Why the Charlotte Bobcats' Success This Season Is Only the Beginning

The Charlotte Bobcats will never win a playoff game.

Two years ago, a statement like this would have come off as hyperbolic pessimism, a result of watching the worst team in NBA history win only seven games during the lockout-shortened season.

The statement would still sound overly dramatic. Every NBA franchise will eventually have its day, even the most poorly run ones that compete in the smallest markets. Truly believing that the Bobcats would never win a playoff game would require a high level of naivete.

That, or an extreme level of genius.

After being swept out of the first round by the defining team of this generation in the Miami Heat, the Bobcats cemented their fate as a team that would never win an NBA playoff game.

This is because the Bobcats will become the Charlotte Hornets at the start of next season.

While the name change is being embraced by fans, it is unfortunate timing for the Bobcats' namesake, which will be retired just as the team it represented was getting good.

The Bobcats' loss is the Hornets' gain, though. Now that the transition has been made, it is a gain for the people of Charlotte, its surrounding areas and the soon-to-be-sizable number of Hornets fans around the country.

Predicting bandwagon Charlotte fans admittedly requires a leap of faith, as bandwagons usually contain a few playoff wins before they start to carry people.

That's okay, though, because the Hornets will surpass the Bobcats in playoff wins—and it will happen in their first season.

The Team is Talented

Despite the popular notion that Charlotte overachieved in 2013-14 and that head coach Steve Clifford is the primary reason why, the Bobcats should have been seen as a likely playoff team from opening day.

While no one on the team has ever been an All-Star, Al Jefferson has been snubbed several times and Kemba Walker looked like a breakout candidate entering the season.

Gerald Henderson is one of the more underrated shooting guards in the league, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist appeared a lock to improve and Cody Zeller was a popular Rookie of the Year pick. Jeffrey Taylor, Josh McRoberts and Ramon Sessions looked like a solid core of role players.

What's more, the roster was perfectly constructed.
The team had a No. 1 guy on offense who could carry the load and command double-teams (Jefferson), a No. 2 option who could break down the defense (Walker), nice complementary scorers in Henderson, Sessions and Zeller and a dangerous spot-up shooter in Anthony Tolliver.

They also had a lockdown wing defender (Kidd-Gilchrist), a strong rim protector (Bismack Biyombo), a big-bodied rebounder (Jefferson) and a pickpocket point guard (Walker).

The team also had great character guys. Jefferson had been one of the league's most underappreciated leaders for years, as he carried the Jazz to three respectable seasons and one playoff appearance in the brutal Western Conference.

Walker had been known as a leader since his NCAA title at Connecticut, as had Kidd-Gilchrist since his championship with Kentucky.

While the names on this roster did not immediately jump out at most people when they were making their preseason predictions, those who spent time thinking about the specific qualities of these players and how they fit together could tell that it was a playoff-caliber group.

And Yes, They're Extremely Well Coached

Remember all that stuff about the talent on this team that people should have been aware of last fall? Half of it proved to be wrong.

Walker failed to break out. Zeller had a disappointing rookie season. Kidd-Gilchrist did not improve. Sessions was traded. Taylor tore his Achilles tendon only 26 games into the season.

And yet, the Bobcats went 43-39 and grabbed the No. 7 seed in the East. Much of this can be attributed to Jefferson being so much better than all but two big men in the conference, and the roster did fit together well, but Clifford was the driving force behind the winning season.
The first-year head coach emphasized simple principles: concede long jumpers to avoid penetration, defend without fouling, get back in transition, crash the defensive glass and do not turn the ball over.

He became known with the media and fans for preaching these concepts as the season went on and his team started winning, but the fact is that every coach in the league cares about this stuff. What Clifford did better than any other new coach—and just about any other coach—was get everyone to actually play this way.

The Bobcats unwillingness to give up easy buckets gave them the sixth-best field-goal-percentage defense in the NBA. Their focus on not fouling led to the second-fewest opponent free throws in the league. They allowed the fewest fast-break points in the association, a direct result of not turning the ball over and getting back in transition. They also led the NBA in defensive-rebounding rate.

Clifford is not a genius for valuing these areas of the game. Everyone knows their importance. But valuing them and getting your entire roster to internalize these concepts so deeply that they become habits are two very different things.

They Could Be Much Better Next Year...

The Bobcats won 43 games this season, but they went 28-16 over their final 44 games. That's not a hot stretch, that's finding something.

With no one over 30 years old and several key players 23 or younger, there will be significant individual growth, as well as team growth with Clifford returning for his second season.

More importantly, Charlotte will have $20 million in cap space during a summer in which most of the usual free-agent magnets will not be in position to make a big move.

Compared to other teams projected to have $20 million or more in spending money this summer—the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz—the Hornets are easily a top-three destination.

While Carmelo Anthony will never play in a market like Charlotte (even though he'd be a perfect fit and make the team an instant contender in the East), they certainly have the ability to lure a Luol Deng, Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, Pau Gasol or Gordon Hayward.
Their pitch should be pretty simple: "The Eastern Conference is not getting better anytime soon. We were a 43-win team last year and with you, Luol (or Pau/Eric/whomever), we could win 50 games and be a top-four seed. Look at what the Toronto Raptors did this year. Seriously this conference is terrible. Big Al draws constant double-teams, and you will be the primary beneficiary of that. Coach Clifford is great and everyone here is committed to winning first and foremost. The East is a joke."

It is hard to imagine this team not landing a quality free agent this summer, but that will not be the end of this team's growth.

...And Elite in Two Years

Huh? The Bobcats elite? No, not the Bobcats. The Hornets.

Let's travel forward in time 14 months. Charlotte, led by Jefferson, Walker and Deng, just won 51 games and lost in Game 7 of their Round 2 series with the Chicago Bulls.

The bandwagon is nearing capacity. New team, new jerseys to buy and hats to wear. A history of being the underdog. A fearless gunner and a beast down low. Michael Jordan as the owner. The Hornets enter the summer of 2015 as one of the trendiest teams in the NBA, much like the Raptors, Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers will do this summer.

Fresh relevancy is the best kind of relevancy.

The team's cap situation will still be great. Even if they add a big name this offseason and re-sign Walker, they'll enter next summer with roughly another $20 million to spend. Few financially flexible teams in the league would be able to compete with the draw of Charlotte's core, coach, potential and cool factor.
Written By: Simon Cherin-Gordon

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