Ahoy, lads! Step aboard the Point Guard Express, where we take a look at the Charlotte Bobcats' struggles at the most important position in the NBA.
Yeah, I have no idea what I was talking about either. Whatever.
The Bobcats were rebuilding in a shortened season with no training camp and a bunch of injuries and a depleted roster and Michael Jordan and Cory Higgins and the worst record in the NBA ever and a bunch of other crap that makes me very, very sad.
The season sucked. I know. Get over it. It's done.
The Bobcats' point guards, D.J. Augustin, Kemba Walker, and Cory Higgins, all offered something different, to ensure everyone got what they liked. With Augustin, you had the steady veteran (lol at veteran though) who was boring. With Kemba, the flashy youngster that reminded some of a mad scientist, either producing incredible concoctions or blowing up the game. With Higgins...well, you had comedy. Or if you're a masochist, pain.
This piece will take a look at their performances this season and offer some thoughts on their futures. Hope you guys have your glasses. This is a long one.
D.J. was available for 48 of a possible 66 games this season, and despite being plagued by knee tendinitis in April, showed that he is a solid point guard that may deserve a starting position on another team. While he certainly had his worst season in his four years in the NBA, Augustin was a steadying force on a young, inexperienced squad. His feel for the game is unquestionable, however he struggled to be a go-to player, a role that he surely did not want. Couple that with Kemba Walker's streaky play and the ensuing struggle for the starting job, and it's easy to see why Augustin had a down year. Injury. Bad roster. Competition from a touted rookie.
Statistically, Augustin's season was terrible, arguably the worst of his career. His numbers were down across the board: 15 points per 40 minutes (PP40) on 37.6% shooting, 1.7 3-point makes per 40 minutes on 34.1% shooting, a career low 3.4 FTAP40 (however his assist to turnover ratio of 2.79 is still decent), as well as a career high 3.1 TOP40. Oddly, with no Gerald Wallace or Stephen Jackson, I expected D.J.'s usage rating to shoot up considerably, but it stayed the same (21.2 in 2011 to 21.3 in 2012). These statistics convince me that D.J. is a "what you see is what you get" player. He isn't a star. He's comfortably above average in most respects. However he is incapable of leading a team and is best suited as a 3rd-5th option on a winning team.
It's easy to blame Augustin for his poor season, but there are plenty of external factors that played a significant part in his struggles. For one, the Bobcats were ranked 30th in the league in points per game at 87. They ranked 30th in the league in points per possession (0.83). They were ranked 30th in 3P% AND FG%. Frankly, the team as a whole sucked. Augustin was a symptom, not a cause.
Defensively, Augustin was a mixed bag. His defensive rating was a career low 114, which is simply unacceptable, but can be traced back to the team and not as much him as an individual. However, one statistic stands out: 1 steal per 40 minutes. For a point guard, that's despicable. Normally I'm okay with a player not collecting steals if their defensive rating is high, and vice versa. However, Augustin's number are disheartening. Not only can he not contain his man, he also doesn't gamble to make up for his sieve-like self. As mentioned before, Augustin would do tremendously well on a winning team, especially one that values defense. It's not like he's inept. Sure, he's small. But he's quite quick. The problem lies in his lack of effort and fundamentals. He doesn't get low enough while manning up, and he expects his team mates to help before he gets beat. That's backwards, and can be pinned on Paul Silas' lackadaisical attitude. The Bobcats didn't want to win, but they didn't really try to improve, either.
D.J. has been very vocal about staying in Charlotte, which is a sort of formality these days and should be taken with a grain of salt. He turned down a contract extension this year and that implies that his time in Charlotte is done. He's a restricted free agent this summer, and his qualifying offer is just below the amount of money I expect teams to throw at him. I doubt the Bobcats will match any offer over $5 million per year, especially one that locks him up for four years. With Kemba being paraded as the future at the point guard spot, and D.J.'s lackluster play and contract demands, it's almost a certainty that he won't be with the Bobcats next season.
I love you, D.J.. You're a smart player, steady player, but one that does not fit the team the Bobcats are trying to build.
After the Bobcats traded Gerald Wallace last season, it became clear that they were intent on blowing up the entire team and starting anew. Just before the draft, the Bobcats hired Rich Cho. Cho's formula for building consists of using as many draft picks as one can acquire and picking up young guys for cheap. He sent out Stephen Jackson and Shaun Livingston for the pick that would become Bismack Biyombo. With their own pick, the Bobcats selected "the best player in college basketball", Kemba Walker.
While Walker has undoubtedly been the recipient of unfair criticisms and expectations, his season was more good than bad. Any NBA player will tell you that their toughest year was their rookie year. And any NBA coach will tell you that the hardest position to learn at the NBA level is the point. With those two things in mind, Walker's season was outstanding. Inconsistent? Sure. But that's to be expected.
I knew Walker was fast, but I didn't know how fast he was until I saw him in the Bobcats' preseason. He's easily one of the fastest guys in the league among players like Derrick Rose and Leandro Barbosa. Speed can't be taught, and Walker was fortunate enough to have been blessed with an excessive amount of it.
Coming into the season, the questions surrounding Walker were twofold: is he too small? Can he run an NBA offense? In short, no, he's not too small, and yes, it appears that he can (although consistency is still an issue). While Walker is small, even for a point guard, his incredible quickness allows him to create space and blow by even the toughest defenders with ease. Many times was he allowed to iso on the wing, whip out a bunch of dribble moves and dance past his defender before exploding to rim for a reverse layup. These things are easy for him. These are the things that made him the player he was in college.
Kemba's ability to run an offense is still up in the air, but he's shown flashes of brilliant, heady play over stretches of several minutes and the occasional quarter. He tends to try to do too much, opting for the flashy iso play rather than the safe pass. However, Walker improved late in the season, picking his spots from time to time and letting things come to him more often. His awareness isn't where it needs to be yet, but he's getting there.
When looking at Kemba's FG% (36.6%, 11.6 attempts per game), it's important to note that a third of his shots were threes (30.5%, 3.4 attempts per game). He's not as bad of a scorer as he seems if you keep that in mind. He's right around league average from midrange (35%) and slightly below it from three. The worrisome statistic is his scoring inside. Kemba is small. No question. However, 47% at the rim is not acceptable, even for a point guard. Some of it is decision making and some of it is referees not respecting a rookie and awarding him calls. Kemba attacks the rim hard, and will seek contact from time to time. Hopefully he continues to bang in the paint and officials will begin to recognize his effort and reward him with free throws.
Walker rebounds well for his size, as I expected him to. He has a knack for sneaking into the paint and stealing rebounds from unsuspecting bigs. It's the same thing he did in college and it's hard-wired into his game. Defensively, Kemba's slightly better than Augustin (defensive rating of 111) and the eye test agrees. He's quicker and tries a bit harder than Augustin, and he's willing to gamble for steals as well. His fundamentals are sound, and I'm eager to see what happens when the team's defense is better as whole.
Moving forward, I'd like to see Kemba polish his midrange game and master a floater. The majority of the holes in his game will be sealed shut with experience. His quickness is elite, and his ability to utilize his quickness is nothing short of amazing. If he can put it all together, he's going to be a very good point guard. It's a big if, but that's what rebuilding's all about.
Honorable Mention: Cory Higgins
Okay. Let me be honest with you guys. I love Higgins. He has a bunch of raw tools and a decent feel for the game. He's just not an NBA player.
He'd do well in Europe or China and might even become a star overseas. But the NBA is not for him.
I know, I know. "His dad got him this gig!" You're right. He did. I'm not sure we're ever going to see Higgins in the NBA again, and that saddens me. He was the team's mascot. He fully embodied what Charlotte was doing. He was mediocre at best, he was young, he had no experience, and it was for the greater good.
Love you, Cory. Gonna miss you. But this is what's best for everyone. :)