With over half the season gone by, the Charlotte Bobcats are 18-25. That record may not be anything special, but after winning only 21 games last year, this is a clear sign of progress.
There are no title aspirations in Charlotte, but that doesn't mean that the Bobcats are following in the footsteps of so many of their Eastern Conference counterparts, tanking the season in hopes of landing a top draft pick.
They have been too bad for too long to spend any more time losing—or at least losing at an extreme clip. So far, the 2013-14 team's relative success should lead to incredibly cautious optimism.
Although there are far more questions than answers right now in Charlotte, a few things have become clear through 43 games.
While the perception around the country is that the Bobcats are playing better than expected, some (including myself) saw this as a fairly complete roster. In a weak Eastern Conference, a close-to .500 record and the No. 7 or No. 8 seed seemed attainable.
Given that, the team's 18-25 record is not all that impressive. But that should be attributed to some underwhelming performances more than to Steve Clifford's coaching.
Clifford has Charlotte playing strong defense, something that this roster did not appear capable of doing. The Bobcats protect the rim (eighth in the NBA with 217 blocks), contest shots (seventh in opponent field-goal percentage), avoid fouling (sixth in fouls per field-goal attempts) and control the glass (No. 2 in defensive-rebounding rate).
The Bobcats do this by packing the paint, and it does lead to tons of open threes (No. 28 in threes against and No. 28 in three-point percentage against). This is an acceptable sacrifice, however, as the team possesses league's seventh-best defensive rating (103.4).
The offense is incredibly inefficient, but that can be expected from a team whose best passer is Josh McRoberts, best shooter is Anthony Tolliver and is awful from the charity stripe (73.1 percent, No. 23 in league).
What Clifford can control is offensive habits. Considering that Charlotte takes care of the ball (fourth-fewest turnovers in NBA) and gets to the line (fifth-most free throws made in NBA), he cannot be blamed for a poor offense the same way he can be credited with a stout defense.
Clifford has the Bobcats playing smart basketball on both ends of the floor, yet they struggle to win with any consistency in the Eastern Conference.
This is primarily due to a roster that owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho have failed to improve despite perennial lottery picks.
While their 2011 haul of Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker cannot be criticized considering the weakness of that draft, the selection Michael Kidd-Gilchrist the following season was a monumental blunder.
Kidd-Gilchrist has predictably struggled in Charlotte, as the young small forward has confirmed what most scouts thought entering the draft: He is a strong defender, a limited offensive player and ultimately a complementary piece.
The Bobcats—a team that has been looking for a scorer for years—passed on Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters and Harrison Barnes.
In 2013, Cho and company again defied what was commonly believed and took a low-ceiling player in Cody Zeller. As the team struggles mightily on offense this season, it would be nice to have Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Trey Burke or Michael Carter-Williams.
Meanwhile, Zeller is shooting 37.4 percent from the field and has lost minutes to Jeff Adrien at times.
Cho may have missed on Cody Zeller, but he still vastly improved the Charlotte frontcourt over the offseason.
Al Jefferson was brought in first and foremost to give the Bobcats an elite low-post scorer, and he has been just that, averaging 18.2 points while working on the block. His field-goal percentage of 47.4 is the worst of his career, but this is due to consistent double-teams that come as a result of a lack of shooters or a capable scoring big on the weak side.
Many questioned the Jefferson signing, as his defensive abilities were considered limited. Thus far, "Big Al's" paint protection has actually outdone his paint scoring.
Jefferson uses his 265-pound frame to keep opposing bigs away from the rim, and his defensive rating is better than anyone else on the team, including the defensive-specialist Biyombo. He is also sixth in the league in defensive rebounding (8.2 per game) and averages over a steal and a block each night.
The once-perceived "offense only" big man is anchoring one of the better defenses in the league while still delivering the all-world post scoring that he is being paid upwards of $13 million for.
Currently, the Bobcats are tied with the underachieving Detroit Pistons for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
That being said, the Bobcats are still one of the eight best teams in the conference.
Walker is having a strong season, posting career highs in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and three-point shooting. Gerald Henderson has struggled to shoot the ball, but his ability to attack and defend make him one of the better shooting guards in the East.
McRoberts, Biyombo, Adrien, Tolliver and Ramon Sessions have been strong in their roles, and Jefferson has been a stud.
Clifford has the team playing excellent defense and smart offense, and the poor play of Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor can be somewhat attributed to sophomore slumps.
Whether or not the Cats make the 2014 playoffs, they do have one of the top eight teams in the East.
The problem, of course, is that the East is comically awful.
Even if the Bobcats make the playoffs, they still have to be viewed as a below-average team. The team lacks a single quality forward, struggles to shoot the ball and has gone 1-13 against winning teams.
Of course, an 18-25 record is enough to prove Charlotte is not a winning team, but more telling is its lack of any winning stretches. The team has had one three-game winning streak and three sets of consecutive wins.
Other than that, there have been scattered wins and consistent losses. The Bobcats have lost two or more games in a row seven times this season, and they have had only a 10-game stretch with a winning record (6-4). That leaves 33 10-game stretches in which they've gone 5-5 or worse.
The Bobcats are a much improved team, but that doesn't mean the franchise is not well on its way to its ninth losing season in 10 years of existence.