The Bobcats fired rookie head coach Mike Dunlap shortly after the season ended, to the confusion and anger of some, and satisfaction of others. A season after the infamous 7-59 record, he had helped the team win 14 more games this year, though with the benefit of a much better roster with more confident young players and a longer season. The Bobcats front office said that they were looking for something else to build their youth around.
And so today, we'll look at how well we think Dunlap did this season.
It's tough to grade a coach with only one season under his belt. A complete culture change cannot occur in a single season. Personnel turnover had only begun when Dunlap came in. Only a certain amount of blame can be placed on Dunlap for failing in defense when the team's roster has such limited talent on that side of the court.
And yet, Dunlap did fail, especially on defense. His zone defense scheme had neither the talent nor the discipline to work, helping make for one of the worst defenses in the league. The offense was only slightly better, but still lacked discipline and execution. There was a clear lack of off-ball movement and too much reliance on dribble-drive penetration as a result until Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson gave the Bobcats and offensive boon late in the season. However, he did get the team to consistently give their full energy every game, which is something I can appreciate.
The topic of player rotations was also a point of irritation for some fans, especially with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Dunlap often went away from Kidd-Gilchrist due to offensive deficiencies even though his on/off statistics show a net positive when he's on the court.
With all these things considered, I'd have to grade Mike Dunlap's first and last season as Bobcats head coach as a C-. He wasn't dealt good cards, but I thought he did slightly below average for what he had. With another season or two under his belt with a better roster and more experience, who knows how much he could have improved, but clearly the Bobcats felt that his potential improvement could not match the possibility of finding a better coach.
I give Dunlap a C- on the season. As many know I'm well documented on supporting Dunlap this season. I feel like with the situation he was given he didn't do as horrible as others may think. He was given a bad roster where he had literally no direction to go but up. He played the young players minutes (probably should have given MKG some more) and the team definitely improved. In January the team was almost unwatchable. Midway through March the Cats looked like an actual basketball team. So the young players grew and the team became watchable. That's about all we wanted or expected from him, right?
I really like that Mike Dunlap is a basketball guy, through and through. At the time of his hiring so long ago, that was the thing I was most excited about and so it probably makes sense that he's no longer the head coach of the Bobcats. For in the NBA, or really at any level, you do have to be more than just a "basketball guy." Everyone at the NBA level is a basketball guy, so you have to be able to relate to your players, work with your players and get them to buy in to what you're trying to do, among other things.
But it appears as if that failure to connect was his ultimate downfall. The pundits (pundits being everyone on the internet who LOVES cracking wise about the Bobcats, so...everyone on the internet) scream the what-did-you-expect-of-him line, and with good reason. The Bobcats were so bad the season before that almost any uptick in anything would have been an improvement. It was nice to see Charlotte get more wins, because hey, wins are fun. And Kemba Walker, Byron Mullens, and Bismack Biyombo all improved but those players deserve credit for making strides, it wasn't just Dunlap. The ineffectiveness of the zone defense seemed a fireable offense, but only when the Bobcats were running the zone defense. And the inability to juggle lineups and develop any real reliable rotation hurt Dunlap's look too. I can't fault him a ton for personnel decisions (although, yes...I want to see MKG play more) because the makeup of this team is still far from desirable. But the fact that no players have said much of anything on the subject speaks to the feeling that no one fought for him, or even will miss his practices enough to tweet something out. Whether or not the firing was good will ultimately depend on who the next hire is, and that has nothing to do with Dunlap. I will miss the chance for a national viewing audience to see his post game track suit jacket over his shirt and tie, but maybe some college will give him a shot. He's got a lot of basketball knowledge and has a place on some NBA bench if he so chooses. Still, I have a hard time giving him anything higher than a C+, but I'll give him some credit for starting fast out of the gate and finishing the season strong. Good enough for a final grade of B-.
In some ways Mike Dunlap's lone season as Bobcats coach is difficult to grade, but in other ways him being let go after the season makes it easier. He did some good things like getting the team to play hard almost every night and saw the team's key prospects continue to develop with his staff. However, there was also some downside as well. While some players developed, others found his approach off-putting. He also insisted on trying to incorporate the zone defense despite having that is athletically capable of playing man-to-man, and NBA teams are more than capable of shooting over a zone, too. If that's not bad enough, he never seemed to be able to lockdown a set rotation, which would be understandable as a rookie coach, but they were still rather questionable at years end. I mean, I'll never understand the point of benching Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the 4th quarter in favor of mediocre veterans who have no future on the team.
It's tough to give one year to a coach and offer a complete grade, but based on the Bobcats evidence they must not have seen a coach that was capable of improving into a better NBA coach, or be the one who oversees this team growth for the coming years, so that effects his grade some. For now I'll rule Mike Dunlap's season an Incomplete.
Traditionally, to "be in the zone" is a good thing. Not the case for Mike Dunlap and the Bobcats.
A few years ago, I fell in love with zone defense when I saw the Dallas Mavericks run it effectively in the NBA. Then, my hometown team -- the Toronto Raptors -- hired the architect behind the Mavericks' defense. I loved what I was being treated to. Zone defense is absolutely gorgeous if it's run well.
Then, the Bobcats hired Mike Dunlap. I admittedly didn't know much about him at the time of the hiring, but after reading about him learned that he liked zone defense. Well, Dunlap brought it with him to the Bobcats. But it was a pure zone defense, not one that had been adapted to the NBA game, like the Mavericks' "match-up zone".
Long story shot, it failed. Brutally. The trick to being a good NBA coach is changing your ideal system to exploit your players' strengths, rather than trying to box them into specific roles that limit their impact. Dunlap was a victim to the latter mindset.
I'm giving Dunlap a C. He's an ever-so-slightly-below-average coach -- like most NBA coaches -- but he was thrown a head coaching gig before he was ready. He didn't have a lot to work with, sure, but too many times we saw Dunlap make counterproductive decisions and sometimes fail to make a decision at all. He might be a good coach in the future. He just wasn't ready.