Last offseason, the Charlotte Bobcats made two signings that propelled them into the postseason for only the second time in the Bobcats era. Now with a playoff-ready team, cap space to burn and a name change under their belts, can the Bobcats take the next step and win their first playoff series since they were last known as the Hornets?
Historically the long-time butt of countless jokes, the Charlotte Bobcats made their second foray into the postseason after finishing one win shy of tying the franchise record for wins in a season (in the Bobcats era) with a 43-29 record.
It was a triumphant turnaround for a franchise that had won only 28 games over the past two seasons, and although the Miami Heat swept them in the first round, the season was a moral victory for the much-maligned franchise.
With a new head coach at the helm and a offseason star recruit manning the post, Charlotte looked like an entirely different team than in years past.
After finishing last season ranked 29th in points against (102.7) and dead last in defensive efficiency (111.5), the Bobcats reinvented themselves as one of the stingiest defensive units in the league, ending the season fourth-best for points allowed (97.1) and with the fifth-best defensive efficiency (103.8).
And while their offence did not vastly improve – 28th for offensive rating in 2012-13 (93.4) to 24th in 2013-14 (96.9) – Charlotte’s newfound ability to shut down opponents allowed them to grind out ‘ugly’ wins they never could in recent seasons.
Offseason acquisition Al Jefferson was the team’s brightest star, but former lottery picks Kemba Walker (ninth overall in 2011) and Gerald Henderson (12th overall in 2009) provided plenty of support for their new running mate.
Walker finished the season averaging 17.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists (14th in the league and a career-high) per game. Meanwhile, Henderson provided an excellent third option on offence, averaging 14.0 points and 4.0 rebounds for the year.
Versatile big man Josh McRoberts’ statistics wont jump off the page at you (although, he might jump over your centre if they’re slow to rotate) – 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists (second to only Kevin Love for assists from the power forward position) – but he was the perfect glue guy on a team of offensive-minded players.
McRoberts’ ability to stretch the floor, knocking down 36.1% (10th amongst power forwards) from beyond the arc, also made life easier for Jefferson in the low post.
Former second overall draft pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (7.2 points and 5.2 rebounds) had another indifferent season, but he did show flashes of the defensive potential that saw him selected so high in 2012.
Reserve forwards Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts gave Charlotte role player depth they haven’t enjoyed in years.
Tolliver (6.1 points) was an excellent floor-spreading option, hitting 41.3% (13th in the league) of his attempts from deep, while Douglas-Roberts (6.9 points) was always solid when called upon.
The jury is still out on developing youngsters Cody Zeller (6.0 points and 4.3 rebounds) and Bismack Biyombo (2.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks), but they’re both still only 21 years old.
Meanwhile, trade deadline acquirement Gary Neal provided some much-needed scoring punch for Charlotte’s lacking offence, averaging 11.2 points through his 22 games with the team.
Most Valuable Player
The aforementioned Jefferson was the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround in Charlotte, far exceeding expectations and having one of his best seasons in recent years.
After a successful, but unexceptional stint with the Utah Jazz, Jefferson was back to his dominant best in his first season with the Bobcats – reminiscent of his early days with the Timberwolves, where he was a double-double machine.
He finished the season averaging an impressive 21.8 points (11th in the league), 10.8 rebounds (eighth) and 1.1 blocks per game.
Jefferson was also one of the league’s most efficient scorers, hitting 50.9% of his shot attempts (his best output since the 2006-07 season) and finishing the year ranked 12th for Player Efficiency Rating – higher than the likes of the finals bound Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan.
Early-season injuries and the play of Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert kept him off the All-Star team, but Jefferson stormed home, averaging 25.0 points on 53.4% from the floor and 11.6 rebounds over his last 42 games, earning him a deserved selection to the All-NBA Third Team.
Before the season, many people (including myself) questioned why Jefferson chose to sign with a stagnant Bobcats team, but after all the dust has settled, it is clear to see why Charlotte chose to sign Big Al.
Charlotte hit the jackpot in new head coach Steve Clifford.
Many would have laughed at the suggestion that the first-year head coach could turn the notoriously poor Bobcats into a top-5 defensive team and have them playoff bound, but that is exactly what he did.
After 14 years as an assistant coach in the NBA, spending time with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, Clifford stepped into the Bobcats hot seat and led them to just their second playoff appearance in the Bobcat era.
Clifford’s winning percentage of 52.4% also makes him the most successful coach in Bobcats-era history – even better than the legendary Larry Brown.
Sideline stability is something the Bobcats had been desperately lacking in recent seasons, going through four coaches in the past three seasons, but Clifford looks like he is here to stay.
First of all, the Charlotte Hornets are back!
After New Orleans took on their new moniker, Michael Jordan and Co. capitalised on the opportunity and brought the Hornet name back to where it all began.
It might not have a huge impact on the court, but there is a plenty of nostalgia surrounding everyone’s second-favourite team from the early 90s and it is great for the league.
It is a great move for Charlotte to rid themselves of the failures of the Bobcats, even if only in name.
Charlotte were one of the few teams excited by Cleveland capitalising on it’s 1.7% chance to win the draft lottery.
In 2012, Charlotte agreed to take on the contract of Ben Gordon in exchange for Corey Maggette’s sooner expiring deal. Detroit sweetened the deal by adding a future first-round pick. In 2014, that pick was top-8 protected and with the Pistons sitting eighth on the predicted draft board all looked well in Motor City.
However, with the ninth-placed Cavaliers leaping to first overall, the ninth overall pick fell into the hands of the Bobcats.
Many thought Charlotte were destined to add Creighton sharpshooter Doug McDermott, but with Indiana’s Noah Vonleh falling into their laps, the Hornets jumped at the chance to add the lengthy, stretch four.
Vonleh’s physical measurements – 6’9″, with a 7’4″ wingspan and enormous hands – combined with his explosive vertical project him as an elite rim protector at the NBA level – Vonleh averaged 2.1 blocks per 40 minutes with the Hoosiers.
Meanwhile, with Jefferson already occupying the low block, Vonleh’s ability to spread the floor – 52.3% from the floor and 48.5% from downtown – make him the perfect complimentary piece to an improving Hornets offence. Vonleh is also a fantastic rebounder, averaging 9.0 boards in just 26.5 minutes per game in his freshman season.
He is still just 18 years old, and his basketball IQ is still developing, but Vonleh was a talent that Charlotte could not afford to overlook on draft night.
Meanwhile, the Hornets also added some much-needed wing scoring in PJ Hairtson, nabbing the former North Carolina product with the 26th pick (making him the first player to be drafted in the first round out of the D-League), after sending Shabazz Napier (pick 24) to the Heat.
Hairston is a flat out scorer – he averaged 22.0 points per 40 minutes in his two years with the Tar Heels and put up 21.8 per night in his lone season with the Texas Legends – and will a three-point threat from day one – 39.6% from deep in his sophomore season at North Carolina and 35.8% with the Legends.
He does have a history of character issues, hence the switch from college ball to the D-League, but if those problems are behind him, Hairston could prove to be one of the steals of the draft.
Charlotte will also have some room to move under the salary cap in the offseason. After shedding the contracts of Gordon, Luke Ridnour and Jannero Pargo, Charlotte will have approximately $18 million in cap space to play with.
They need to decide if Tolliver is worth bringing back and will have up to three rookie contracts to work into their calculations, but there is still plenty of room for roster improvement in the offseason.
The new-come Hornets are in desperate need of an injection of offence and there are plenty of free agent options they could chase. If Rudy Gay opts out of his deal in Sacramento, do not be surprised if Charlotte are in the mix to sign him.
Likewise, the enigmatic Lance Stephenson could be an option, but he will likely be harder to pry away from Indiana, even if he is an unrestricted free agent.
With Jefferson and Walker occupying the point and pivot, a move for any type of wing player is a must. If they cannot pry the aforementioned free agents away, there will still be the likes of Gordon Hayward, Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza or even Paul Pierce to entertain with a contract offer.
The Charlotte Bobcats ended the 2013-14 looking like a completely different team and now after a slick name switch they will enter the next looking literally different.
The Hornets are back and their a happy days ahead in Charlotte!
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