After 21-61 season

Learning curve applies to coach

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comApril 18, 2013 

Mike Dunlap sounds like a guy expecting to continue as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats. He’s looking forward to next season and also reassessing his rookie season in this job.

He sent a clear message during a one-on-one interview with the Observer Thursday that he has evolved and will evolve as an NBA head coach.

There were lessons, some of them painful: He was in players’ ears too much during games. He overvalued practice, as opposed to rest, in managing an 82-game NBA season.

But he also did some things right in coaching the Bobcats to a 21-61 record, a 14-victory improvement over the dreadful 2011-12 season.

He found players appreciated him being the same guy every day, whether after a win or a 30-point loss. He’s proud of the improvement of three key young players – Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and most notably Kemba Walker.

With Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist, the progress was slow but measurable. Biyombo still has a long way to go offensively, but on defense “there isn’t another 20-year-old in the league who presents the problems he does to an opponent.”

Of rookie Kidd-Gilchrist, Dunlap said, “His middle jumper improved. He made all three last night. A month ago it would have been two of three at best.”

The biggest project was fast-tracking point guard Walker into this team’s go-to guy, and that part involved convincing him he was empowered to make this his team.

“We got him to understand freedom is responsibility and responsibility is freedom,” Dunlap said of Walker.

Dunlap’s job performance is still up for review, as is every key position in the Bobcats’ organization. Management let him coach with no strings attached – he had total control over playing time. When he went to owner Michael Jordan for advice, he kept hearing the same simple message: “Be more aggressive, demand more of the players.”

He was demanding and there were hiccups. He had a verbal altercation with veteran shooting guard Ben Gordon at a midseason shootaround. Dunlap has said he has no problem with friction in the course of communication.

But most of his experience is coaching college players, and there’s a difference between that and how to get the best out of pros.

“Way different,” Dunlap said. “Whether it’s Kemba Walker or Brendan Haywood, they appreciate what you don’t say when the game is being played. In college you can literally yell across the floor and direct traffic with a player and it’s perfectly acceptable. Here the pro player can’t stand that.”

Dunlap had to learn to back off from the micro-management during games and on off days. Early in the season he’d run four-hour practices: Not all physical activity, but a challenging day. Or he would bring them in after games on back-to-back nights, which at times became counter-productive.

“I was too concerned with the impression – among the players, management or fans – that we weren’t going to have practice just because we’d lost and played” two nights in a row.

Dunlap trimmed way back on practices the last month, even cancelling some shootarounds to let players sleep in on game days. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the Bobcats were a respectable 8-10 in that span.

The Bobcats will have a top-five draft pick this summer and as much as $21 million available under the salary cap. Dunlap said the team needs a big man who is a low-post scoring threat and more 3-point shooting.

He likes how the trade for power forward Josh McRoberts turned out, and said the Bobcats need at least two more cagey little moves like that in building a playoff-worthy roster.

Assuming he returns as coach, he said it’s imperative the Bobcats play more aggressively on defense next season. He gave an example from the season-ending victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.

Former Duke star Kyrie Irving ate up the Bobcats in the second quarter, so at halftime the coaches decided to take him out of the game at all cost. Trap him and double-team him tightly enough that Irving couldn’t get up 3-pointers off pick-and-roll.

“And you saw a decline in his impact,” Dunlap said. “We have to do more of that.”

So much of Dunlap’s and the Bobcats’ fate is tied up on Walker, Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist, the team’s past three first-round picks. Dunlap offered some detailed assessment of each one.

On Kidd-Gilchrist: “Michael came to us as the jack of all trades, master of none. With a very special motor and a one percent attitude. It’s good but it will continue to get better with his skill development.”

On Biyombo: “He has good foot speed and good arm length. He has a good voice to where he’s now directing traffic (defensively). He helps Kemba out a lot. No one on our team protects Kemba more than Biz.”

On Walker asserting himself: “In the fourth quarter, for example, the responsibility is on you to win the game for us – you’re our closer. You have to live with the responsibility that you’re exhausted sometimes and mad at the officials, but you still have to win those games.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129

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