Author’s note: Since Scott and I had so much fun with our last exchange, we decided to do another one this week. We also happened to be the only two HPers following the Bobcats very closely and they have been doing some exciting things lately, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to talk a little more about them. – Derek James
Derek James: Scott, you and I have been following the Bobcats all year long, so I’m sure we’re less surprised than most by their 22 point beatdown of the Pacers. I mean, I wasn’t expecting it, but we’ve seen what this Bobcats team is capable of when they have all cylinders firing. One thing I’ve been impressed with is this team’s composure and fortitude when the opposition makes their charge. Even when the Pacers did last night once they broke out of their first quarter lull in the second and later in the third the Bobcats were able to hold an eight or nine point lead before blowing things wide open. What has impressed you most about this team this season and/or last night?
Scott Rafferty: I’d say their consistency has surprised me the most. They showed flashes of potential last year, and even put together a nice string of games to start the season, but that all went down the drain after a few weeks and they ended up being the laughing stock of the league again. This season, they’ve been pretty steady. They struggled a little when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was sidelined with a broken hand, but other than that, they’ve been one of the NBA’s best defensive teams since day one. And as you said, the composure they displayed in last night’s matchup against the Indiana Pacers was a welcoming sign because there have been plenty of instances over the last few season’s when the Bobcats have let the pressure get the best of them. This really is the start of something new and for once, it’s pretty obvious.
With that in mind, they picked up Gary Neal before the trade deadline and he has looked good in his first four games, averaging 11.8 points on 46.7 percent shooting from the three. With Ben Gordon now gone, can Neal fill that gunner-off-the-bench role they’ve been looking for? If so, how much does it improve this team?
The nice thing, as one of my Rufus on Fire commenters mentioned, is that this team is younger and less expensive than the last playoff team they had with Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace and those guys. So, as you
said, this is the start of something and it’s also sustainable because the team still has room to grow.
He has looked good. However, he’s in that Jarrett Jack and JJ Barea class of bench guards who may drive you bananas from time-to-time. For instance, last night Neal gets off of the bench and quickly misses a midrange jumper, a three and rifles a bad pass to the defense. So, with Neal you take the good with the bad and take solace in the fact that your starters are only resting. Beyond that, he is that spark that the Bobcats needed that they didn’t have with Ben Gordon because Neal actually sees the court. Really Neal improves the dynamic of the offense because he has some range on his shot. It takes a lot of pressure off of having Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker to do everything or Steve Clifford having to keep those guys on short rest.
One thing that is not going talked about enough is the play of Al Jefferson. Per Dan Devine, Jefferson has averaged 26.3 points, 11 rebounds, 2.4 assists and over a steal per game on on 53.2 percent shooting and 35 minutes per game. His play has been remarkable and was the one thing that really was overlooked in LeBron’s dominant 61-point performance when he went off for 38 points. He has arguably been one of the best centers in the game and I think he’s finally starting to get that due with his sustained excellence. Talk about a great free agent pickup, right?
Thinking of that Playoff team has given me a splitting headache. Why did you have to bring that up, Derek. Why?!
It’s funny that you mention that because I deliberately ignored some of Gary Neal’s other stats. For example, he’s shooting 29.2 percent from inside the perimeter as a member of the Bobcats and is averaging 2.5 turnovers per 36 minutes, which isn’t so great for a “shooter.” Small sample sure, sure, but for the most part, I think he has been a good fit. The Bobcats aren’t one of the better three-point shooting teams in the league, so he adds value on that front.
Honestly, I was a little skeptical about that signing at first. I’ve always regarded Al Jefferson as one of the best centers in the NBA, but he isn’t a spring chicken anymore. He’s also dealt with a few injuries over the last few years and even entered the season banged up. But, man, he’s been awesome, and a perfect addition to this squad. He’s relieved so much pressure off of Kemba Walker’s shoulders and you can see how it has helped his game. Like when the Bobcats played the Grizzlies on February 22nd. Jefferson was struggled because they were practically quadruple teaming him in the post – which worked, by the way – and Kemba just went to work, pouring in 31 points in their three-point victory. Jefferson has given them a consistent option and it’s something this franchise has never had. It’s just too bad they didn’t recognise him as an All-Star.
Alright, now that we’ve talked about the players, let’s talk about head coach, Steve Clifford. Nobody really knew what to expect from him coming into the season. I mean, he took the job as the Bobcats’ head coach. That’s usually a death sentence, but he’s completely transformed this team for the better. Defensively, they’ve been awesome, and he’s done a good job turning a bad offensive team into one that takes care of the ball, values possessions and gets quality shots pretty much every time down the court. Where does he rank on your Coach of the Year ballot?
DJ: See, Jefferson’s age is a little deceptive being 28-29 because he’s been in the league 10 years, but that’s also the age a lot of big men really hit their peak. Or so it seems. I just know you have to be patient with them. The Memphis game you mentioned is what differentiates Utah/Charlotte Big Al from Boston and Minnesota Al: his passing. He’s improved enough where teams have to respect his willingness to now look for the open man instead of always fighting double and triple teams. Even though he still does try to combat them singlehandedly sometimes, he usually keeps an eye out for a cutter or the open man. Now what do you do? Leave an open shooter or keep just one man on Jefferson? That dynamic is something the Bobcats have never had. Plus,he has one year left on his contract, so I was never too concerned about it. It still is a team-friendly and player-friendly deal.
It’s remarkable what Clifford has done. After the quick firing of Mike Dunlap I was concerned about their ability to lure a good candidate into the fold, but they appear to have done just that. As you mentioned, the Bobcats were a bad defensive team last season and he’s turned what is largely the same group from last season plus AL JEFFERSON into one of the best units in the league. As a result, the Bobcats are thinking playoffs. He has struck the balance that Dunlap failed to do last season and that is find a way to get the team to buy in without breaking them. For instance, Walker and Jefferson approached Clifford in the midst of a losing streak telling them they were tired of losing. Clifford simply replied, “Well, then go grab some rebounds.” I loved it and the team responded positively.
As far as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, he’s actually fostering his growth by not breaking his confidence. What I mean by that is Clifford doesn’t do things like Dunlap where he would bench Kidd-Gilchrist because of his offensive limitations in the fourth quarter. And that affected Kidd-Gilchrist but that hasn’t been the case now despite his numbers being down. Which is likely the result of adding a high usage player like Jefferson, but Kidd-Gilchrist is still finding ways to get some points off of things like cuts and offensive rebounds.
Back to Clifford and possible COY consideration. I’m not sure with names like Vogel, Thibs, Poppovich and Spoelstra that he will get it, but he should at least get serious consideration for what he’s done in such a short amount of time. Maybe Spoelstra and Thibs this season, but then there’s Scott Brooks, Terry Stotts and Jeff Hornacek. I don’t even know what to make of the picture, really. I do know that he should be on everyone’s ballot and not overlooked. I mean how do you figure where he stands in the race?
SR: Big Al’s passing has made a huge difference. He can’t be stopped one-on-one in the post, so teams have to double him to get the ball out of his hands, and he’s a willing passer. The Bobcats still struggle offensively at times, but that’s why I’m a believer in this plan – there is certainly potential. Throw in a few more shooters to help space the floor, let Kemba work his magic in half-court sets and you have a team that is capable of things. And who knows, maybe that is enough to lure in a relatively big time free-agent. The Bobcats are relevant! This is big!
That’s an excellent point about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. I think it’s easy to get hung up on what he’s not good at, and forget about what he excels at. He is a tremendous defender and works very well off the ball. Sure, he can’t shoot, but that’ll hopefully come. I’d still like to see him get more opportunities on offense because his touches are down this season, but for the most part, I love what Clifford has done there. People need to stop calling Kidd-Gilchrist a bust. I’m sick of it.
But, yes, back to the Coach of the Year. For the first time in a while, this is tough. It could go either way. The Phoenix Suns have been the biggest surprise this season, but they’re starting to free fall. Same goes with the Portland Trail Blazers. But then you look at what Tom Thibodeau has done with the Chicago Bulls after the Derrick Rose injury and Luol Deng trade, and you can’t help but marvel over their success. Nevertheless, I think Steve Clifford is up there. He’s turned this franchise around. Two years ago they were the worst team in NBA history and now they’re on the cusp of making just their second Playoff appearance in franchise history. I doubt he’ll get it, but I’d like to see him finish in the top-five. He deserves it.
So here’s the big question: how does the rest of this season play out for the Charlotte Bobcats? Next year they’ll be the Hornets again, so the train is nearing its final stop. In their 10 years as the Bobcats, they’ve won just 35.5 percent of their games, so it would be nice to usher in the new era on a high note, but will it happen?
DJ: I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who realizes that this year’s Coach of the Year race is a tough one to figure out. I think with the way that the Suns have regressed that Stotts may have the edge, but considering how Vogel has built on the Pacers success it may be his to lose. I really have no idea, but if Clifford’s name doesn’t at least come up in the conversation I’m going to…I’m going…well, probably just write angry words on the internet. As I said, to even be acknowledged would be an honor but he legitimately deserves consideration.
As for the rest of their season, the Bobcats do have a relatively easy schedule as long as everyone stays healthy. I know they have Houston and a couple of other teams where they will certainly be the underdog. Still, I don’t think it’s out of the question to expect them to continue their strong play over the final quarter of the season and earn a playoff berth. Where they finish — be it sixth, seventh or eighth — will unfortunately have as much to do with the performance of the Wizards, Nets and even Hawks as much as it will their own. No matter where they finish in the race, this has been a great season for the team and it’s fans who are finally starting to escape the punchline zone and into a respectable team again with an exciting future. In a lot of ways I’m glad that the Bobcats era gets to go out on a high note and not just another example of futility under the name.
SR: I couldn’t agree more. I think they’ll end up with one of the bottom three seeds, too. They have a four game lead on the Detroit Pistons right now and only nine of their final 21 games are against teams with a .500 record. And even if they do end up losing to a much better team like the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the first round, it won’t be a lost season. It’ll be good for their young core to get a taste of the playoffs and there’s going to be so much buzz surrounding the team next season anyway (simply because of the name change) that the city of Charlotte has got to be excited about their future. Why wouldn’t they be? They’ve also got some first round picks to look forward to, so hopefully they’ll add a few more pieces to this already promising roster. It would just be nice to end this all with at least one playoff win.