The Charlotte Bobcats have been associated with losing and just about nothing else over the last few years, but that's starting to change.
Al Jefferson is behind the push, as he continues to dominate on offense while steering the 'Cats into one of the eight coveted playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. There's still plenty of work to be done and no guarantee of a successful venture into the postseason, but the very fact that we're talking about something beyond the regular season is a step in the right direction.
A losing stench has pervaded the Charlotte air for season after season. Losing is the status quo, and it's created an unfortunate culture that leads to, well, more losing.
But Jefferson has had enough of that.
He's starting to reverse that culture, and it's a change that should last for a long time.
Absolute Individual Dominance
Jefferson is just playing out of his mind right now.
Over his last five games, Big Al is averaging an insane 29.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks. But it gets even more impressive, because he's shooting 52.1 percent from the field while serving as the clear-cut No. 1 offensive option.
Oh, and those averages include an aberration of a performance.
On Feb. 1, Jefferson took on the Phoenix Suns and struggled his way to just 10 points and six rebounds on 4-of-15 shooting. And he's still posting those per-game averages mentioned above.
Over the last 10 games, Al-Jeff ranks 5th in PPG (27.0), 6th in RPG (12.9). His 21.6% PIE (Player Impact Estimate) ranks 2nd to KD (23.5%)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) February 5, 2014
Al Jefferson is the most underrated NBA player of his generation. (Since 2004)— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) February 5, 2014
Jefferson has become the centerpiece of the Charlotte offense in every way possible. He's setting himself up on that left block and going to work, but he's also made Steve Clifford come up with quite a few plays that give him the ability to move to that same sweet spot.
I attended the Bobcats-Nuggets game and had trouble taking my eyes off Jefferson whenever Charlotte had the ball. Every play seemed designed to get him possession on the blocks, and there was nothing Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov, J.J. Hickson or anyone else could do to prevent him from converting once he got it there.
Just take a look at that highlight reel and try to avoid having your jaw leave a dent in the floor.
What was the defensive strategy on Al Jefferson? "Hold him to under 50" D'Antoni said.— janis carr (@janiscarr) February 1, 2014
If anything, Jefferson is playing like an All-Star. Lance Stephenson and Arron Afflalo were bigger snubs in the Eastern Conference, but the big man's name certainly belongs in the same category. Here's what B/R's Josh Martin had to say after Big Al's domination of the Lakers on Jan. 31:
If there was any All-Star to be found in the building on this night, it was Al Jefferson. The Bobcats big man, who was "snubbed" out of a spot on the Eastern Conference squad, tied his career high with 40 points and, with his game-high 18 rebounds, sealed his third straight 30-10 performance.
But he's not an All-Star, even if his numbers point toward him deserving such an honor. It's a shame really, if only because this beleaguered franchise has had so few selections throughout its short history. In fact, Gerald Wallace, who made the All-Star squad in 2009-10, is the only player to receive that nomination.
And let's compare those seasons, per Basketball-Reference:
|Jefferson in 2013-14||19.9||10.6||2.1||1.0||1.2||48.6||21.9|
|Wallace in 2009-10||18.2||10.0||2.1||1.5||1.1||48.4||18.3|
Jefferson is quite clearly superior, though Crash's defense deserves some credit. That said, the big man has been playing better than ever before on the less-glamorous end and actually has a lower defensive rating than Wallace posted in '09-10.
There's a serious case to be made for Jefferson having the single greatest season in the 10-year history.
Stephen Jackson is the only player to average more points per game as a Bobcat. Only Emeka Okafor beats him in the rebounds-per-contest category, according to Basketball-Reference.
But it's not just about what he's done as an individual.
It's been a long time since the Bobcats have been able to advance to the postseason.
In fact, the team has managed to do so only once in its decade of existence. The 2009-10 squad, led by Wallace, went 44-38, earning a playoff spot before being swept out of contention by the Orlando Magic. Yes, that means that the Bobcats have literally never won a game after the regular season.
That season also stands out in one more way, as it's the only time the 'Cats have ever earned a winning record.
But both those ignominious bits of history have potential to be erased during the 2013-14 campaign.
Steve Clifford & Al Jefferson have #Bobcats at least respectable, which is a monumental shift from all previous seasons. Been cool to watch.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) February 5, 2014
The Bobcats are currently 22-28, which leaves them within striking distance of an above-.500 record. More importantly, they sit at No. 8 in the Eastern Conference standings, 1.5 games ahead of the Detroit Pistons in the race for the final spot in the postseason festivities.
So long as Jefferson keeps playing this way, Charlotte should be considered the favorites to maintain its spot. Especially because the Chicago Bulls should eventually fall off the pace they're currently on, as Tom Thibodeau has done a fantastic—and probably unsustainable—job maximizing talent.
Jefferson has even admitted this is his goal, not making an All-Star squad.
"I've been disappointed by All-Star Games for years. I've stopped listening to the hype," the center told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "I know what I can do and my goal is to get Charlotte to one of those elite teams in the East. Into the playoffs."
But what if the Bobcats make a trade? What if one of the many young players breaks out after the All-Star break?
Then there's an even better chance of Jefferson meeting his goal.
There are so many reasons to expect more improvement from this rising squad, and it's already looking good from a statistical standpoint. Basketball-Reference shows that while Jefferson and Co. only score 100.6 points per 100 possessions (which is actually an improvement from the past), the team is allowing just 103.3 over the same stretch.
That gives the team the No. 6 defensive rating in basketball, which is enough to keep them afloat. And believe it or not, that negative discrepancy isn't too bad in the Eastern Conference. This is the same conference in which only four squads have outscored their opponents over the course of the 2013-14 season.
"Playoffs" and "Bobcats" are words that haven't typically belonged in the same sentence. That's changing, and thanks to Jefferson that will only get more obvious in the future.
The Bobcats have had a promising future for a little while now. Except that they're, you know, the Bobcats.
With plenty of young and promising pieces (Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeff Taylor and Cody Zeller), the 'Cats could make absolutely no moves in the near future and still get better. They only become more promising when you remember that while they give up their own pick to the Bulls if they make the playoffs, they gain picks from the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons if things go according to plan.
The former is protected through No. 12, and the latter will be retained by Motor City if it falls in the first eight selections. Therefore, Portland's seems guaranteed to change hands, and the Detroit pick would go to Charlotte right now, as the Pistons have the 10th-worst record in the NBA.
Picking up an extra pick would certainly be nice, but it's free agency that could suddenly be most promising.
In the past, no one wanted to come to Charlotte. It was a place where NBA careers went to die, as a losing culture trumped everything else. But that changed when Jefferson signed with the 'Cats.
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.
But more importantly, it makes them relevant. The Bobcats can't immediately be dismissed if we hear their name linked to an elite free agent.
It's a strange word to use with the Bobcats, but that's the situation that Jefferson created. Not just by signing with the team, but by joining forces with the rest of Charlotte's youthful squad, dominating as an individual and leading it into playoff contention.
Let's revisit the first two sentences of this section: "The Bobcats have had a promising future for a little while now. Except that they're, you know, the Bobcats."
The second one no longer applies, and the credit goes largely to Big Al. Perhaps in the future, another player can help shake the reputation to an even greater extent.
ShamSports.com shows that the 'Cats have $41,593,280 committed for the 2014-15 season, thanks to the contracts of Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and a few others coming off the books. They'll have enough money to be in play for a marquee guy.
Will the Bobcats make the playoffs this year?
In the past that would've been irrelevant information.
But not anymore.
I would say these aren't your parents' Bobcats, but that's not exactly accurate. If you're old enough to be reading this article, chances are your parents were around long before the 'Cats entered the NBA.
So instead, let's just say these aren't the Bobcats that went 7-59 during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
Far from it.