Larry Brown was nervous.
For a man who has coached more than 2,000 NBA games, reached three Finals and won a championship, the fact that his new Bobcats team was making him sweat didn't portend the type of turnaround Brown was hired to accomplish.
"I was a nervous wreck," Brown said of his early-season experience coaching his ninth NBA team. "We didn't have good balance, we had an unusual number of perimeter players and we had a lot of inexperience in the frontcourt. Stuff that I ran in the past that was pretty successful looked terrible."
An 0-8 exhibition season followed by a 5-11 start to the regular season seemed to confirm Brown's concerns about the Bobcats, who had gone 109-219 without sniffing the playoffs in their four seasons before his arrival.
But now, with a month left in the season, the Bobcats through Sunday were a mere 1½ games back in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And though the jumble of mediocrity in the East (beyond its top three teams) has undeniably helped Charlotte's cause, so has a transformation engineered by Brown and a front office desperate to erase its past failures.
Charlotte's improvement is nothing new for a coach who has made his way into the Hall of Fame by turning around a division's worth of once-moribund franchises. If the Bobcats reach the playoffs, they would be the sixth team to do so in Brown's first season on the bench.
"What he tries to do is teach basketball," said Bobcats center Emeka Okafor, who played for Brown on the 2004 Olympic team before reuniting with him this season. "There are certain elements of the game that don't change, and he does his best to teach that. He wants everyone to be well-rounded, to be able to do everything at whatever time.
"He'll tell someone, 'I want you to drive the ball. I don't care if you kick it out of bounds, you'll get better at it.' Or if you don't roll in the right direction [off a pick-and-roll], he'll tell you that you have to fade in a certain direction. It may be something subtle, but in his mind it's big, and in the big picture it actually is big."
Said Brown: "Every coach has his own idea of playing the right way. When I say it, we want to defend every possession the best we can, we want to rebound, we want to take care of the ball and we want to be unselfish. I've written those [principles] on the board since I got into coaching."
Of course, it also helps to have the type of personnel capable of fulfilling those objectives, players who are thick-skinned enough to allow Brown to impart his lessons. Brown conceded that the slow start persuaded managing partner Michael Jordan and the Bobcats' front office to start acquiring players "who can play the way we need them to play."
On Dec. 10, the Bobcats began their in-season, payroll-adding makeover by trading leading scorer Jason Richardson to Phoenix for guard Raja Bell and forward Boris Diaw. Charlotte is 21-22 since the deal, including a franchise-record six-game winning streak and victories against the Celtics (when they were healthy) and Lakers. The Bobcats are 16-13 when using their preferred starting lineup of Raymond Felton, Bell, Gerald Wallace, Diaw and Okafor.
"We didn't have enough guys who could pass and catch and dribble," Brown said. "All of sudden we get that in Boris, and he's made everyone on the team better. Raja has that ability -- I'm trying to reinvent it in him, but he's a much better scorer than I ever imagined; he never takes bad shots. And he gives us a legitimate, great defender at the shooting-guard position."
Charlotte followed that trade by acquiring backup center DeSagana Diop from Dallas (for Matt Carroll and Ryan Hollins) and obtaining reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic from the Lakers (for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown). Between the flurry of deals and Brown's tinkering, the Bobcats have used 23 players this season.
The changes haven't done much to boost Charlotte's offense. The Bobcats rank last in the league in scoring at 93.1 points, a figure dictated in part by one of the league's slowest-paced offenses.
"It was not by design to be scoring 88 a game and giving up 92 or 94," Brown said. "We tried to go up and down in exhibition [games] without calling plays on misses and we were kicking it everywhere and had trouble stopping people. ... So we've tried to get our guards to get it up as quick as we can so we have more options and more time to run plays.
"The hardest part about this transition is that we've made so many changes as the season's gone on, so we've had to get a lot of our work done on the fly with limited time to practice. But we're all pretty encouraged by what the team has been able to accomplish."
What about the accomplishment of playing into the postseason? One of six teams within 2½ games of the No. 8 seed, the Bobcats play six of their next seven against losing clubs before facing a back-to-back against the Celtics and Lakers.
"I can say [it's important merely to give your best effort], but it wouldn't be fair to my players. It's important to them, and I know that," Brown said of making the playoffs. "And anything that's important to them is a priority for me. But I don't talk about that to them. I want them to get better every day, and if we improve on the things Michael and I value, we think things will work out. ... The thing we keep making it about is to give ourselves a chance to win every game."
• Atlanta's home cooking. With Mike Woodson and Josh Smith again at odds, the Hawks found a way to deflect the bad news -- winning five straight at home with a heavy dose of Joe Johnson, who has averaged 27.6 points on 50 percent shooting during the streak.
• The Tyson Chandler effect. The Hornets are 9-2 since the big man returned from a sprained ankle (and had his trade to Oklahoma City rescinded), a stretch in which Chandler has averaged 9.3 points and 10.6 rebounds and shot 56.6 percent.
• Andrea Bargnani's starting turn. The No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft has distanced himself from the "bust" label a few were whispering before Christmas. A full-time starter since January, the 7-foot Italian center has averaged 17.3 points and 6.2 rebounds and shot 42.9 percent from three-point range in 48 starts.
• Franchise security. A few days after the Pacers' ownership said it could no longer afford the operating costs on Conseco Fieldhouse, TheBoston Globe reported that the Kings could move to Anaheim if they can't secure a new arena in Sacramento. With public funding for new arenas as dry as the economy is down, not all of these rumored franchise shifts will remain rumors.
• Phoenix's playoff hopes. Back-to-back victories against Oklahoma City and Golden State helped, but the Suns still began the week four games behind Dallas for the No. 8 seed in the West.
• St. Patrick's Day jerseys. After donning green jerseys Sunday as part of the NBA's plan to market St. Patrick's Day-themed gear for all 30 teams, the Raptors joined the Lakers in expressing their discomfort with the concept, which strikes some players as too evocative of the Celtics. "Wackness," Chris Bosh said of the jersey.
Many believe the MVP race is a three-man affair among LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Quietly, though, New Orleans' Chris Paul is putting together an even better season than in 2007-08, when he finished second in the MVP balloting. An NBA scout assesses what makes Paul so effective.
"He's mentally engaged in the game more than any player on the floor at all times. He takes it upon himself to make sure his teammates know their assignments and know what's coming, but he also pays attention to what the other team is doing and what the other coach does. He's one of those guys who communicates opposing play calls to his team. That never seems to wane.
"Though he's become an acceptable-to-decent perimeter shooter over the past two years, he knows how to test defenses, he knows when guys are taking a possession off and he can exploit the team in the open floor. He's always a threat to speed it up when a team may be jogging back defensively.
"If you could accomplish one thing defensively on him, it would be to get the ball out of his hands. But he's so quick and so good with the basketball, it's tough to do that, which leaves a lot of teams consistently trying to trap him in pick-and-rolls. Even then, eventually he's going to figure out what he needs to do to stretch the big man, how he's going to split it or move the ball and get it back. The second alternative, all things being equal, is that you'd much rather him take a perimeter shot than get into the paint."
• "In recent weeks we've seen Shaq sort of dis everybody in the NBA. I call him the 50 Cent of the NBA. If you say anything bad about him, he'll have a mixed-tape response the next day."-- Grant Hill, on theDan Patrick Radio Show, discusses O'Neal's ability go give better than he receives.
• "I don't want to go out there and lose every night. I didn't come here for this. I didn't expect this."-- Shawn Marion describes to the Toronto Sun his feelings about playing for the Raptors, who acquired him from the Heat last month.
• "It wasn't much of a battle. I kicked his [behind]."-- Kobe summarizes his matchup with the trash-talking Ron Artest after scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter and 37 points overall in the Lakers' victory at Houston last week.
• "Don't talk to him, don't even look him in the eye. Stay away from him."-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich relates the lesson he took from Kobe's cold-blooded response to Artest's trash-talking.
• The Oregonian:Greg Oden bares his soul in what has been a most trying rookie season.
• The Sporting Blog: If the Clippers' Mike Taylor isn't in the dunk contest during next year's All-Star weekend, there needs to be an investigation.
• NBA.com: Could a man with a good shot at winning his 10th ring as a coach be underappreciated?
•Cleveland Plain Dealer: Ever wonder how players pack for road trips? Generously, it seems, unlike the beat reporters who cover them.
•Columbus Dispatch: The secret to LeBron's growth in the NBA.
1.Don Nelson's threat to Jamal Crawford -- that if the ninth-year guard didn't opt out of his contract this summer he would be traded -- is just another reason why the Warriors should show Nellie the door. Crawford is owed $19 million the next two years, and with economic fear spreading through the league, it's highly unlikely Crawford could secure a similar deal from another team. So that leaves Crawford to play for a coach who has told him he essentially doesn't have a future with the team. Of course, if Crawford did leave, he could escape a coach who started giving up on the season soon after the All-Star break by randomly deactivating healthy veterans, and someone who hasn't coached defense since he was in Milwaukee three decades ago. Nellie may be more clever than most if us, but with each move he makes it appears he's more interested in proving that than in winning games.
2. With the NCAA tournament about to start, we are sure to see the usual debates of what's better: the field of 65 or the NBA playoffs? Can't we retire this tired argument once and for all? Can't we agree that the sudden-death format of the NCAAs makes for drama no professional league can top, but that the quality of play isn't close to the NBA's? Must we always debate what's better? Just because one playoff is entertaining doesn't mean the other one isn't.
3. Speaking of the tournament ... Sorry, I know Oklahoma's Blake Griffin averages 21.9 points and 14.3 rebounds and shoots 63.5 percent, but when the presumed No. 1 pick is a power forward drawing comparisons with Carlos Boozer, it's tough to get excited about the upcoming draft. Yes, everyone will analyze the top picks for their franchise-building abilities, but we don't sense any sizzle. Drafts are defined by the dominant players they produce; anyone confident Griffin can become a superstar?