Michael Jordan hasn't been able to experience playoff basketball since he made his final shot against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals—not with the Washington Wizards and not since he became the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats in February of 2010. His tenure as the owner has been marked by questionable decisions, unfortunate occurrences and, above all else, lots of losses.
But that's all in the past now, as MJ finally has this beleaguered franchise headed down the right path. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, or whatever other travel-based cliche you'd like to use.
The playoff drought will end in the near future. If not at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, the Bobcats will almost certainly advance past the 82nd game in 2014-15.
The Charlotte Bobcats, the NBA's most recently added franchise, has made the postseason only once since debuting in 2004. Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton led the squad into the first round in 2009-10, eventually getting swept by the Orlando Magic.
And since then, futility has reigned supreme.
The Bobcats took a step backward in 2010-11, firing Larry Brown midway through the season and falling back below .500. Then in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, the team posted the worst winning percentage for a single season in NBA history. Last year wasn't much better.
But 2013-14 has been. All of a sudden, Charlotte is on the right track.
Building a Good Thing
The Bobcats are planning to change their name to the Charlotte Hornets at the end of the current season, but perhaps that's a mistake.
I'd like to suggest the Charlotte Big Red Dogs instead.
After all, the turnaround can be largely credited to Steve Clifford, a man Jordan endorsed heavily before he ever stepped foot on the sidelines of Time Warner Cable Arena. Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap both failed to make much of an impact, but Jordan had confidence in his newest hire.
As he should.
Here's what the majority owner had to say to The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell in October:
I’m so happy about Steve. He’s a very professional guy. Professional in a way that the players can respond. He’s worked with some very good programs. I’ve watched him with the players. He has the right patience and rapport—he knows how to position himself with the players.
That’s a big move for us because no matter how we spend on players, it starts with the coach...
Clifford has sparked an incredible defensive turnaround for this up-and-coming squad, although the unit is slowly coming back to Earth after a scorching start to the season. Advocating a focus on transition defense and a paint-packing scheme that's heavily influenced by Tim Thibodeau's work in Chicago, the first-year head coach has all of his players buying into his system.
As B/R's Grant Hughes wrote, "He's not a member of the old guard who shies away from numbers. On the contrary, Clifford is a coach who understands that ignoring new methods of evaluation is the quickest way to put a team at a disadvantage."
Charlotte has taken a monumental leap forward on the defensive end, and that's despite the signing of Al Jefferson, a player with a reputation for acting like a sieve. Even after a five-game losing streak that has been filled with more porous defense than normal, the Bobcats are still boasting an elite point-stopping unit.
Charlotte is allowing just 95.6 points per game, a number topped by only the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. That said, Clifford's 'Cats play with one of the slower paces in the league, so the mark has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Basketball-Reference shows that Charlotte is allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions, giving the team the No. 6 defensive rating in the league:
- Indiana Pacers, 95.7
- Chicago Bulls, 100.3
- Oklahoma City Thunder, 100.6
- Golden State Warriors, 101.1
- San Antonio Spurs, 101.6
- Charlotte Bobcats, 102.3
Not only is the team already in the elite category—a massive improvement from last year's league-worst 111.5 defensive rating—but the 'Cats have potential to move up even higher in the rankings. They spent a significant portion of the still-young season at No. 2, after all.
In fact, take a look at the across-the-board improvements in rank for the four categories that often lead to defensive success (effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, defensive rebound percentage and free throws per field-goal attempt) as well as the overall product:
Even though the rank hasn't changed, the Bobcats have made a slight improvement when it comes to sending opponents to the line. They've also gone from the penultimate spot to the top rung in defensive rebounding and have started forcing more turnovers and holding opponents to a much lower shooting percentage.
Again, this is with Al "Sometimes I Want to Hang Out on the Left Block Even on Defense" Jefferson in the lineup, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist having missed time with a broken hand.
The Bobcats aren't currently one of the best teams in the NBA. They may make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference, but that doesn't make them legitimate contenders. That won't happen until they shore up the offense and add a few more pieces.
But Charlotte is building a good thing.
Under Clifford, the team has found an identity, and it's milking that defense for all it's worth. That will continue into the future as the team gets stronger. The path is now clear.
Getting Better in the Future
This isn't about this season.
Sure, the Bobcats might get even better as the young players continue blossoming throughout the 2013-14 campaign, especially when MKG returns to the lineup and keeps improving his skills during his sophomore season.
But the future is even brighter.
There are typically four ways that a team can improve: internal development, trades, free agency and the draft. We're not going to worry about trades here, as they happen relatively infrequently in the NBA and are far too unpredictable to count on with any confidence.
But the Bobcats can rely on each of the other three.
First, this is an extremely young team, one brimming with untapped potential that will continue to be gleaned in the coming seasons. While Charlotte has many veteran backups who push up the team's average age, many of the current contributors are young. In fact, let's take a look at all the rotation members who fall into the category:
- Kemba Walker, 23
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 20
- Jeff Taylor, 24
- Bismack Biyombo, 21
- Cody Zeller, 21
Gerald Henderson (26) and Jefferson (29) are still young enough to be part of the team's long-term plans, and you could make an argument that Josh McRoberts, 26 (even though it feels like he's been around forever), qualifies too.
Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, Biyombo and Zeller still have lots of room for improvement, and Jefferson is already a borderline star. That's a great core, and it's only going to get better by adding new players.
Charlotte established legitimacy when it scored one of the bigger free agents in the 2013 offseason. Signing Jefferson to a multi-year deal wasn't universally perceived as a strong move at the time, as the Bobcats were generally thought to be tanking, but it still made the league take notice.
For the first time in a while, the 'Cats could steal away a quality player.
Right after the Fourth of July signing, I wrote the following:
You can count me among those who laughed at the Jefferson-to-Charlotte rumors, thinking that not even a max contract could tempt the big man into joining the perennial bottom-feeders. I'm not ashamed to admit that.
The signing of Jefferson is a great way to tell the rest of the Association that this franchise is no longer content with being a laughingstock. Even if it costs them Wiggins, the Bobcats will no longer finish with the worst record in the NBA, nor will they come too close.
Kemba and Big Al will form a dynamic inside-outside offensive duo, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist showed signs of a future breakout during his rookie season. If Charlotte either brings back Gerald Henderson or adds one more quality piece, this could be a sneaky, solid team.
I stand by all of it.
The Bobcats certainly aren't going to be content to sit near the bottom of the league, and they now have the cap room to make a few more big signings in the near future.
Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon are both coming off the books at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, and Brendan Haywood has an eight-figure salary that's not guaranteed. That frees up a lot of space for general manager Rich Cho to play around with. In fact, the 'Cats could pick up all options and enter the offseason with only $41.6 million committed, according to ShamSports.com.
There's room to add another star, and between the improvements this year and the precedent started by signing Jefferson, it could happen.
Of course, Charlotte could also add a star through the draft.
If the team falls back out of the playoff picture, it'll keep its own pick instead of handing it over to the Chicago Bulls. That first-round pick is protected for any Charlotte selection that ends up in the top 10 overall.
While the status of that selection is still up in the air, it seems almost certain the Bobcats will be receiving 2014 first-round picks from both the Portland Trail Blazers (top 12 protected) and Detroit Pistons (top eight protected).
This 2014 class is a deep one, and there's legitimate star power past the lottery. With two—and potentially three—shots at finding a premier talent, the 'Cats are in even better shape.
All this adds up to one very important thing for the NBA: a return to relevancy for MJ's team.
Where will the Bobcats/Hornets be in 2014-15?
The greatest basketball player of all time is an important commodity for the league—even if he's no longer playing basketball. If he's in charge of a contending team, that's a huge positive, especially as he's been lambasted for his decision-making and lack of involvement in recent years.
Casual fans will care about the Bobcats because of the Jordan element. More hardcore fans will care because the team is actually good. Charlotte fans will just be overjoyed that the team is finally relevant.
It's too soon to suggest that Jordan will add to his massive ring collection, but one thing is certain.
Even if the name will soon cease to exist, much like the woes that have plagued them over the years, the future is looking awfully bright for the Bobcats.