The Hornets' fortunes this season depend largely on their most expensive and divisive player. Last season Derrick Coleman averaged 8.1 points and sat out 48 games because of injuries, illness and lack of physical conditioning. His cavalier approach prompted coach Paul Silas to strip him of his co-captaincy. This year Coleman arrived at training camp with a slimmer waistline and with a smile that faded only at the mention of one subject: his role off the bench.
"He's been a totally different person," says P.J. Brown, who took over for the 6'10" Coleman at power forward last year. "Whatever the coaches have said to him, he's done what they've asked. He was the key last year. If we had been able to get him to where he needed to be, I have no doubt we would have gone to the Eastern Conference finals and maybe beyond."
Coleman realizes that his reputation, never good to begin with, hit rock bottom last season as Charlotte went 34-14 when he didn't play and 12-22 when he did. "How can you believe that stat knowing that I carried us two years ago?" Coleman says. "But if you want to believe it, if you don't want me here, then let me go somewhere I can be useful."
The Hornets tried to do just that, shopping Coleman in the off-season. No one, however, wanted to take on the remaining two years and $19 million of his contract. Coleman believes he can equal his production of two seasons ago, when he averaged 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds to help lead Charlotte to the fourth-best record in the East. But—and this is an ominous but—Coleman also believes he should replace Brown in the starting lineup. "Coming off the bench is not a role I'm comfortable with," he says. "I've never had to do it."
"I like him coming off the bench with his scoring to give us a lift," says Silas, who says that Coleman—despite his desire to start—has become a leader of the subs. "He's talking to those guys, teaching them, listening to them. He's taking charge, and I like that."
The question is, Can Coleman learn to live with a role he says he doesn't want to play? "He'll accept it for the good of the team," says point guard Baron Davis, who defended Coleman against his critics last season. "I know he wants to win, and with his talent he'll be a strong candidate for the Sixth Man Award."