Charlotte (6-4) has won five of its past six games and is one win away — the Bobcats host another 6-4 team, the Atlanta Hawks, tonight — from matching last year’s win total.
The turnaround is impressive considering the Bobcats finished last season 7-59 and with the worst winning percentage (.106) in league history. They lost their final 23 games of the season.
But under the direction of defensive-oriented coach Mike Dunlap, they’ve been competitive and have developed a knack for closing games. Charlotte is 5-0 in contests decided by four points or less — and without much NBA experience on the roster.
That’s doesn’t bother Dunlap.
“The most important part is to sell your system and what you’re doing with a purpose,” Dunlap said. “There’s nothing like wins to help that out.”
If players had any doubt about Dunlap’s style, the six wins have helped eliminated that.
What Dunlap has been preaching is defense, which meant a summer full of intense workouts, some of those lasting as long as four hours.
He knew the Bobcats wouldn’t be the most talented and or the most experienced team in the NBA — not even close, in fact — so he wanted to be better conditioned than anyone out there and use his team’s young, fresh legs to his advantage.
“I think our defense is getting better and I’m selling that first and foremost,” Dunlap said. “We have a ways to go with it. It’s far from where it needs to be but it’s getting there and we have the numbers to prove that.”
Charlotte is allowing 98.8 points per game, but they rank in the top ten in the league in steals (86) and blocked shots (76). They’re forced 14.6 turnovers per game.
“Coach Dunlap, it all starts with him,” said second-year point guard Kemba Walker. “He’s a real tough guy, really intense. We all feed off him.”
On Wednesday night the Bobcats led Toronto 98-97 with 28 seconds left.
The Raptors had four shots on their final possession, but the Bobcats blocked two of those and withstood a furious final few seconds to win the game.
If Dunlap needed to emphasize a point about defense winning games this was it.
“I think it just shows what kind of toughness we have from the point guard all the way up to the center,” said rookie guard Jeffery Taylor. “We have a lot of tough guys who know how to win games.”
The Bobcats are still extremely young, particularly with guard Gerald Henderson out with a foot injury.
Right now their starting five consists of two rookies in Taylor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 overall pick who has had an immediate impact averaging 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Forward Byron Mullens, who sat for two years in Oklahoma City before being acquired last year in a trade, is essentially in his second season like Walker.
The only starter with significant experience is center Brendan Haywood, who was claimed off waivers from Dallas.
But the Bobcats are getting quality play off the bench from offseason acquisitions Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon, two scorers brought in to give the team some needed experience down the stretch in tight games.
Both have provided a huge boost with Sessions averaging 16.3 points per game and Gordon 13 points per game, second and third best on the team.
“It’s an interesting group because we are young and I think there’s an exuberance and a little bit of being excited about the game of basketball, and I think the veterans have picked up on that,” Dunlap said. “It’s been a joy to coach them and I think we’re learning as we play each game. That exuberance is an intangible.”
That exuberance is evident in Walker, who has developed into the team’s leader and flourished working alongside Sessions in practice and down the stretch in tight games.
Walker is averaging 18.8 points and 5.5 assists per game.
Despite being 6-foot, Walker is fearless driving to the basket and has improved in his ability to finish.
“He’s our quarterback,” Dunlap said. “We’re developing him. He’s setting the culture for us. There’s a lot on his plate, but he can handle it. When he was coming out of college a year ago I thought he was the best player in America.”
Just how long the Bobcats are able to keep things up remains to be seen.
The Bobcats have some quality wins against Dallas, Milwaukee and Minnesota, but have yet to play the league’s elite teams like Miami, Oklahoma City and the New York Knicks.
That may be when the true test comes.
When it does, Dunlap hopes the foundation for success has been established and the Bobcats will be confident enough to compete with the best.
“We’re trying to build a winning culture here, and every win helps,” Dunlap said.