fans criticizing me for proclaiming the Nets as contenders after their trade for Vince Carter. Let me make it clear: I never said the Nets, with Jabari Smith playing a prominent role off the bench, could make a run at anything. However, with the right type of big man playing alongside Carter, Jason Kidd and Jefferson, New Jersey had the potential to make some noise in the playoffs, especially given the weak state of its division. That theory is obviously scuttled after the loss of R.J. I was at the Meadowlands Tuesday night and Carter, despite his obvious talent, is still not looking for his shot the way an All-Star caliber player should. If he doesn't start commanding the ball on a more consistent basis, New Jersey could be in for a long second half.

The other issue down in the swamp is that of Kidd, who several times over the course of Tuesday night's loss to the Pistons was visibly exasperated at his teammates' lack of execution. More than once, a Kidd-led fast break fell into a half-court set, something unheard of in the days of Kerry Kittles, Jefferson and Kenyon Martin. For the Nets to keep Kidd from staging a coup before next season they have to make a major splash in free agency this summer, something that will be difficult because of their salary-cap restrictions.

Another Web site ran a story recently on the possibility that LeBron James will leave the Cavaliers after his contract runs out in two years. To me, that's insane. First, Cleveland will be able to offer James far more money than any other NBA team (see Kobe: Lakers vs. Clippers), and despite the marketing lure of New York and L.A., I find it hard to believe that the endorsement money will be that much different from the more than $100 million he is set to receive now. Besides, when I watch and listen to LeBron, the word "sellout" never really comes to mind, which is exactly what he would be if he walked away from the Cavaliers.

See you next week ... 

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