As the Bobcats climb ever-closer to the franchise's second playoff seeding in its 10 years of existence, the team and the fans also draw nearer to the divisive results stemming from the paths the team has taken since its last playoff appearance.
The nature of the Bobcats' sudden improvement has not only shocked people around the country seeing a team they've known as doormats for the past few years now taking their own teams to the brink or past it on the regular, but it's also clearly shined a light on the road ahead.
The feeling this team engenders in fans has some hearkening back to the Bobcats team from just before the last playoff season. About a half-decade ago, Charlotte was in a bit of turmoil stemming from coaching changes and roster difficulties, not unlike the recent Bobcats teams.
The Bobcats had drafted a great defensive talent in Emeka Okafor with their first draft pick and snagged Gerald Wallace from the Kings in the Expansion Draft, but their other picks -- Raymond Felton, Sean May, Adam Morrison, et al. -- were little better than average at their best, and out of the league in a matter of years at their worst.
But Charlotte's front office worked continuously to look for options for improvement despite their draft picks not panning out. In the summer of 2007, they traded for Jason Richardson, who could seemingly score at the flick of a switch and turned in his best scoring season of his life for the Bobcats. His offense ameliorated the Bobcats' shooting woes and gave them a player who could create his own shot with ease. And on top of that he somehow fended off Matt Carroll gunning for the starting spot.
Still, the Bobcats foundered even with the injection of Richardson's exciting and efficient offense. They had just dropped Bernie Bickerstaff as head coach and hired Sam Vincent, an inexperienced former NBA player. Vincent signed a three-year contract but was fired after just the first season.
In his place they hired Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown with their eyes glistening with the prospects of the team's first ever playoff appearance. If you had thought there was turmoil before Brown's arrival, huge roster changes and front office drama would come soon enough in their chase to make the playoffs.
Charlotte stumbled out of the gate after Brown's arrival, drafting D.J. Augustin and trading for another first round pick to grab Alexis Ajinca. Shortly after the season began, Richardson and Jared Dudley were traded to Phoenix for Raja Bell and Boris Diaw to solve Brown's problems with Richardson's defense and to give the Bobcats more frontcourt depth. Matt Carroll, Ryan Hollins and Ajinca went to Dallas for DeSagana Diop, who was one of the more recent players to receive a hefty donation from the Mark Cuban Charitable Fund For Centers Who Can't Play Basketball Good. The team missed the playoffs in Brown's first season.
That summer the Bobcats traded Emeka Okafor for Tyson Chandler. Okafor's contract was long and unwieldy. Chandler's was not. Plus, Chandler had been no slouch. He could defend and rebound, though he was also an underwhelming scoring threat. Later, Charlotte acquired Stephen Jackson not a month into the season. The Bobcats became the top defensive team in the league under Brown's tutelage that season, but were crushed by the Magic in their first postseason showing in a 4-0 first round sweep.
The writing was at the wall, but I'm not sure anyone foresaw such a sudden downfall for the Bobcats the following season. Charlotte had traded for Tyrus Thomas the previous year at the trade deadline and offered him a sizable contract to retain his talents. As a result, they could not bring back former starting point guard Raymond Felton at an agreeable price for both sides. Further, there had already been rumors Brown was putting out feelers for jobs elsewhere.
The 2010-2011 season crumbled from the get-go, culminating in a holiday season coaching change as the Bobcats and Larry Brown split. Former Charlotte Hornets coach Paul Silas agreed to become the interim head coach to fill the vacancy.
Following the coaching changes, the Bobcats traded All-Star Gerald Wallace and later Stephen Jackson, shedding a couple of their biggest contracts and returning them some draft picks in the process. The rebuilding shift had come quickly and viciously, evacuating the team's best players for future assets to look at building through the draft and generally starting anew.
The sudden paradigm transformation from "win now" to, effectively, "lose now" returned the Bobcats and their fans to the cellar, which they would soon find contained lower depths.
The Bobcats are hardly cemented for the playoffs right now sitting in the eight seed, but a 3-1 West Coast road trip topped off with a win over the Warriors has playoff visions within sight.
Almost as suddenly had the Bobcats started their rebuild, so seemed the Bobcats' rise to playoff contention. The Bobcats have already exceeded their win total from last year and there are still 32 games left in the season. After multiple coaches and roster movement, the Bobcats have finally found the culture change they've so desperately looked for. Steve Clifford has made this squad disciplined, especially on the defensive end with a scheme that stymies many of their opponents. They make rotations and are held accountable as a unit to make Clifford's defensive intentions come to fruition. If people who watch this team learn little else this year, the one thing they ought to take away about the Charlotte Bobcats is that Steve Clifford has made the sum of all the parts worth more than the individual pieces on either side of the floor.
However, the Bobcats are almost certainly not going to challenge top teams in the postseason. The team has major problems offensively, lacks the shooting necessary to space defenses and gets stuck too often with offensive lulls of players trying to make things happen on their own.
The differences and the future
It's not difficult to connect dots between this team and the Bobcats of 2010. Both are and were, dare I say, defensive juggernauts. Both are and were also fraught with offensive problems of inefficiency.
However, that's about where the similarities end.
The 2010 Bobcats were considerably older. On average, they were 27.14 years old to this season's Bobcats who are on average 25.93 years old, which doesn't seem like a big gap. But when you consider that Ben Gordon and Jannero Pargo are the only current Bobcats over 30 years old and usually don't see time on the floor except in extenuating circumstances compared to Larry Brown playing 31-year-old Stephen Jackson 40 minutes a game and relying upon Theo Ratliff, Larry Hughes and Nazr Mohammed, the Bobcats of now seem much younger. Their more significant contributors are much younger on the whole.
When we think about the future of teams, we think about the core of a team and the ceiling they can reach and subsequent possible decline. In hindsight, the Bobcats of 2010 were somewhere near their ceiling. Jackson was past his prime and did well, but the precipice was coming. Gerald Wallace was 27, which is generally regarded as the beginning of an athlete's prime. For a player who so relied on athleticism to drive his game and didn't have a terrific offensive repertoire, Wallace seemed to be at or near his best play of his life, not to mention with injury concerns, which always lingered. Augustin and Thomas were the only two players who received significant minutes and were younger than 25 years old.
When looking at potential for growth, the Bobcats didn't have much to go on with that roster. They had a roster that was trounced in the first round of the playoffs and had little room for improvement and a coach who wasn't keen on playing its young players much.
Today's Bobcats are quite different. Al Jefferson (29 years old) and Kemba Walker (23 years old) drive the offense from the inside and outside, respectively. The rest of their rotation is fairly young or in that aforementioned "prime" athletic range. They still have plenty of potential to improve upon where they're at. And more than that, another year to implement offensive continuity and fluidity could go a long way to improve their current efficiency and effectiveness with the ball.
And it's not like the Bobcats are completely without draft picks. If they make the playoffs, it's possible they could have two first-round picks: one from Detroit and one from Portland. If you draft smart, you can effectively add talent. Great talent sometimes slips through the cracks or perhaps you just find someone who fills holes as a role player.
The impasse between those who are optimistic about this Bobcats core, or just the future in general, and those who had hoped for a season building on last season's mild progress while maintaining a place in the lottery, comes at a tough intersection. This upcoming draft could have one of the deepest talent pools to hit the NBA in years, especially at the top.
Deciding between finally fostering the culture that helps not only keep your talent but attract outside talent and trying to go for the home run of draft picks isn't an easy decision. For a smaller market team, the culture change may not mean a whole lot when trying to attract top free agent targets. However, grabbing a supreme young player could do that and give a team a dynamic star.
Ultimately, this is a battle of so-called team models, as we have come to know them. On the one hand you have the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have drafted exceptionally well. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka -- they built from the bottom as a struggling team capitalizing upon good scouting and the luxury of being able to alienate their hometown fans, then Seattle, as they jettisoned their talent to prepare for a relocation. This amazing gathering of talent has been put upon a throne as the model of how to build a team, but is easier said than done. Because the draft relies upon so much luck, many consider it unfeasible despite how attractive it seems in theory.
On the other hand, we have the new Pacers model. Indiana didn't quite tank but drafted well late in the lottery and built a roster of considerable talent that now has taken its place atop the Eastern Conference. Paul George has taken big steps toward improving his game across the board since his initiation into the league as Roy Hibbert controls the paint defensively. Frank Vogel's defense crunches opponents in its maws like a commercial cardboard baler and has made the team into a formidable threat with a clear personality.
When looking at the Bobcats and these two models, it seems the Pacers model is closer to reality, though it's certainly not a given. Charlotte's young talent would need to make big steps of its own to bridge such a gap between its current status as fringe playoff team and title contender. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist makes the Bobcats better on defense but still needs to become somewhat effective with the ball in his hands as a shooter or scorer, or the Bobcats will have trouble keeping opponents from holding Charlotte's offense to a smaller square footage. Cody Zeller needs to, well, do everything better. He needs to find some kind of comfort level, rhythm and more strength to hit his jump shots and finish at the rim for a player of his size.
On a similar point, both these models rely on quality drafting, whether with a top pick or at the edge of the lottery. By all reports the Bobcats are focusing on trying to become a playoff squad starting this season, but to continue after this year, they will need to draft well to extend or improve their chances at postseason success.
The worries of those who fear that the Bobcats will have to blow up the team for a rebuild after this season have valid concerns, but Charlotte can grow from the current roster and perhaps elevate their standing, though it will take further player development and better standing in asset management from the front office to reach new highs.