Charlotte Bobcats could be formidable in two years

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comJuly 4, 2013 

Your probable 2013-14 Charlotte Bobcats starting lineup:

Point guard – Kemba Walker;

Shooting guard – Gerald Henderson (assuming he re-signs);

Center – Al Jefferson;

Power forward – Cody Zeller;

Small forward – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

It looks like an NBA starting lineup.

Charlotte came to terms with Jefferson on a three-year contract he can end after two seasons. Jefferson, 28, is a traditional back-to-the-basket center. He’s strong, he’s smart and he’s 6-foot-10 and weighs 289 pounds. He’s a big man with a nice little jump shot.

Jefferson is a testament to consistency. He’s played nine NBA seasons. Since his third season he has averaged at least 9.2 rebounds and at least 16 points. Since his fourth season he has averaged at least 17.1 points. Since he joined the league out of Prentiss (Mississippi) high school he has always hit at least 49 percent of his field goals.

Jefferson immediately becomes the best big man the Bobcats have ever had, which is to say that he is better than Emeka Okafor. Tyson Chandler could have held the title, but he was hurt and probably disinterested during his lone season in Charlotte.

I wrote Wednesday that I hoped the Bobcats would not sign Jefferson. I said I liked Jefferson’s game, but I didn’t like the timing.

I still don’t.

The Bobcats’ strategy has been clear: be bad until there’s an opportunity to be good. Divest the roster of veterans, drop to the bottom of the standings, parlay draft choices into talent and make a move when the time is right. That time is 2014-15.

I didn’t want them to tank next season to get a shot at Andrew Wiggins or a lesser but still glittering pick in the 2014 draft. I just didn’t want them to excel. As long as they hustled, as long as their young players improved and as long as Zeller, whom they drafted last week, brings talent and a hard edge, I was fine with another low-victory, high-pick team.

It’s terrible to be the worst team or among the worst franchises in the NBA every season.

But who remembers Cleveland before LeBron, Oklahoma City (or Seattle) before Kevin Durant or Chicago before Derrick Rose?

You get a great one and what you were before he arrived no longer matters. It’s amnesty not for a player but for a team.

Alas, Charlotte decided to make the move a year early.

Signing Jefferson gives them credibility they’ve never had. Since Bob Johnson bought the team in 2004, the Bobcats have had a reputation for being cheap, and they earned it. They didn’t spend money on free agents. They hired obscure first-year coaches such as Sam Vincent and Mike Dunlap, who probably made in a year what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski makes in the time it took to write this sentence.

Paying Jefferson $13.5 million a season proves they’re not cheap.

Charlotte forward Bismack Biyombo’s defense is superior to Jefferson’s. But Biyombo, who is better than you think, has yet to become a player other teams have to guard. He can rebound. He can’t score.

Jefferson scores. The Jazz played Minnesota late last season. The Timberwolves are the team for which Jefferson played after Boston and before Utah. He hit 19 of 27 field goals and scored 40 points.

In Biyombo’s first 11 games in March he scored 41.

Opponents have to account for Jefferson, which will create opportunities for Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist and everybody else.

The 2013-14 Bobcats won’t be as good as the 2009-10 Bobcats. Starters on the only Charlotte team to make the playoffs were Raymond Felton and Stephen Jackson at guard, Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw at forward and Theo Ratliff at center.

But those Bobcats were veterans, and as good as they would get.

Jefferson is 28, Henderson 25, Walker 23, Zeller 22 and Kidd-Gilchrist 19.

The 2013-14 Bobcats have the potential to, season after next, be more than the best team the Bobcats have had. They have the potential to make the playoffs and do something when they get there.

It will depend on the draft.

Sorensen: tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5119

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