For Bobcats fans looking ahead way back in October, the 2008-09 season appeared bleak. A 32-win team had just gotten a big upgrade in coaching (if you think coaching is a big deal), a rookie at backup PG who couldn't possibly be worse than the guys he was replacing (and still just a backup), some uninspiring old faces on the bench... and the same starting core was returning.
The results haven't been that much better than what we could have expected at the start of the season, and the medium to long term future is still sketchy, but now we have a kernel of hope for next season. We'll end the season with a new franchise record for most wins, and the product on the floor certainly looks and feels more like an NBA team than ever before.
Bobcats fandom isn't for everyone. Among NBA fans we're illegitimate stepchildren rivalling OKC fans for weirdness. Why did we choose a team that most everyone else in this city didn't really want after the Hornets debacle?
What I've realized, more this year than last, is that it's not that the city can't support pro basketball, but that the people who were around for the Hornets phenomenon won't support the Bobcats. Not for real, at least. Too many feelings are hurt. Eventually, when the generations turn over, if the team's here long enough, people will grow up with the Bobcats as a fact of life and they will simply be. It's not too much to ask for an Atlanta Hawks type level of adoration and cultural relevance.
This offseason will be about finding Raja Bell's replacement. Playing Raymond and DJ together is not the answer, nor is elevating RadMan or a D-Leaguer.
The Cats can make two big improvements by letting Felton go and finding someone to be a big upgrade on Raja. As much as Felton might be a great guy to have around, being a great locker room presence only adds value if the guy's playing Juwan Howard's minutes. If he's playing starter's minutes, he'd better produce, and Augustin is already the superior player. There are plenty of backup point guards who can do what Raymond does for a fraction of the price. Let him go.
Raja's a different kind of issue. Dude doesn't play great offense, but his defense has been good enough at times to warrant thinking about keeping him. He's under contract for next season, so the default is to go into next year with him at the two. However, if Larry Brown wants a wing defender, he should consider digging through other teams' trash heaps for that guy. We traded away Kyle Weaver, who's having a fascinating season for OKC. There's probably no way we can pry DeShawn Stevenson from Washington, given Gilbert Arenas's knee issues, but it would be worth asking.
Eccentricity aside, last year, when he was healthy and playing the two, Stevenson was an excellent player. He may not be the mid-range shooter Bell is, but he's a lot cheaper than Bell, he's probably at least as good a defender at this point in his career, he shoots threes at least as well, if not better, he takes it to the rack more often, and, I think very importantly, he can play a little point guard. That means that, without subbing at all, Stevenson or Diaw can bring the ball up the court for a change of pace and let DJ play off the ball for a few possessions.
If we're looking for a superstar upgrade, that's not happening unless we uncover that guy in the draft. There's an outside chance some uber athlete like DeMar DeRozan will be available where the Cats are set to draft (assuming we don't hit the jackpot in the lottery), but, as of now, more likely we're going to be looking at guys with assumed flaws, like Gerald Henderson. I love Henderson because he's a defense-first guy, but there are real questions about whether or not his offensive game will translate to the NBA. If he's there at 13 or 14, I can't imagine many other available wings that match his skill level.
Tonight, against the Bulls, it's all about keeping people happy and healthy. Raja's done for the year. Emeka's looked a little worn out, so maybe he'll sit for most of the game.
On the other side of the coin, Augustin, Cartier Martin, and Dontell Jefferson deserve a bunch of playing time. Oh, hell. Give Sean May his burn, too.