CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Bobcats’ season came to a close Wednesday night with a 21-61 record, Gerald Henderson emerged into the locker room singing Queen’s We Are The Champions. Kemba Walker, one locker stall over, told reporters they can “compete with anyone when we want to.”
Even head coach Mike Dunlap used words like “unbelievable” and “exciting” in his post-game press conference when describing the improvement throughout the season.
That’s a dramatic change from the previous season. A 21-win campaign, culminating with the Bobcats’ 105-98 win over the Cavs, rarely ends with such promise. For Charlotte, which closed everything with a three-game winning streak, avoided the dubious act of posting the NBA’s worst seasonal record.
That dishonor, in a matter of speaking, goes to the Orlando Magic.
“I want more wins. I think the organization wants more wins,” Dunlap said. “But ‘inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard.’ I was raised on that. I never thought we were going to blink our eyes and have 35 wins. I thought it was always going to be a slog, and we’re slowly moving this thing around.”
In that slog came significant peaks and valleys. The peak came early, just 22 days into the season, when the 7-5 Bobcats matched their win total from the previous year. The back-to-reality jolt soon came in the form of an 18-game losing streak, relegating the Bobcats to second-class status once again. That miserable stretch eventually ended and Charlotte found stability once more, winning seven of its last nine home games. “That (18-game losing streak) was tough,” Dunlap said. “But at the same time we kept our eye on the ball and on our development and also our chemistry and approaching the game professionally. Our fans really kept coming, so there was something. It was an It, but it was really positive. I just think that what’s going on — and some of it’s hard to describe — but it’s really positive.”
What’s not hard to convey is the transformation of Kemba Walker and Henderson late in the season. The backcourt duo was the second-highest scoring backcourt in the league over the last 20 games, averaging 40.1 points. Part of that has to be attributed to the Bobcats’ inability to score in the post, but it’s impossible to ignore Henderson’s 24.3 points on 47.6-percent shooting from the field during that stretch.
“You start with Kemba and Gerald,” said Dunlap, when asked who the franchise builds around. “Those two guys are pillars, and they’ve done a wonderful job of just getting a little bit better all year long.”
But with Henderson becoming a restricted free agent this summer, is this Charlotte’s backcourt of the future? Walker has to be the centerpiece going forward — whether the franchise likes it or not — given its recent drafting history. At some point, though, enough is enough and you have to say this is our guy.
Walker has to be that guy.
But can you re-sign Henderson and build around a guard duo that shoots 32 and 33 percent from three-point range, respectively? Especially when you’re also developing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a small forward who shot only nine treys all season — and made two? Sure, Kidd-Gilchrist might have all-star potential as a better shooter from long range (38-40 percent maybe), but that may take a while. To his credit, the rookie plans to hire a shooting coach during the summer.
Another offseason question: Is Charlotte committed to Bismack Biyombo for the long term? Do the Bobcats really embrace Dunlap’s firm assertion that Biyombo (season averages: 4.8 points, 7.3 rebounds) is a double-double guy? If so, would Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel — the consensus top center in the upcoming draft — not be a high priority?
Dunlap would be the first to say post scoring, three-point shooting and rebounding were the main issues all season: The Bobcats ranked in the bottom five for all three categories.
“(A lot of teams) definitely have a guy that’s just out there to knock your head off with the three ball. We have good three-point shooters, but we don’t have a guy that’s just a cold shooter,” said Henderson. “That’s something we could definitely use.
“Somebody that you can throw the ball into the post is always something desirable. I feel like, at times this season, I was our best post player and that can be good and bad, but to have a big be able to do that and have your guards play on the perimeter is also a plus. We’ll see what happens this summer.”
What happens next will largely depend on the Bobcats’ focus for the draft, along their plans for Henderson, a restricted free agent. In fact, Henderson, Jeff Adrien, Byron Mullens, Reggie Williams, DeSagana Diop, Jannero Pargo and Josh McRoberts are all in the final year of their contracts, potentially clearing $21 million in cap space. Plus, there’s always the option of amnestying Tyrus Thomas’s contract for the next two seasons, at $18 million.
But does owner Michael Jordan want to eat that much money in a small market, especially when the Bobcats are already below the mandatory salary-cap floor. By most accounts, the Bobcats are a long way from contending in the East, regardless of the offseason free-agent pursuits.
Premier free-agent post scorers, like Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, will command serious contracts in the offseason and the Bobcats, as current non-contenders, will almost always have to overpay for free agents until they start to win. Regardless, Dunlap says he’s a proponent of continuing to draft the best player available and figuring it out from there.
“Our young guys are getting better, and there’s a lot to do in terms of the three-prong attack: the draft, our salary cap — there’s plenty of room — and then you’ve got trades, free agency and all that mixed in. It’s just really fantastic.”