Rick Bonnell filed a story yesterday with some interesting quotes from Larry Brown, Stephen Jackson, and Gerald Wallace about the state of the Bobcats. If the quotes are a good summary of the conversations Bonnell had with them, it appears all three men are searching for reasons why this team that made the playoffs last year is only 7-13 through the first quarter of the season.
What strikes me about their comments is that they cling to the belief that the team simply isn't playing as well as they can, and that their troubles are correctable. On a certain level, we shouldn't expect anything else from highly competitive people who need to play with full confidence to be successful.
But there's another side to this: what if the players on hand just aren't as good as the players were during last season? It's disappointing that they're making moral judgments, like saying players on the team are "soft", lack "grit", "don't have the fight", and that there's "a leadership void" because they're essentially talking about other people's thoughts and feelings, rather than their abilities*. Essentially, Brown, Jackson, and Wallace throw D.J. Augustin under the bus and scapegoat him because he's short, slight, and is not a good on-ball defender. While it may be true that Augustin doesn't have any ability to get everyone focused on doing their jobs**, define their roles for them***, or be the leader they're looking for****, I don't believe any of those have nearly the explanatory power for the Cats' slide as Augustin's inability to guard opposing point guards, the utter suck at center, and Brown's inexplicable rotations that shaft Tyrus Thomas in favor of crap centers and Dominic McGuire.
What is showing up in the team's measured performance is a steep drop off on defense, coupled with the same kind of offense that we saw last year.
2009-10: ORtg -- 104.4 (24th), DRtg -- 102.8 (1st)
2010-11: ORtg -- 104.2 (24th), DRtg -- 106.6 (13th)
There's the what. But why has this happened? That's the question Brown, Jackson, and Wallace are grappling with. Here's my stab at it.
Last year, Raymond Felton had a career year, producing plus defense coupled with league-average offense (15.2 PER). This year, Augustin is playing better-than-average offense, but he's never been a good defender, and with starter's minutes it's apparent that the whole team is suffering on defense because he simply can't stop his man.
Also last year, Nazr Mohammed had a career year. While his defense was nothing to write home about*****, he played so well on offense that LB played him nearly 1,000 minutes, even though he missed a good chunk of the season to injury. The other centers who got big minutes last season were Tyson Chandler and Theo Ratliff, neither of whom were any good on offense, but both of whom have solid reputations as excellent defenders in the middle. This season? It's mostly Nazr's show in the middle, with Boris Diaw playing crunch time, and DeSagana Diop and Kwame Brown getting a tiny portion of the big man minutes. In other words, the Cats simply don't have a defensive big man they can rely upon to play real minutes.
Or do they? Tyrus Thomas has played 21 minutes per game this season, which is kind of crazy, given the results the Cats have gotten when he's on the floor. Just about any way you slice it, when Thomas shares the front court with Diaw, the Bobcats are better than when Mohammed is there with Diaw. Maybe Brown had the idea that Mohammed would be able to hold it all down, and so he had to find out in the early going. Yet, Brown continues to give significant minutes in recent games to Mohammed and McGuire despite the evidence of the actual play this year.
And that's before coming to the understanding that Wallace's tremendous play last season was probably unrepeatable; expecting Wallace to play quite that well again is extremely optimistic, at best.
To sum up: the team isn't losing because of character failings. They're losing because the players on hand aren't quite as good as the ones that were on the team last year, and because Larry Brown isn't giving his best players enough minutes******.
All of which isn't to say that character doesn't matter. It most certainly matters that some guys just don't get along with other guys, and thus don't play well together. However! We also know what these players are generally capable of doing, they're falling in range of rational assessments, and if that is the specific problem, it'll show up in their performances in a way that's outside of what they've shown so far in the NBA.
It's perfectly fair to criticize D.J. Augustin's play, and the play of anyone else on the team. However, ascribing poor play to character flaws is weak sauce.
*It's dangerous stuff, trying to mind-read. How you perceive one's exterior doesn't always correspond with how much one cares about a subject.
**Isn't that a communal job? That is to say, everyone keeps an eye on everyone else. Wake up. Work. Sleep. Rinse. Repeat.
***I'd love to hear a breakdown on what, exactly, is "murkier" about the different players' roles this year. I'd bet that most NBA people would read that as code for "I want to take more shots and not be bothered with initiating offense as much". And if that is a problem, then everyone ought to be an adult and explain and listen to those feelings. It then falls on LB to step in, clarify, and make a ruling on how to proceed. No one's saying that's easy, but that's the job.
****I'm guessing this means they want a teammate they can turn to for wisdom. Someone they can trust with telling their frustrations and providing authentic advice. Someone who will be there to help with any problem that may arise, but that is also there for the good times. In short, I'm guessing they want a friend, as well as a teammate.