Whether or not there is true cause for optimism with this Charlotte Bobcats team could be largely decided right away this season.
After an off-season of improvements across the board in the Eastern Conference, there is plenty of uncertainty as to how this season will shake out. For the ‘Cats, said improvements occurred largely internally. While the addition of Jason Richardson will provide immediate scoring help and a veteran presence, it is the re-signing of Gerald Wallace and the worth of an added year of experience for youngsters Ray Felton, Emeka Okafor and Walter Herrmann that should be the biggest deal-breakers for this team.
With nine of their first fourteen games coming at home, November success will be absolutely crucial in order for the ‘Cats to begin to turn the corner toward being competitive in the East this season. Further, the team plays another nine of fifteen at home in December. In order to stand a chance with a back-loaded road schedule, the Bobcats must perform to start this season.
But before December can even become an issue, November must be taken care of first.
The reasonable goal, you ask? Seven up, seven down for a .500 opening month. Let’s break it down.
There are five opponents on the schedule that should clearly be out of Charlotte’s league, at least at present: Phoenix (home), Houston (home), Washington (home), Orlando (road), and Boston (home). Unless the ‘Cats go from 33-49 doormats to championship contenders in the blink of an eye, it isn’t fair to expect them to win any of these games. While any game on the NBA regular season’s schedule is certainly winnable, the objective prognosticator would have to consider these games likely losses. Phoenix, Houston and Boston all figure to be title contenders, while the Magic and Wiz are expected to duke it out for the Southeast Division crown when all is said and done. So chalk up five losses, four of which will come at home.
That leaves nine at least somewhat reasonably winnable games in November. However, part of the way a team goes for 18, 26 and 33 wins in its three seasons of existence is by managing to not win every single reasonably winnable game. The ‘Cats need to take steps forward this season, but the fact of the matter is that these steps are likely to be baby steps. So asking them to win each of the nine remaining games is a bit much.
Asking them to win seven isn’t.
Milwaukee (home), Philadelphia (road), Indiana (home), Seattle (home) and Portland (home) are all teams that are perceived to be at or below the Bobcats’ level. Four of the games are at home, giving the ‘Cats a distinct edge, particularly against the cross-country travelers from Seattle and Portland. Philadelphia projects to be one of the three worst teams in the league. If the ‘Cats are going to establish themselves as on the rise, they must win these games.
That brings the record to 5-5, leaving just three games with Miami and one at Atlanta to decide the month. The ‘Cats travel to Miami twice in the first month and go to Atlanta the night after the home game against Miami. Although likely more talented than Charlotte, the Heat will be markedly weakened throughout the season’s first month (and possibly more) by the temporary loss of Dwyane Wade, making it enormously possible that the Bobcats will be able to take two games from them early on (the home game and one of two on the road).
On the other hand, the Hawks are a very similar team to these Charlotte boys. Their roster is full of young and immensely talented players who are still learning to transform raw skills into cohesive team output. Going to their place the night after a home game against Miami makes the Hawks a tougher opponent than usual, however, and a win there cannot be taken for granted.
There is clearly a lot of wiggle room here. Sure, the ‘Cats could beat Atlanta, but they could just as easily lose two of three to Miami instead of winning two of three. Or maybe they could surprise a Wizards’ team that is superior in talent but occasionally lacking in focus. Or they could drop one to an Indiana team that could be better than some of us expect them to be.
But the bar is set: 7-7 will set the tone for this team to keep moving forward in the months to come. Anything less would be a disappointment. Not a long-term deal breaker, but a setback no less.
Less than 24 hours now, we’ll begin to find out if they can do it.