As a run-up to tomorrow's game we conducted a reciprocal interview with our friends at RufusonFire. You can check the other part of the piece over there.
BE: Give us the scoop on Raymond Felton. Is he as firmly on the trade block as is being reported? If so, why? And what are the 'Cats looking for in return?
ROF: Raymond Felton has no future on this team. As a point guard, he's got a lower ceiling than DJ Augustin, and he's too small to defend shooting guards regularly, but he's too valuable as a point to keep as a reserve on a rebuilding team. He'll get traded as soon as the Bobcats get even a semi-attractive offer, but it's no great loss if they simply let him go this summer. Larry Brown seems to be searching for a true center to back up Emeka, and possibly play minutes next to him, but no one's going to give up a decent big man for the 20th best point guard in the league. Hence, the inane Felton-for-Diop trade rumors floating about.
BE: Rumors have had Gerald Wallace also up for sale. Your assessment of the likelihood of that? Also how big of a factor are his injuries? Legitimate concern or overblown?
ROF: Since the team traded Jason Richardson, it's far less likely they'll trade Wallace. Along with Felton, he's the emotional center and soul of the team. I'm a big numbers guy, but I'm also big on having clearly identifiable goals when a team steps on the court, and without a reference point, someone that dictates the team's on-court agenda, it's that much more difficult to have a plan and execute it. For the past few years, Wallace has been that guy for this team, and as much as I love Emeka Okafor, starting over and building the team in his image isn't the most exciting prospect. While Gerald's not a perennial All Star, he's certainly good enough to lead a playoff team, and his contract is exceptionally reasonable when you compare his production to, say, Josh Smith and David West.
The injury concern isn't really an issue in the short term. Concussions are nothing to sneeze at, but Gerald has taken steps to protect himself, including using a mouth guard and taking a slightly more controlled approach to the game. It's difficult, because his game is predicated on barrelling around the court like a tornado, but he's very aware of his history, so he's reined it in a bit. It might be the cause of his precipitous drop in blocked shots over the past two and a half seasons. Longer term, I suspect he won't age very well because his style depends on brute speed and power, but he'll be fine over the rest of this contract.
BE: How are you liking Jordan as a GM so far?
ROF: Michael Jordan is either a horrendous executive or the unluckiest executive I've ever seen. It's worth noting that there's a lot of doubt over who actually calls the shots for the Bobcats, especially since they have three well-known basketball people with decision-making power: MJ technically has the final word as the Managing Member of Basketball Operations, Rod Higgins holds the title of GM, and Larry Brown is a coach who's always demanded input on personnel. So, we have to examine the kind of move that's made in order to determine who might be behind it, though I generally accept at this point that Brown is leading most personnel decisions. I don't talk to anyone on the inside, but my read on the situation is that Jordan has become a figurehead, and we'll sink or swim with Brown's demands. Ultimately, the worst thing about the Bobcats front office, however way the flow chart is actually organized, is that there is no apparent process to their decisions. Larry Brown feels something. MJ thinks something over. Higgins deals with the media. No matter what moves the team makes, the process feels lacking, as if they haven't really thought out what the hell they're doing.
BE: How about Larry Brown?
ROF: The best thing Larry Brown has done for the team is install a professional offensive system. Last year, Sam Vincent had the genius idea to run the ball through Emeka Okafor on the elbow, with everyone else cutting around him, even though Okafor's not a particularly good passer and it meant moving him away from the basket, where he's most effective. That's a huge upgrade. On defense, there's a similar effect. The Bobcats will put pressure on the opponent's point guard line to line, presumably to shave precious seconds off the available time on the shot clock. In-game, Brown has the unfortunate habit of overmanaging. He doesn't trust anyone on the team to make decisions, so he shouts out plays all the time, breaking the flow and rhythm. As good as they've been within Brown's system, this team's "natural" style is to play fast and loose with guys like Felton, Wallace, and Diaw, but Brown has them walk it up the court so he can stay in control.
BE: Where does Emeka Okafor fit into the franchise? He was once heralded as the cornerstone. Still true? How has his game developed since his first couple of seasons?
ROF: When Okafor signed his extension, it baffled me, because I thought it signaled that the front office didn't have a clear plan for what they wanted the team to be. His game seemed incompatible with Gerald Wallace's, since Emeka is suited to grinding out possessions and Wallace wants to outhustle the opposition each time down the floor. Okafor seems destined to play for Greg Popovich, in that he's always at full throttle, always under control, never yaps, and generally goes about his borderline All Star business without drawing extra attention to himself. The biggest change in his game this season, and it's a huge improvement that no one in the mainstream press covering this team has mentioned, is that his offensive efficiency is way up this year. He's playing the same great defense and scoring the same points, but doing it with one and a half fewer shots per game. Part of that is because he's no longer going soft to the hole. Last year, he gently dropped the ball through the basket when he went up for a dunk, or he'd try to loft it over the front of the rim, where he'd get jostled or blocked, and the ball would go the other way. This year, he's much more aggressive, and he's slamming 'em more often. In fact, he's among the league leaders in most dunks. The other part of his increased efficiency is that he's no longer relying on only two scoring moves. Previously, he could score if he got the ball directly under the hoop, or if he got the ball on the block he'd try a weak move into the lane, toss it up, and hope. He was relatively easy to defend if he was more than five feet from the goal. Now, if you leave him open up to fifteen feet away, he will hit the set shot. It's no Duncan bank, but it's enough for other bigs to worry about.
BE: The Richardson trade seems to be bearing fruit for Charlotte so far. Your assessment? What was the initial reaction to the move? Has that changed?
ROF: The outcome of the Richardson trade is still undecided. If they can trade Diaw for someone who expires in 2011 or earlier, I'll consider the Bobcats to have come out ahead, but if they can't, then they've messed things up pretty badly. If the goal is merely to get to the playoffs, they probably gave themselves a decent shot by trading Richardson for Diaw and Bell. However, they still would have had a decent shot if they had kept Richardson and drafted a starting-caliber power forward next year.
The casual fans all thought Richardson was the team's best player, though I tend to think he was the third best player in sum. We were both baffled, though. They because they didn't think we got enough talent in return, and I because I thought trading Jared Dudley and his miniscule contract was a crazy throw-in and because the contract situations are such it made no sense for Charlotte to consummate the deal.
Since none of these guys are going to make the Bobcats title contenders, the trade had to be about cap space. Richardson's $14 million expiring in 2011 was converted into $5 million per year through 2010 for Bell and $9 million per year through 2012 for Diaw. From Bell's money alone, the Bobcats won't have enough cap space in 2010 to offer a max contract, and why would anyone give up a $9 million contract that expires in 2010 for Diaw, a guy who's had exactly one semi-inspiring season and fifteen intriguing games for the Bobcats? If that's the master plan, they should have aimed for the summer of 2011, simply sat through Richardson's contract, tried to draft well, and when Richardson's deal expired along with Nazr Mohammed's, they could've offered a max contract to Carmelo Anthony or Pau Gasol to be the superstar supported by Augustin, Wallace, Okafor, and a role player or hotshot draft pick acquired in the interim.
BE: Besides the obvious (Kobe, LeBron, etc.) name one player you'd like the Bobcats to acquire and why.
ROF: The first thing the Bobcats need in order to be a title contender is a full blown superstar. No one on this team is that guy or likely will be that guy. Assuming one joins the team, he'll likely be a power forward or offensive-minded center, with Emeka taking the other big man slot, Gerald at the three, and Augustin at the one. To fill the two, I'd want one of favorite under-the-mainstream-radar guys, Mickael Pietrus. Dude plays solid defense at the two and three, shoots long distance, can fly to the rim, and is an all around great guy. Orlando paid their full MLE for him, so it's possible they'll decide they don't want to pay so much for someone with his skill set, but I'd gladly take him on as the final piece of a championship puzzle.
Thanks to David at RufusonFire for the information! Be sure to check out his blog between now and tomorrow's game.