At some point during the regular season, it just became about finishing for Mike Dunlap.
“You never want to be dead last, so I’m happy about that,” said Dunlap following the Charlotte Bobcats season-finale win over the Cleveand Cavaliers last Wednesday.
The Bobcats finished with a 14-win improvement and the second-worst record in the league at 21-61.
Dunlap got the Bobcats off to a hot start, as he matched last season’s win total of seven wins in just 12 games. Dunlap cautioned fans that even he wasn’t convinced of the their record, citing the quality of opponents and absence of some teams’ stars. That became apparent when the Bobcats lost 18 conseuctive and 33 of their next 39 games.
The 2012-13 season started to mirror the now-infamous 2011-12 season.
Losing wasn’t so much the problem. Bobcats fans and likely even the front office knew the team wasn’t playoff-caliber. How the team was losing likely raised more eyebrows in the front office. The Bobcats lost 37 games by double-digits, just one less than under Paul Silas in 2012. 19 games were lost by 20 points or more, which is five less than the preceding season.
Dunlap was hired to develop the team’s young core and improve the defense. Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson each had career years and publicly gave Dunlap his due for helping. On defense, the Bobcats managed to be worse than last season. They allowed two points more, at 102.7 a game to finish 30th in defensive rating. The Bobcats also allowed the most made three-point field goals in the league.
“We made shots too easy for them,” said Gerald Henderson after the Bobcats gave up 131 points to the Milwaukee Bucks. “Obviously, they’ve got some really quick guards who can get into the lane, and that’s what they were doing and either finishing or kicking out for 3s. We just couldn’t play any defense. You ain’t gonna beat nobody giving up 130 points.”
Under Silas, the Bobcats finished top-10 in opponents three-pointers, mostly since teams were pre-occupied scoring inside on the league’s worst paint defense in 2012. Still, the Bobcats were 25th in points allowed in the paint this season, so there was still no progress.
A key part in developing talent on a losing team is to make strides to erase the losing culture. Body language continued to be low, players didn’t communicate or make the extra effort, and a lot of times the team looked lost on both sides of the ball. Things like this don’t necessarily boil down to talent level, but effective communication and motivation from a head coach. This is where Dunlap proved to be unsuccessful.
“We ultimately decided that he was not the right fit to lead our team into the future,” said Bobcats President of Basketball Operations Rod Higgins in an email to season ticketholders Tuesday. “In order to reach our goal of reshaping this franchise into one that can sustain long-term success, we needed to make this change.”
Dunlap’s firing represents a combination of ineptitude from both the Bobcats front office and Dunlap. Dunlap was the least-known and experienced of the ten head coaching candidates interviewed by the Bobcats. Throughout the season Dunlap resembled more of an extended substitute teacher than a legitimate NBA head coach.
Sam Vincent shared a similar presence as a rookie head coach for the Bobcats in 2008. He suffered the same fate as a one-and-done head coach. Vincent was replaced by Larry Brown, who eventually pushed the Bobcats to the franchise’s lone playoff appearance in nine seasons.
The Bobcats are again sending a message that they want a veteran head coach who can get them back to the postseason. With Dunlap’s inexperience no longer available to scapegoat, the pressure shifts to the Bobcats front office. Their task this offseason is to find a long-term head coach, continue rebuilding the roster and hope the team shows signs of being a legitimate playoff contender down the road.
If this can’t be accomplished, the next changes will surely be coming from the top rather than the bottom.