Laying The Foundation
By Jeff Dengate
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Secaucus, NJ, Dec. 4, 2006 – In most walks of life, a pecking order of sorts exists -- whether it’s among adolescents, Hollywood types or even the execs and grunts at your place of work, where you're likely reading this.

The NBA is no different. The weaker teams and expansion squads are there, seemingly, to allow stronger teams to rest their starters, get additional minutes for their reserves and, ultimately, pad their records, right?

Well, not quite. Routinely, one of the league's power teams gets caught napping, having underestimated its opponent.

Other times it's just a matter of these young players -- those many of the basement teams are loaded with -- turning in outstanding performances, keeping their teams in stride, even if only for one night, with a division leader.

Such is the case with the Charlotte Bobcats, a team stocked with high draft picks who have been largely inconsistent during the team's two-year existence in the league.

You get the sense, tuning in to catch this youthful, energetic team, that they have a solid shot at some day being very good. Well, at least those of us with NBA League Pass, as the Bobcats don't get a lot of national television love just yet. But, the story of the Bobcats goes beyond the boxscores and the video highlight packages you turn to after another loss, or the occasional W.

The team plays hard every night. That's not just some hot air being vented by another scribe. This team really does get out there and compete night in and night out, just as Bernie Bickerstaff talked about on the day he was named GM and head coach three years ago.

"Nothing worthwhile is achieved without labor, patience and disappointment," Bickerstaff said at his introductory press conference. "That’s important. The labor part, we’ve got to roll our sleeves up and work."

And so it was Bickerstaff rolled up his own sleeves and assembled the best possible talent, without regard to age, experience or size.

"We have to draft well," Bickerstaff explained at that first press conference. "We may even draft the same position, because in my opinion you have to have talent. If you’re overloaded in one position, you can always take talent and move it to satisfy needs."

In putting together this team, however, Bickerstaff has addressed multiple positions through the annual player draft alone: Size up front courtesy of Emeka Okafor and Sean May, ball handling duties fall to Raymond Felton and a streaky-shooting swingman, Adam Morrison, hoists shots from deep this season.

The problem now is that the talented players are all inconsistent, as is the team, which nets a considerable number of losses. But in the last week alone the Bobcats have caught me off-guard as they've fought down the stretch of games, either holding off a "stronger" opponent or making a rally of their own.

Sunday was the most recent heroic effort from a team unaccustomed to having such poise down the stretch of tight games.

Up five on the Pistons, 87-82, with four minutes to play, May gave the ball up and got it right back at the top of the key, where he canned a jumper to stretch the team's lead to seven.

To truly understand the importance of May's make and the ensuing moments, it helps to look back at the previous possession: Rasheed Wallace bricked a three-pointer and Okafor went up high to corral the long rebound, one which Rip Hamilton was patiently waiting to come down. The net result was basically a five-point swing and changed how the final minutes of this contest would play out, which was different than when the two teams met in Detroit the day after Thanksgiving.

In that game, the Bobcats entered the fourth quarter down only two points, but gave up 30 to the Pistons in that final period. As late as the six-minute mark Charlotte was in the game, trailing by one point before Chauncey Billups nailed a triple. Rookie Morrison then threw the ball away to Billups, who fed it ahead to Carlos Delfino for the dunk and a six-point advantage.

Coming out of a timeout, Brevin Knight knocked down a jumper to cut the lead to four, the closest the Bobcats would get before Detroit rolled to the 104-95 decision.

Between then and now, the team has been battle tested, engaging in a couple tight finishes on the road. Last Tuesday in New Jersey, Charlotte had its lead, once as large as 14 points, cut to one at the three-minute mark. But the team hit its free throws -- even Gerald Wallace, a career 62 percent shooter from the stripe, hit both attempts in a trip to the line -- and got defensive stops down the stretch to preserve the 96-92 road win.

A night later, it was the Bobcats in a big hole, down by as many as 24 at one point to the Atlanta Hawks. After Tyronn Lue opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer, which put the lead at 14, Charlotte countered with nine unanswered points, holding the Hawks scoreless for a three-minute span.

On the shoulders of May, who finished with five assists and scored seven of his team-high 21 in the fourth, the Bobcats would pull to within three before falling apart in the game's closing minutes. Atlanta, it should be noted, stepped up, blocking four Bobcat shots, swiping the ball once and forcing a shot clock violation, while limiting Charlotte to two points, which came on an Okafor dunk, during the span and preserving their own 99-90 victory.

Back to the Pistons, against whom May has just given his team a sizable, albeit by-no-means-safe cushion.

On the next trip down the court, Rasheed Wallace again gave the ball back to Charlotte, losing it out of bounds as he was headed toward the bucket. The Bobcats gave it right back, but their own Wallace, Gerald, came up with the loose ball when Detroit's Hamilton was stripped in transition.

Yes, the game would get uglier than the preceeding sequence.

Veteran addition Derek Anderson, signed last week, provided some stability for the squad, knocking the ball away from Billups as he was getting it back at the top of the three-point arc. The ball rolled into the backcourt, causing the Pistons to hustle against the shortened shot clock. Billups missed the hurried jumper and Antonio McDyess was whistled for the loose ball foul on his rebound attempt.

At the other end, Anderson fed teammate Felton for the triple, extending the team's lead to 10, 92-82.

Moments later, Anderson saved a Pistons miss to his teammates and, after a timeout, had his drive attempt blocked by Rasheed Wallace. Okafor, though, gathered the board in the post and hit the short try over Wallace. The lead stood at 12, but still not safe.

At about this point, the parade to the free throw line began, as the Pistons tried to stop the clock and hoped the Bobcats -- ranked 25th in the league, hitting only 71.7 percent of its tries -- would open the door for a late comeback. The only problem in that thinking was the Bobcats had hit all 16 of their prior attempts on the night.

But that's why they play the game. Gerald Wallace promptly missed four straight in a span of four seconds and Felton clanked the front end of two tries.

Detroit, meanwhile, wasn't able to capitalize as Rasheed Wallace, Billups and Hamilton all missed from long and the Bobcats went on to snap Detroit's eight-game win streak.

The win improved the Bobcats to 5-12 on the season, hardly worth writing home – or to you folks – about, but it illustrates that Bickerstaff and Co. are on the right road by drafting proven winners from big-time college programs with which to build a foundation.

And those young, talented players are altering the pecking order in the league. Now, a date with the Bobcats on the calendar is no longer a foregone conclusion.