CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -A few days into training camp last fall, Larry Brown feared the first season of his record ninth NBA head coaching job could be historic - as in historically bad.
With former North Carolina coach Dean Smith watching practice, Brown thought the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers' NBA-worst record of 9-73 was in jeopardy.
``He was at training camp shaking his head,'' Brown said of Smith, his mentor. ``I don't know if he felt that was an ACC contender.''
Five months, three trades and an NBA-high 23 players later, Brown had a hop in his step after practice Monday. The new-look Bobcats (25-35) were back in town after winning the final three games of their West Coast trip to move within three games of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
So when Brown called Smith over the weekend to wish him a happy 78th birthday, Brown said Smith repeated the question he asked in training camp: Are you sure you still enjoy coaching?
``I said, 'Yeah, I like it more now,''' Brown said. ``I enjoy this team.''
s famous impatience and tinkering have produced a much different club than the collection of wing shooters and inexperienced big men from October.
Charlotte's biggest deal was its first, sending top scorer Jason Richardson and forward Jared Dudley to Phoenix for Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. Diaw finally gave Charlotte a reliable starting power forward after Sean May's struggles following knee surgery. Bell took over for Richardson at shooting guard.
The Bobcats then sent 3-point specialist Matt Carroll and reserve center Ryan Hollins to Dallas for defensive big man DeSagana Diop, who became center Emeka Okafor's chief backup.
The final move had managing partner Michael Jordan signing off on a deal that sent disappointing former first-round pick Adam Morrison and guard Shannon Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers for forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who immediately became Charlotte's sixth man.
``I look around the league. Matt's not playing. Ryan's not playing. They were part of our rotation,'' Brown said. ``Shannon's not playing. Adam's not playing. They were part of our rotation. Until Alvin (Gentry) got the (Phoenix coaching) job, Jared Dudley wasn't playing. He was a starter for a lot of our games. ... You look around and the guys we got are big parts of our team. They're all playing. So you can see the progress that's been made.''
game, they're 18-17 since shortly after Bell and Diaw arrived. They and Radmanovic have also brought a winning attitude from their former teams to mesh with remaining starters Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton and Okafor, who have never been to the playoffs.
``There is a lot of talent here,'' said Radmanovic, who was riding the bench in Los Angeles. ``Something good can happen if we take care of our part.''
While the Bobcats are better defensively and have more balance on offense, starting 7-18 has left them with plenty of work to do.
The Bobcats are just three games behind eighth-place Milwaukee with 22 games left. But they would also have to leapfrog Chicago, New Jersey and Indiana and stay ahead of New York and Toronto to make the playoffs for the first time in their five-year history.
Beating Chicago on Tuesday would secure the tiebreaker over the Bulls.
``For the most part I think we've been playing pretty good basketball,'' Brown said. ``When we do have problems it's generally turnovers and putting people on the free-throw line and maybe not rebounding defensively as well as we need to. But I think we're rebounding better. We've got to take care of the ball better.''
At 68, three years removed from a disastrous season in New York that got him fired, Brown is clearly enjoying his new team.
There's no second-guessing about returning to coaching now. And Philadelphia's record of futility is safe, too.
``I believe with the schedule we had early, if we'd have had this group here, we'd be pretty far along,'' Brown said. ``I think we try to approach every game seeing if we can get better.''

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