Commentary

Breakthrough for Bobcats? Might happen with May's help

Originally Published: October 15, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Sean MayKent Smith/NBAE/Getty ImagesSean May could help the Bobcats grab the spotlight if he rounds into shape and stays healthy.

ATLANTA -- It's been half a decade now, and the Charlotte Bobcats haven't been to the playoffs … or even sniffed contending for the playoffs. For perhaps the first time in the franchise's history, however, they have a real shot at getting there in 2008-09.

And who are the two folks they're counting on as the keys to get them over that hump? Um, would you believe the dynamic duo is a player who has been healthy for only 58 games in three pro seasons, and a coach who went 23-59 in his last stop?

Well, it's crazy, but it just might work.

The player is power forward Sean May, who missed all of last season due to microfracture knee surgery. When he has played he's been extremely productive, averaging better than 19 points and 11 boards per 40 minutes. It's just the "when" part that's been problematic.

The coach is Larry Brown, whose last gig ended in disaster -- the 2005-06 Knicks finished with the East's worst record despite having the NBA's highest payroll, not to mention the fact that they might have been the single most dysfunctional team of all time.

Nonetheless, each brings enough positives to the table to potentially lift the Cats from last year's 32 wins to the 41 or so it will take to make the postseason.

May is the bigger of the two wild cards, both literally and figuratively. After spending 15 months on the sidelines, he's visibly out of shape, and both coach and player agree he's not close to peak condition right now.

"He's way behind," Brown said. "He didn't do anything for nine months. But he's trying and hopefully he'll get better. You can see him struggling, but he wants to play and we've got to get through this."

"I would say my body's probably 85, 90 percent," May said. "But with that I still have to get in better shape. Right now I'm just trying to get my legs back from training camp, and work on the little things I've forgotten over the last year or so. It's a slow process, it's going to take time."

The reason the Bobcats' hopes are pinned to May are evident by looking at the rest of the roster. Emeka Okafor and Nazr Mohammed are the only other proven big men on the roster, and May's smooth jump shot provides a dimension that those two can't.

Even in his limited state, he's shown he can score -- May was 3-for-7 in 12 minutes in Monday's 87-86 preseason loss to Atlanta, raining in a couple of 20-footers on pick-and-pops. It's the rest of his game that needs work. He's a step slow (at least) on defense and has grabbed only four rebounds in 52 preseason minutes, including none against Atlanta.

While May slowly comes around, the Cats are so desperate for size that it appears journeyman Andre Brown will make the roster, and perhaps the rotation, as a fourth big man. And that's what makes getting May into playing shape -- and keeping him on the court once he's up to speed -- so imperative. There's no Plan B here.

As for Coach Brown, he's hoping to erase the stain of that Knicks tenure, the one black mark on an otherwise golden coaching résumé. Prior to New York, his teams had a track record of almost immediate improvement, one he hopes to keep up in Charlotte.

It certainly helps that he's walking into a situation in which the players figure to be in his corner. After spending most of last season in a state of near-mutiny under Sam Vincent, the Bobcats would welcome Attila the Hun with open arms, let alone a proven winner like Brown.

Already Brown is working on some of the finer points -- such as prodding leading scorer Jason Richardson to take it to the basket more instead of shooting so many jump shots. Richardson led the NBA in 3s last season, but Brown has never been a big fan of the shot. In Monday's 88-87 exhibition loss to Atlanta, Richardson appeared much more intent on attacking off the dribble -- in fact, none of his 11 field-goal attempts were 3s.

[+] EnlargeJason Richardson
AP Photo/John RaouxTaking it to the hoop is J-Rich's new point of emphasis.

"That's something Coach Brown wanted me to do, get to the basket," Richardson said. "I'm trying to add another dimension to my game by driving, not just settling [for jumpers]."

The defensive-minded Brown is also trying to push his charges to play harder on defense, after last season's squad didn't always give a concerted effort in that area.

"It's a lot different [under Brown]," Richardson said. "We've got a lot more focus on rebounding, playing defense, playing team defense. Those are some of the challenges he put out there for us. It's a pretty young team and he's pretty demanding."

The preseason game against Atlanta provided Brown another teaching lesson -- and if there's anything he relishes, it's the chance to use practice to teach the finer points of the game.

With time winding down, Charlotte up by a point and a two-second differential between the play clock and the shot clock, all point guard Raymond Felton had to do was dribble the clock down and heave a shot at the buzzer. Atlanta, which wasn't fouling, would have had virtually no time left to mount a try for a game-winner.

Instead, Felton started his drive to the basket with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, and after two dribbles was called for an offensive foul for shoving off Atlanta's Flip Murray. With plenty of time, the Hawks were able to call a screen-and-roll for a game-winning layup by Acie Law.

"If you run the clock down, there's a two-second difference, and you shoot a jump shot, the horn might go off," Brown said. "But that's coaching. We've got to work on that. When situations like that happen in a game you can talk about it and hopefully correct it."

That's Brown's thing -- mastering the little things -- and that's why he's been able to get nearly every team he has joined to make a big step forward. And in this case, the players have a particular reason to buy what he's selling -- while Brown has a championship ring, Richardson and Mohammed are the only Bobcats who have even started a playoff game.

"Nobody's been an All-Star, nobody's really been in the playoffs," Richardson said. "He's gonna be hard on these guys at times, [but] we're going to buy into his system."

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.