Questions are running rampant around the Charlotte Bobcats as of late, as they find themselves in the midst of another swoon following a hot start to the season. Just like last year.
At times, the Bobcats are the basketball equivalent of a chicken with its head cut off. Their aimlessness in years past has been disheartening, and this midseason stretch is going to go a long way towards affirming just how on track they really are.
Among their burning questions are things like: Can Kemba Walker lead this team? Were the early defensive efforts a flash in the pan? Are they better off tanking another year?
Those are all likely to play themselves out over the course of this year, but for now, we find ourselves wondering if the team needs to make a trade in order to ensure a playoff berth.
Absolutely, old sport. Absolutely.
The Stellar Defense is Sustainable...to an Extent
We have to chalk it up to Steve Clifford and commend him for instilling a deep appreciation for defense into his young Cats.
I do believe that the team's early defensive prowess was a bit of an aberration. Part of the recent downturn has been due to the absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is quickly becoming one of the biggest nuisances in basketball.
In 18 games with MKG on the court this season, Charlotte has given up 100 points only three times. Without him, they have surrendered over 100 10 times in 19 games. That stat is about as clear cut as you can ask.
This team should be having a team prayer to thank the basketball gods that MKG is set to make his return:
The majority of the credit for the change of tides on defense has to go to MKG and Clifford alone. Everyone else on the roster is average at best on the defensive end, but Clifford has been able to mask it due to his great energy and team defense philosophies.
So, what does that mean? Everyone else is expendable except for Kemba Walker.
Check out this insightful article by Chi Nwogu of Bsports.com about defense vs. offense in the playoffs. The old adage still holds that defense is the most sure-fire way to establish sustained success.
As long as MKG and Clifford are in place, it is a pretty safe bet that Charlotte will be at least middle-of-the-pack defensively. Since no one else on the roster is a defensive game-changer—and Walker is the only real offensive standout—what grand purpose do they serve?
Something must be changed, and there are assets to get a deal done. The proper pieces are in place for a good defensive team as long as Clifford and MKG remain, which brings us to the next point.
This Team Just Can't Score
There is only so much Clifford can do with this hand he was dealt. The Bobcats' roster right now in terms of offensive firepower probably equates to about a pair of queens, a hand which Clifford has turned into a three of a kind. It's not quite a royal flush, but that would be asking too much.
Usually if you are allowing the fifth-fewest points per game in the league, you will find yourself winning a bunch of games. In the 2009-10 season, Charlotte had the top ranked defense in the league, resulting in the franchise's only playoff berth.
Defense will only take you so far. Without multiple scoring threats, a team is dead in the water come playoff time.
Even though defense is a better barometer for success because it is crowd-proof and tougher to contain since it is played by a whole team, having one, two or even three legitimate scorers is the only way to get to the next level. Additionally, the complementary players must be able to hold their own offensively as well.
Charlotte will not be a great team until its stagnant offense can catch up to its now-menacing defense.
Let's look at a recent game against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 11. Charlotte's top three scorers—Walker, Al Jefferson and Gerald Henderson—combined for 79 points. That is about as much as you can expect out of any trio of offensive talents in the league.
The rest of the roster scored 18 points that night, and the Bobcats lost 103-97.
Charlotte's "Big Three" is not capable of that kind of scoring output on a regular basis, but on some nights they are able to at least overshadow how strikingly bad the rest of the roster is offensively. There is absolutely no offensive depth on this team, especially with the corpse of Ben Gordon rotting away on the bench.
This is the team's biggest problem, and will continue to be for the near future until some new personnel is brought in. The scoring problem is definitely not an internal fix because the firepower just is not there.
A trade is the only way to solve this issue, which brings us to our final point.
How Hard Are They Really Trying?
If the Bobcats were really trying to contend and make the playoffs this year, they would have swung a deal. It's that simple.
There was offense to be had on the market. J.R. Smith is giving Alex Rodriguez a run for his money for the title of "Most Hated Man in New York," but Charlotte continues to stand by idly.
Maybe J.R. isn't in their ballpark. I could understand not wanting to bring that kind of headache to a young team, but for comparison, I'd like to examine some recent moves on the NBA trade market.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been underperforming all year in the dismal Eastern Conference and decided to shake it up. They were behind the Bobcats in the standings, then they swung a deal that brought All-Star Luol Deng over from Chicago in exchange for Andrew Bynum's cap relief. That is a bold move for a team that could have easily packed it in.
The Cavs should be commended for avoiding a year of tanking, but even more credit should be given to the Sacramento Kings.
I do recall the cellar-dwelling Kings recently swinging a deal for Rudy Gay. Did you really wrap your head around who Toronto acquired in that deal? Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes.
Judging by that package, Charlotte could've likely brought Gay to town with a package of Ramon Sessions, Bismack Biyombo, Ben Gordon and one of its handful of first-rounders. Why not at least offer a phone call to gauge their interest?
That wasn't the only deal the Kings have made this year. Early on, they were looking like the laughingstock of the Western Conference and knew they had to shake things up.
2011 No. 2 pick Derrick Williams had been wearing out his welcome in Minnesota, stuck behind the double-double machine in Kevin Love and playing for a coach in Rick Adelman who was never particularly fond of him.
Sacramento acquired him straight up for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a player Minnesota wanted strictly to play some perimeter defense.
You're telling me Charlotte couldn't pony up some sort of deal like that for a 22-year-old, super athletic former No. 2 pick? He could've instantly given this team the shot in the arm they needed. All the Timberwolves wanted in return was an average perimeter defender, something Charlotte has a bevy of.
The Cavs and Kings pounced on moves that Charlotte never even considered. Worst of all, the Bobcats were widely rumored to be in the market for an offensive perimeter threat after MKG went down, but once again have stood pat.
If Charlotte is intent on making the playoffs now, the trade they need to make is right in front of them. They have been tied to Orlando's Arron Afflalo for quite a while, but continue to do nothing. Afflalo is having a career year for the Magic, averaging 20.8 points. He is a career 39 percent three-point shooter and is also an asset on the defensive end.
Orlando has no need for him with budding star Victor Oladipo waiting in the wings and the team currently in possession of the second-worst record in the NBA. Afflalo is also a very good defender. It is unquestionable how well he would fit in on this team and how perfectly he would be able to solve many of its issues.
Afflalo could very likely be had for some sort of package deal including players and picks, but certainly Charlotte would not have to sacrifice anything too big.
The fact that other below-average teams are wheeling and dealing coupled with how Charlotte is so hesitant to pull the trigger on an obviously beneficial Afflalo deal leads us to believe that they are definitely not concerned with making the playoffs this season.
They may not be fully tanking, but if they truly wanted to contend for the playoffs this year, they could easily do it. Obviously, that is just not the Bobcats' biggest concern at the time.