Coach Mike Dunlap Is Starting A New Era For The NBA’s Bobcats

The Charlotte Bobcats beat the Minnesota Timberwolves last night on a last-second, game-winning shot from Kemba Walker. The win moved them to 4-3 on the season. Last year, it took them 30 games before they got their fourth victory. Yes, the Bobcats smartly drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, but the real change after last season’s historically awful season is the coach patrolling the sideline. Tyrus Thomas intimidator, Paul Silas, is gone, replaced with little-known St. John’s assistant coach, Mike Dunlap.

The hiring of Dunlap was met with a mixed bag of reactions. As Dime‘s Andew Greif, mentioned when the Bobcats brought Dunlap aboard this summer, many had never heard of the former Denver Nuggets assistant. Dunlap’s head coaching experience, before getting hired by MJ and president of basketball operations Rod Higgins, consisted only of jobs at California Lutheran University, the Australian NBL, Adelaide 36ers, an interim stay as St. John’s head coach, and the aforementioned Division II school, Metropolitan State University of Denver (where, it should be noted, he led them to national titles in 2000 and 2002). Dunlap also served as an associate coach for Arizona, under Lute Olson, and Oregon, under Ernie Kent, before joining Steve Lavin‘s staff at St. John’s as an assistant before the 2011-12 season.

That’s not exactly a stellar resume, and certainly not enough for a head coaching gig at the highest possible level of basketball. Yet, even with a lack of head coaching experience in the NBA and a paucity at the Division I level in college, through seven games this season, he already has the Bobcats above .500. So how has this happened, and why is Dunlap’s style so effective in Charlotte?

By all accounts Dunlap is an excellent x’s and o’s guy whose most conspicuous defenders – like George Karl, under whom he was an assistant from 2006-2008 – say is a genius in the everyday minutiae of the game. But in the NBA, it’s as much about detailed strategy on the dry erase board, as it is about massaging the personalities that encompass a basketball team where most of the players make two or three times more than the coach. The guaranteed salaries mean coaches are expendable and players exude more control (ask Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony about that). Fortunately for Dunlap and the Bobcats brass, this team is so young and inexperienced, personality clashes with the prima donna players that used to make up their roster (hello Corey Maggette) are gone, and in their place are young, recent draftees that want to learn and work hard.

Dunlap’s obsessive attention to detail and his experience in the college ranks with younger players fits this team perfectly. Kemba Walker is coming into his own as a scoring guard in his sophomore season, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, at only 19 years of age, would be a perfect compliment to any team in the league. Four of the five starters on this team are under the age of 25, and the young players appear to be looking up to Dunlap’s guidance rather than the downcast eyes of a player concerned more with his numbers than with getting back on defense. The team is also low in payroll, with only Tyrus Thomas, DeSagana Diop and Ramon Sessions making $5 million or more a year. That means Dunlap has a squad of young, hungry players ready to compete and do whatever he says. That’s a great recipe for success when you realize how much Dunlap understands the particulars of the game.

A lot of observers were confounded when the Bobcats brass decided to give this head coaching gig to Dunlap. Many thought he was being used as a scapegoat for another season of losing under the guise of rebuilding. The thinking being that he wasn’t really head coach material, but he would do well in the interim as the team looked to position itself in the draft and clear cap space for the future. But after his first couple weeks, Mike Dunlap might be doing something special in Charlotte. His position in the minds of most NBA pundits might change from the coach before the coach who leads the Bobcats to NBA relevancy, to the coach who leads them to NBA relevancy, and perhaps beyond.

How good/bad are the Bobcats this season?

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