2012-2013 W-L: 21-61
New Places: DeSagana Diop (unsigned), Byron Mullens (Clippers), Tyrus Thomas (amnesty, unsigned), Reggie Williams (Houston),
New Faces: Al Jefferson, Anthony Tolliver
Draft: Cody Zeller (4)
The influence gleaned from a 30-win season as opposed to a 20-win one can be more than it appears on the surface.
‘Can’ makes the important distinction here. For some organizations in the various early stages of building up from the ground floor, those ten extra victories matter little. Phoenix and Orlando are good examples: expectations are low until the core of each roster emerges, a necessary reality understood by players, coaches and fans alike. The Suns and Magic enjoyed enough recent success – spearheaded by since-departed franchise players, of course – that they’re entitled to a certain grace period while trying to construct another winner.
The Bobcats don’t have that luxury. Nine years of futility doesn’t yield goodwill from of any type from any faction, especially as questionable personnel decisions and constant coaching turnover have combined to make the last two years the worst stretch in franchise history. Major upward mobility doesn’t seem likely for Charlotte any time soon, a sobering thought made all the worse considering no Bobcats prospect has reason to believe progress of even a smaller kind is possible.
Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor – prized picks of the last two NBA drafts and Charlotte’s should-be core – have known nothing but the NBA cellar to this point in their young careers. The Bobcats set a record for losing in Walker and Biyombo’s rookie season, then narrowly missed the league’s worst record with Kidd-Gilchrist and Taylor in tow for an encore performance. They’ve been surrounded by offseason acquisitions like Corey Maggette, Ramon Sessions, DeSagana Diop, Byron Mullens and Tyrus Thomas, a roaring quintet of inefficient, lazy mediocrity on its best collective day. Newly appointed Steve Clifford is Walker and Biyombo’s third head coach in as many seasons.
Charlotte hasn’t exactly been a thriving garden of NBA nourishment, basically. That Walker showed such improvement last season is a small miracle considering the hostile environment in which his growth has been fostered. Even the increasingly underwhelming Biyombo deserves some degree of empathy; Time Warner Cable Arena is where player development – or maybe development in general? – goes to die.
The Bobcats need a culture change, and that’s something the front office tried to cultivate last season by hiring college drill sergeant Mike Dunlap. But aggressive coaching can only go so far on a team so haplessly talent-less, especially when a player like Ben Gordon – the team’s lone established veteran – openly opposes it. Last season was meant to be the first of a finally defining era; instead it was just status quo.
21-61. Fired head coach. Top five draft pick. A minor free agent here or there. Wash, rinse, and repeat for 2013-2014. We all saw it coming, and the Charlotte front office probably did, too.
Enter Al Jefferson.
Now, it’s certainly debatable whether or not Big Al is worth the three-year, $41 million contract the Bobcats awarded him. Reports say even he was surprised that Charlotte offered such a lucrative deal. But warts and all, the upgrade Jefferson provides the Charlotte frontcourt can’t be understated. This might have been the league’s worst rotation of big men last season: Josh McRoberts played just under 31 minutes per game for the Bobcats after coming over from Orlando at the trade deadline, and Mullens averaged 27 minutes a night in 53 games, too. Yikes.
Jefferson isn’t the franchise player some thought he might be, and his glaring defensive deficiencies are a constant source of worry. But he’s still only 28 years-old, is arguably the game’s best low-post scorer and – despite his inflated salary – won’t keep the Bobcats from making a major splash in free agency should they feel so inclined. Charlotte’s putrid 98.3 points per 100 possessions ranked 28th in the NBA last season; Jefferson’s mere presence is good enough to make the Bobcats several spots better, and his influence on Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, Taylor and company can’t be discounted, either. Assuming internal improvement from that trio of youngsters and another rock solid season from the re-signed Gerald Henderson, there’s the makings of something fairly close to league average offense here. And while that’s hardly good news for most teams, the Bobcats aren’t most teams; they’re judged against on a swooping curve until they prove that scale outdated.
Which, perhaps not coincidentally, is justification behind overpaying Jefferson as well as drafting Zeller earlier than anyone anticipated. Charlotte needs something, anything to feel good about this season , and completely revamping that cringe-inducing frontcourt is the safest way to ensure improvement. Rookies like Ben McLemore or Nerlens Noel – available, surprisingly, when the Bobcats were selecting – have attics far higher than Zeller’s, but their basements are lower, too. Zeller is skilled for a power forward, a very gifted athlete and has a motor constantly running; players working from such a sturdy base of attributes rarely fail and translate sooner instead of later. Zeller won’t ever star, but should be a valuable, versatile contributor for a long time. Charlotte could have done better than that in June, but they also could have done worse. Every team is faced with that delicate balancing act come draft time, and filling a need as opposed to taking the best player available is normally a tenuous proposition. Again, normally.
But the Bobcats aren’t a typical bottom-dweller this season. They’ve played that role the last two years to the worst effect, losing games without offering the slightest glimpse of hope. Short-sighted moves like drafting Zeller and signing Jefferson make contextual sense – or are defensible, at the least – given this team’s unique present circumstances.
30 wins won’t matter in the vast majority of NBA cities, but Charlotte needs reason to embrace this franchise before they become the Hornets in 2014-2015. Players like Walker, Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist and Taylor need to know optimism to fulfill their potential. And most of all, the Bobcats need to develop a culture – that can’t be done without success, even the kind so humbling it means another losing season. After the summer, this team will finally have the chance to achieve it.