Brown has Bobcats in playoff hunt
The Bobcats have improved in their first season under coach Larry Brown
Charlotte is contending for a playoff spot after a series of roster changes
More topics: Andrea Bargnani's emergence; NBA scout sizes up Chris Paul
Larry Brown was nervous.
For a man who has coached more than 2,000 NBA games, reached three Finals and won a championship, the fact that his new Bobcats team was making him sweat didn't portend the type of turnaround Brown was hired to accomplish.
"I was a nervous wreck," Brown said of his early-season experience coaching his ninth NBA team. "We didn't have good balance, we had an unusual number of perimeter players and we had a lot of inexperience in the frontcourt. Stuff that I ran in the past that was pretty successful looked terrible."
An 0-8 exhibition season followed by a 5-11 start to the regular season seemed to confirm Brown's concerns about the Bobcats, who had gone 109-219 without sniffing the playoffs in their four seasons before his arrival.
But now, with a month left in the season, the Bobcats through Sunday were a mere 1½ games back in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And though the jumble of mediocrity in the East (beyond its top three teams) has undeniably helped Charlotte's cause, so has a transformation engineered by Brown and a front office desperate to erase its past failures.
Charlotte's improvement is nothing new for a coach who has made his way into the Hall of Fame by turning around a division's worth of once-moribund franchises. If the Bobcats reach the playoffs, they would be the sixth team to do so in Brown's first season on the bench.
"What he tries to do is teach basketball," said Bobcats center Emeka Okafor, who played for Brown on the 2004 Olympic team before reuniting with him this season. "There are certain elements of the game that don't change, and he does his best to teach that. He wants everyone to be well-rounded, to be able to do everything at whatever time.
"He'll tell someone, 'I want you to drive the ball. I don't care if you kick it out of bounds, you'll get better at it.' Or if you don't roll in the right direction [off a pick-and-roll], he'll tell you that you have to fade in a certain direction. It may be something subtle, but in his mind it's big, and in the big picture it actually is big."
Said Brown: "Every coach has his own idea of playing the right way. When I say it, we want to defend every possession the best we can, we want to rebound, we want to take care of the ball and we want to be unselfish. I've written those [principles] on the board since I got into coaching."
Of course, it also helps to have the type of personnel capable of fulfilling those objectives, players who are thick-skinned enough to allow Brown to impart his lessons. Brown conceded that the slow start persuaded managing partner Michael Jordan and the Bobcats' front office to start acquiring players "who can play the way we need them to play."
On Dec. 10, the Bobcats began their in-season, payroll-adding makeover by trading leading scorer Jason Richardson to Phoenix for guard Raja Bell and forward Boris Diaw. Charlotte is 21-22 since the deal, including a franchise-record six-game winning streak and victories against the Celtics (when they were healthy) and Lakers. The Bobcats are 16-13 when using their preferred starting lineup of Raymond Felton, Bell, Gerald Wallace, Diaw and Okafor.
"We didn't have enough guys who could pass and catch and dribble," Brown said. "All of sudden we get that in Boris, and he's made everyone on the team better. Raja has that ability -- I'm trying to reinvent it in him, but he's a much better scorer than I ever imagined; he never takes bad shots. And he gives us a legitimate, great defender at the shooting-guard position."
Charlotte followed that trade by acquiring backup center DeSagana Diop from Dallas (for Matt Carroll and Ryan Hollins) and obtaining reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic from the Lakers (for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown). Between the flurry of deals and Brown's tinkering, the Bobcats have used 23 players this season.
The changes haven't done much to boost Charlotte's offense. The Bobcats rank last in the league in scoring at 93.1 points, a figure dictated in part by one of the league's slowest-paced offenses.
"It was not by design to be scoring 88 a game and giving up 92 or 94," Brown said. "We tried to go up and down in exhibition [games] without calling plays on misses and we were kicking it everywhere and had trouble stopping people. ... So we've tried to get our guards to get it up as quick as we can so we have more options and more time to run plays.
"The hardest part about this transition is that we've made so many changes as the season's gone on, so we've had to get a lot of our work done on the fly with limited time to practice. But we're all pretty encouraged by what the team has been able to accomplish."
What about the accomplishment of playing into the postseason? One of six teams within 2½ games of the No. 8 seed, the Bobcats play six of their next seven against losing clubs before facing a back-to-back against the Celtics and Lakers.
"I can say [it's important merely to give your best effort], but it wouldn't be fair to my players. It's important to them, and I know that," Brown said of making the playoffs. "And anything that's important to them is a priority for me. But I don't talk about that to them. I want them to get better every day, and if we improve on the things Michael and I value, we think things will work out. ... The thing we keep making it about is to give ourselves a chance to win every game."
NBA Truth & Rumors