Author's note: This piece went to press prior to the Bobcats' 119-116 win over the Nuggets on Monday night, in which Gerald Wallace had 40 points and Ray Felton 15 assists. As such, all statistics cited are from prior to the Denver game. Fortunately for us, said contest only continued the trends noted below.
Perhaps Sam Vincent does indeed have a better sense of what is going on than he gets credit for.
On the first day of 2008, I criticized the Bobcats' coach in this space for his decision to insert veteran point guard Jeff McInnis into the Charlotte lineup, thus moving franchise point Ray Felton to the two. Long story short, with the team going nowhere anyway, it didn't seem to make sense to start jerking the third-year point guard around and potentially messing with his confidence when the expectation is that this is the guy who will command the offense in Charlotte for the next decade. Letting him play through some early-season struggles seemed to be a far more reasonable solution, especially when one considered the matchup problems that a lineup of McInnis, Felton, Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor could lead to defensively for the 'Cats.
The following isn't to say that the move has me sold yet, as the results certainly aren't showing that drastically in the won-loss record. And they are showing too drastically in the defense. But in light of the Cats' completing their most competitive week of basketball in more than two months, and in light of some of the changes in the production of certain individuals since the new year, it seems only fair to take the time to praise Vincent for what has gone right since the lineup change that was maligned in this space just two weeks ago.
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The entrance of McInnis to the starting lineup came right around the turn of the calendar, and 2008 has witnessed torrid starts for Charlotte's head honchos on the offensive end of the floor. In seven January games, Jason Richardson is averaging 25.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 47.3 percent shooting from the field, compared to season averages of 20.0, 5.4, 3.1 and 43.9 percent respectively. Swingman Gerald Wallace is lighting it up as well, averaging 23.1 points, 9.3 boards and 4.7 assists per game to go with 47 percent shooting over that span, against season averages of 20.7, 5.9, 3.3 and 46.3 percent respectively. Perhaps most impressively, Felton's play-making actually appears to be up as well. While his shooting percentage has held steady around 40 percent and he is averaging 13.2 points per game for the month (one shy of his season average), Felton is up to 8.8 assists per game in six January contests (he sat out Saturday night with an ankle injury), after having averaged inside of seven per game for the season's first two months.
This team is finally showing signs of getting into the offensive form many believe it has the talent to maintain in the long term. The 'Cats are starting to get up and down the court, moving the ball well and getting excellent jump shooting from Richardson and explosive slashing from Wallace to go with veteran post help from Nazr Mohammed as Emeka Okafor continues to develop offensively. Between them, the guards are making plays no matter who handles the ball, and this Charlotte team finally appears to be using its immense athleticism to its advantage.
While the results aren't showing in the standings yet -- after all, the team remains 13-23 -- this group has very quickly jumped a level in competitiveness. The 'Cats are 2-2 in the last seven days, but that includes a drubbing of New Jersey, a shocking upset in Boston and two losses to Cleveland and Detroit in which they took the Cavs to double overtime on the road and the Pistons to overtime at home (without Felton or McInnis) on back to back nights. While the Association isn't generally a place of moral victories, for a franchise that has cracked the 30-win plateau just once in its three-plus year history, these are crucial steps.
Undoubtedly, there is still a long, long, long way to go in Charlotte. The defensive matchup problems are occurring as feared, with the Bobcats' defensive efficiency five points per 100 possessions worse with McInnis on the floor than off it, largely a result of what happens when Richardson and Wallace have to play the three and the four rather than the two and the three respectively. Further, the fact that Emeka Okafor isn't yet a bigger part of the offense is a concern that will have to be addressed in the coming months, and Felton will ultimately need to reclaim the point guard position, although the timetable for that is uncertain.
But what is certain is that the Bobcats -- one of the league's most fun young teams to watch -- are working to remove the label of being a guaranteed 'W' on everyone else's schedules. And there is something to be said for that.