After two seasons in which the Charlotte Bobcats went 28-120, this team is turning around. At the All-Star break they are 23-30 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
They have a real chance to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history, but they’ll have to hold off the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks.
At midseason, Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell tackles a dozen questions about this team:
Is Al Jefferson worth the $13.5 million a season they’re paying him?
This was easily the biggest bet the Charlotte Bobcats have made – spending $13.5 million a season on a free-agent center who was already nine seasons and nearly 20,000 playing minutes into his NBA career.
The skepticism grew in the preseason when Al Jefferson severely sprained an ankle. He missed nine of the Bobcats’ first 11 regular-season games and was less than scintillating in his first handful of games back.
Then Jefferson got healthy. He could pivot off both ankles and jump a little (not that he’s ever been a great leaper). Those “herky-jerky” post moves (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s term) still fool most any defender off his feet. And the production has been like nothing the Bobcats have seen.
Jefferson reached 30 points and 10 rebounds in five of the eight games leading up to the All-Star break. He’s provided something the Bobcats have never had before: a primary scoring option in the low post that forces opponents to skew their defense.
The knocks on Jefferson were that he doesn’t pass and doesn’t defend. If that was true, it doesn’t appear to be anymore. In his three seasons with the Utah Jazz, Jefferson became a willing and astute passer out of the double-team. The problem in Charlotte is finding more shooters to complete the plays Jefferson can make.
As far as defense, no one will confuse Jefferson with Bill Russell. But the Bobcats have schemed pick-and-roll defense in such a way that he hasn’t been a liability.
What will Kemba Walker be worth when he comes off the rookie pay scale?
Point guard Walker will be a restricted free agent the summer of 2015. Of the four Bobcats lottery picks still playing under the rookie scale, he is by far the most accomplished.
To start projecting what Walker would be worth in a long-term extension, consider the “comps,” to use a real-estate term. Walker’s production isn’t comparable to a Chris Paul or a healthy Rajon Rondo or Derrick Rose. Or maybe a John Wall.
But Walker stands up fine against that next group – Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Indiana’s George Hill and Memphis’ Mike Conley. Based on their salaries, Walker is worth at least $8 million a season, perhaps as much as $10 million as time inflates NBA salaries.
How will the remaining schedule affect the Bobcats’ playoff chances?
Their schedule – particularly in early March – looks rough. There is a four-game span, which includes a road trip to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami, followed by a home game against the Indiana Pacers, that is as tough a stretch as any team will face this season.
Nine of the Bobcats’ 13 opponents following that stretch would currently make the playoffs.
If the Bobcats get through March without falling out of the race, the last eight opponents look pretty tame. Five teams are headed to the lottery, with nothing tangible to play for that late in the season.
Is Bismack Biyombo becoming a bust?
Three years ago the Bobcats gave up a first-round pick in a complicated 3-team deal to take African center Biyombo seventh overall. In the fall, the Bobcats exercised a contract option on Biyombo for next season, guaranteeing him nearly $3.9 million.
Both those choices look dicey.
At best, Biyombo has stagnated this season. His per-game statistics – 3.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks – are no better than his first two seasons, when the team often suggested he just needed more experience to pay off.
It’s fair to say signing Jefferson marginalized the development of Biyombo. It’s also fair that signing Jefferson might not have been necessary had Biyombo given reason to think he was an NBA starter.
Was it worth assuming Ben Gordon’s contract?
In June of 2012 the Bobcats traded for shooting guard Ben Gordon. Here’s what really happened:
The Detroit Pistons wanted Gordon off their payroll by the summer of 2013. Corey Maggette made a similar salary for the Bobcats, but his contract expired after the 2012-13 season.
So the Bobcats agreed to trade Maggette for Gordon, primarily to obtain a first-round pick with little protection. If the Pistons pick outside the top eight in June, the Bobcats get their pick. If that’s not the case, the Pistons keep the pick in 2015 only if it’s No. 1.
The Bobcats hoped Gordon would help on the court, but he’s not close to the rotation this season. So the Bobcats are paying Gordon’s salary – $13.2 million – for a first-round pick that figures to be 9 through 16 this season or 2 through 20 next season.
Who will they battle for those last couple of playoff spots in the East, and what are those teams’ prospects?
The bad news: The Bobcats have already lost a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls (3-0 so far in the season series) and the Brooklyn Nets seems to have gotten their act together.
The good news: They are 1-0 against the Pistons and 2-2 against the New York Knicks. It would have been helpful if they had won one more against the Knicks to clinch the tiebreaker.
The Pistons recently fired their first-year coach, Mo Cheeks, a reflection of a struggling group. The Bobcats play back-to-back games against the Pistons next week. At least splitting against the Pistons looks important.
What are their chances of winning a first-round series?
If they play the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat in the first round, they are going to lose.
Many fans came to think being swept by the Orlando Magic in 2010 was a fruitless exercise. If so, that’s because the core of that team – Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson – was aging out.
This team needs experience. Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist don’t know what the NBA playoffs are like.
If they managed to get to the sixth seed and played the Toronto Raptors, they’d have a real chance to win a round.
Is Steve Clifford finally their long-term solution as a head coach?
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was probably more blunt that day in December than he intended. A reporter who covers Miami asked Spoelstra what suddenly made the Bobcats a dangerous team.
“They’ve always played hard,” Spoelstra responded. “Now they’re organized.”
That sums up what a mess this team was last season and how much better they are after replacing Mike Dunlap. Clifford got them into a defense that is sound and will get more complex over time. He holds players accountable without it getting personal. He has the players’ attention and respect.
Is it time yet to question Cody Zeller’s NBA potential?
Back in the preseason, Clifford said the Bobcats couldn’t meet their potential this season unless rookie Zeller had a big role. That never materialized.
Zeller, the No. 4 overall pick, averages about five points and four rebounds in nearly 17 minutes per game. He shoots just 38 percent from the field and struggles to guard NBA big men.
But to say that makes him unique in the 2013 draft class, or that his future is already decided, is myopic. Three of the other top five – first pick Anthony Bennett, third pick Otto Porter and fifth pick Alex Len – have done the same or less so far.
Zeller needs a lot of weight training – what Clifford calls “functional strength” – to hold up physically against NBA big men. He has misgivings about undermining quickness, but he can’t continue to be outmuscled like this.
Why is Josh McRoberts important to this team?
Bobcats owner Michael Jordan calls power forward Josh McRoberts this team’s “connect-the-dots” guy. Here’s why:
McRoberts averages four assists per game. Only one power forward or center, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, averages more assists (4.2). And McRoberts doesn’t get credit for all his “hockey assists” – the pass that leads to the pass that sets up the basket.
From almost the instant McRoberts arrived in a trade a year ago, the Bobcats’ ball movement improved. That allows Walker to be who he is – a shoot-first, pick-and-roll point guard capable of scoring about 20 a night.
Does Kidd-Gilchrist look like a No. 2 overall pick?
Small forward Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t make outside jump shots when they drafted him. He still can’t. This is a problem when you were the No. 2 overall pick.
However, that doesn’t address how important Kidd-Gilchrist has been to Clifford’s defense, particularly after Jeff Taylor was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Bobcats were 2-9 in the games Kidd-Gilchrist and Taylor both missed with injury. They are 8-7 since Kidd-Gilchrist’s return from a broken hand.
That is not a coincidence. He guards great scorers without fouling and his team defense is probably the best on this team.
Has this Hornets campaign made a difference?
Obviously the Bobcats-to-Hornets campaign has been well received. The updated logos look cool and the team is selling plenty of T-shirts, caps and hoodies with the new/old nickname in teal and purple.
The team will introduce new uniforms in the offseason and anticipate a bump in ticket sales. People claiming they hated the “Bobcats” nickname no longer have that excuse to stay away.
But teal and purple won’t keep them there. The product is what matters most, not the cosmetics. Until this team starts making the playoffs more than once a decade, the look counts for only so much.
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell