Larry Brown has put his influence on this franchise. Every single move they made during the last season had his fingerprints on it. He looked like he was confounded at the beginning of the season because he couldn't play the way he wants to play. He had a team with a lot of jump shooters but with no ability to defend and compete and play the way he likes his teams to play. I was very skeptical they could improve their roster, due to the financial constraints amid the possibility that the team would be sold, and also because [team managing partner] Michael Jordan figured to be reticent to let Larry come in and take control. Let's face it, Jordan had a chance to bring in Larry the first time [in 2007] and he hired Sam Vincent instead. You had to believe Jordan wanted his own guy, somebody who would simply be on board with any personnel moves Jordan made. So the hiring of Larry showed a dramatic shift and admission from Jordan that he needed help and improvement.
To my surprise, every deal they made last season made them better on paper. They got the better talent in getting Boris Diaw and Raja Bell from Phoenix for Jason Richardson. They got Vladmir Radmanovic for Adam Morrison, and DeSagana Diop for Matt Carroll. In every situation -- with the exception of Radmanovic -- they got a tough-minded player to fit in with the way Larry plays. The team they had in March was completely different than the team they had in November. The moves added to their payroll, which told me that Larry was wearing out [general manager] Rod Higgins and hammering on him and Jordan until they got the players they needed and wanted. At least now they have a roster that appears to fit together, with guys who can fill roles and complement one another. Now they look like a team.
Diaw was by far and away the team MVP. He fit in and played incredibly well, not only for himself but also for others as an orchestrator and the most versatile guy on the floor. He's a guy who can guard the 3, 4 or 5 positions. He passes like a small forward or shooting guard, which enables him to play as a point forward. We all knew his strength was his ability to create for others, but for him to shoot his threes at 41.9 percent for Charlotte was a revelation. But his relevance was as a team-first player, and in having a coach who was open-minded in creating a role for him.
The big question for Diaw will involve consistency. He also had a big first year with Phoenix in 2005-06 when he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award, and then he wasn't so good in the second year for them. Will he be as strong for them this year as he was last year?
The offseason was quiet with the exception of trading Emeka Okafor to New Orleans for Tyson Chandler. That deal appeared to be about balancing the books because Chandler has three fewer years left on his deal than Okafor. They're both role-playing big men who rebound and help to defend while blocking the occasional shot, and anything they give you offensively is gravy. Okafor is the more physical player, while Chandler is the long-wingspan defender whom Larry likes to have at center. The potential gain for Charlotte is that Chandler runs the floor well. The big concern is that he missed 37 games last year, and after his midseason trade to Oklahoma City was rescinded in February, you have to wonder if he's healthy.
Their pickup of Flip Murray could be a great move, considering I thought he was the key addition to Atlanta last year -- which means that the Bobcats are benefiting at the expense of a division rival. He's a guy with an edge, a scorer off the bench who is willing to defend in a physical way. He can also be a third option for them as a point guard, but the main thing will be the depth he provides behind Bell.
They're splitting the time at point guard between Raymond Felton, who made strides as the season went along, and D.J. Augustin. Felton was a guy who seemed to be running in sand and not making progress in the last couple of years, but over the second half of last season the light went on a little bit for him. They re-signed him for one year this summer because he really hasn't earned a long-term deal. Diaw and the other new guys took a lot of heat off him, and he also benefited from his competition for playing time with Augustin, who was their lottery pick in 2008. Felton ranks among the bottom half of starting NBA point guards, and here he finds himself playing for his job and a new contract while they've brought in a rookie who made a good first impression. It was promising to see that Felton appeared to react well to the challenge. But I'm still not sure he's a point guard. He seemed to welcome the opportunity to move over and play the 2 at times and have less responsibility -- to run off screens and be able to shoot the ball. I'm sure when he moves over to shooting guard it's a liberating thing for him to just play and not worry about creating for the team.
Augustin's play more than validated the decision to take him with the No. 9 pick. His end-to-end speed and ability to make shots and stretch the floor was a combination that made him very hard to defend. But I don't view him as a 35-to-40-minute starter either. If Augustin is able to become a full-time starter, he will have probably reached his potential. He has some special talents, but his abilities to run a team and defend his position both need to improve, and he may face some difficulty in both areas because he's so small. I find myself comparing him to Damon Stoudamire in those terms.
Bell [who sustained a preseason wrist injury that might require surgery] fit a big need as a defender against the opponent's best scorer. He is a classic catch-and-shoot guy, another team-first guy who gives them toughness. At 33, he's approaching the end of his career, and for shooting guards like him it can go fast. Maybe he has two good years left, though his ability to catch-and-shoot may help extend his time. It's an interesting thing that this was a team with a lot of jump shooters, and yet they struggled to shoot from the perimeter before Bell came.
Gerald Wallace's effort cannot be questioned. He plays hard all game long, making deflections and steals, recovering and helping out his teammates. At the other end, his ability to offensive-rebound as a small forward is his strength. But he is still a role player, to be realistic about it. On a good team, he'd fill that Trevor Ariza role of an energy-effort guy. He was miscast as a go-to player in recent years mainly because they had few other options to score. I imagine Larry had a conversation with him that they become a better team when he isn't trying to score so much but instead is doing what he does well while getting his points in the flow.
Gerald Henderson is likely to be a non-factor as a rookie, and the best scenario for him will be to contribute to the end of the rotation.
The trade of Okafor opens up the opportunity for a bigger role for Diop. He's an intriguing, enigmatic player who has not shown the consistency that anyone would have hoped. Knowing that they're down to only Chandler and Nazr Mohammed as their only viable big men -- with Diaw and Radmanovic as forward 'tweeners -- they're going to need Diop to play well, especially if Chandler isn't healthy.
Another question is raised by Larry's age. At 69, how much longer will he be able to coach? But the roster upgrades last year may keep him there for a longer time because it may be less of a struggle for him to coach this team. On the other hand, they didn't improve by very much this summer, so how can you keep improving while so many teams at the top of the East are adding to their rosters? If they're off to a good start and playing the way they played over the final months last year, you won't notice any issues regarding Larry. But if for some reason they stumble out of the gate and it looks like they aren't allowed to make any trades, it could be a long year.
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