How Long Will It Take for Charlotte Bobcats to Become a Legit Playoff Contender?

Justin HussongContributor IIIDecember 30, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Bobcats drives baseline against the Atlanta Hawks on December 28, 2013 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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While an early-season run of hard-nosed defensive basketball has planted the Charlotte Bobcats in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, fans and analysts will not be enamored with complacency and mediocrity.

Sometimes it hurts to asks the tough questions, so here's one.

For the long-term state of the Bobcats, are they better off landing another lottery pick in a stacked 2014 draft or getting thrown to the wolves as a likely first-round appetizer for the Indiana Pacers or two-time defending champion Miami Heat?

Sure, it would be nice for a young squad to to get a quick taste of the playoffs and get their feet wet, but absence can make the heart grow fonder. It's not as if the playoffs are a sure thing at 14-17, even in the lowly East.

Teams like New York, Brooklyn and Chicago are all on the outside looking in right now and it would be shocking to see all three fail to make a move up the standings.

The improved play on the court has shown that the organization is clearly on the right track, but how close are the Bobcats to becoming a true threat?


What They Have

Dec 1, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) reacts behind Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson (25) and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) in the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 99-98. Mandatory Cred
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte is sitting in an enviable position at the moment. Michael Jordan has loaded up his roster with a bona fide go-to scorer on the low block with Al Jefferson, something the team has been lacking forever. The team has an established young point guard who is constantly improving in Kemba Walker.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also looks to be a dominant shutdown defender at the small forward position at the age of 20.

Additionally, it is still very much up in the air what Charlotte will get out of its two other recent lottery picks. Rookie Cody Zeller was taken No. 4 in this past draft and has struggled to adapt. If he reaches his potential, he projects to be an athletic stretch 4 with a fairly high ceiling.

Fellow top pick Bismack Biyombo still looks raw as ever in his third season after being drafted seventh overall. At the least, he was presumed to turn into a defensive stopper with limited offensive upside. He is still only 21 and has plenty of room for improvement.

Currently, Charlotte has a number of interchangeable role players who have done an inspiring job so far this season. Guys like Ramon Sessions, Josh McRoberts and Jeff Taylor have played big parts in their success.

The question there is, will these players be around long enough to contribute to the first great Bobcats team?


What They Need

Dec 28, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks power forward Paul Millsap (4) defends Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson (25) during the fourth quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Scoring. Plain and simple.

The NBA has been a league run by superstar wing players since the 1970s. While Kemba Walker is turning into a very nice scoring threat, he is not the answer. Al Jefferson is one of the top five offensive centers in basketball, but he too is not the answer.

This team needs a go-to wing scorer to counteract guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.

It is a good starting spot that the Bobcats have MKG to slow those players down, but Kidd-Gilchrist is most certainly not going to be scoring 20-plus points per game at any point in his career.

Charlotte needs to strike gold. It will have up to three first-round draft picks in 2014 depending on how the season unfolds. Currently, it looks as if the club will obtain a pick each from Portland and Detroit since they are both playing well.

The Bobcats hang on to their own pick provided it lands inside the top 10, so for that to happen, they would have to lose some games moving forward.

Three first-rounders will not help them. Their best course of action would be to package them together to move up and land one of the elite prospects. Charlotte has the complementary pieces in place to contend, but now it just needs the cornerstone.

The Bobcats do not need to come out of this draft with Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. MKG has already shown he can be a foundational player at small forward.

The ideal scenario might be to trade up into the fifth-to-10th range and draft either a Marcus Smart or Dante Exum. Both have elite superstar potential and would fit like a glove with the current regime.

We all know that Charlotte is not high on the list of desired free-agent destinations. It was fortunate enough to land a star like Al Jefferson and, even then, it had to overpay for his services.

To become even a middling playoff contender, it is clear as day that the team needs one dominant, young player who can be penciled in to score 20 points on any given night.


How Long Will It Take?

Dec 27, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats center Cody Zeller (40) shoots the ball over Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) during the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Thunder defeated the Bobcats 89-85. Mandatory Credit: Je
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Bobcats have the odds stacked perennially against them by being in a small market and devoid of any superstar talent. They have gotten the short end of the stick time and again in draft lotteries.

One tiny bounce of the ping pong ball could have seen Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis or Kyrie Irving playing for Charlotte right now, but instead the team is stuck with secondary players.

In this league, you need a superstar to get it done nine times out of 10. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons were the exception to that rule in recent memory, and they did it with a perfect combination of borderline stars and elite defense.

The Bobcats have shown they can play some serious defense, but Jefferson and Biyombo are not Ben and Rasheed Wallace. This roster needs its superstar, as it is built very well to accommodate one.

Smart or Exum would fit in seamlessly at the shooting guard position. Gerald Henderson is a nice, athletic talent, but he is not the elite scorer this team needs on the wing to complement MKG. A great scorer will most assuredly help propel Walker to the next level as well.

Right now, a realistic timetable is two years. It would be a lot to ask of a rookie to come in and immediately turn the team completely around, but if he pans out, it could definitely pay off in two years.

The problem is that Jefferson's contract will be up at that time, so Charlotte needs to act fast and truly get this plan into motion if it is to be a contender in two years. At that point, Jefferson may be more than inclined to re-up with the Bobcats if they have a dominant scorer to pair with him.