The Charlotte Bobcats have passed the stage where every fan in the country anxiously waits for the team's inevitable swoon to start. At 30-34, it is understood now that these pesky Bobcats are not going away and will most definitely not be a fun matchup in the postseason.
An enormous amount of credit has to be awarded to first-year coach Steve Clifford for guiding this team out of the gutter and into the playoffs (knock on wood). He managed them past the time when it was all too easy for them to just pack it in and crash full speed into the proverbial brick wall.
That time showed up two years ago during the astonishingly terrible 7-59 season, and it came last year as well, albeit a bit later when Charlotte followed up a spirited 7-5 start with a demoralizing 18-game losing streak that closed the casket on its season prematurely.
Thanks to Clifford, when Jeff Taylor ruptured his Achilles shortly after Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a broken hand and nobody else was truly asserting themselves, he got them over that hump. The most trying moments of this season made Charlotte better instead of burying them, and there are a handful of players most responsible for that.
Coaches are great and all, but they are not the ones on the court. This ship would not have been righted without guys stepping up and making some marked improvements. Some were predictable, like Al Jefferson's resurgence as the undeniable centerpiece of an offense, but others came as much more of a surprise.
Anthony Tolliver has been little more than an NBA journeyman willing to do whatever it takes to latch onto a franchise and help in any way possible.
During his first year in Charlotte, he may have finally found his niche by reinventing himself.
Tolliver has gone from an energy guy who can rebound and defend in spurts to a lethal sharpshooter off the bench. He has already nailed a career-high 88 threes this year, nearly double his previous career best of 50.
Charlotte ranks in the bottom third of the league in both three-point percentage and total threes made. Because of that, Tolliver has been even more valuable, as he leads the team in both categories with a 41.5 percent success rate from deep.
Tolliver has also kept his defense in tact, and Coach Clifford has his back on that one. There is an overwhelming sentiment across the league that Charlotte is bad at defense due to Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James torching them for 60-plus points apiece recently, but the Bobcats are fifth in points allowed at 97.4 a night.
According to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer, Clifford shouldered all of the blame for LeBron's outburst. Tolliver and MKG did all they could, but sometimes you just have to tip your hat to greatness. It's not like LeBron didn't predict that game anyway.
"He's a phenomenal player who had a phenomenal night. I just don't want people saying it was the players' fault. They actually did a good job," said Clifford.
Hear that, Tolliver? It's not your fault.
The lovable McBob was supposed to be an afterthought this year. Charlotte was supposed to slot youngsters Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller right alongside the newly acquired Jefferson to form a perfect two-way frontcourt.
Except that never happened. McRoberts forced Clifford's hand by showing the type of poise and basketball instincts that the young guys simply do not have yet. McRoberts is the Swiss army knife that Clifford needs, able to do every little thing that behooves so many young players on the roster.
McRoberts can score when he has to in a variety of ways. He has made an uncharacteristic 37.5 percent of his threes for a team that struggles to shoot from the outside. He is averaging 4.1 assists, over double his career average, for a team that struggles to move the ball. Better yet, he racks up those assists while averaging just one turnover.
McBob has also missed just one game this year, starting every other one of them. He is second on the team in rebounding, threes and assists while ranking first by a large margin in assist-to-turnover ratio.
If and when Charlotte wraps up a playoff berth, pundits will give all the credit to the marquee guys. The fact is that no team makes the playoffs without at least one guy stepping up and performing well beyond his means.
McRoberts' season has gotten so little recognition around the league that it is hard to believe, but that is just the type of player he is. Charlotte would be nowhere without him.
It has been an up and down third year for Kemba Walker, but while his numbers remain similar to last season, his performance is not.
It is obvious when watching the team that Walker has assumed the role of budding young star. He has meshed very well with Jefferson and become an assassin late in games. He has stopped trying to do too much on both ends of the floor, a testament to his developing game.
Walker had a lengthy shooting slump early in the season, an issue that has resurfaced over the past month since his return from a sprained ankle. He truly made his mark during the middle of the year when seemingly every perimeter player was out with injury. His elevated play throughout December and January is what kept this team from completely falling off a cliff.
Clifford has demanded a lot from Walker, and he has responded. He has shown a propensity to get his teammates involved when his shot isn't falling instead of simply forcing it, and he has played much more sound defense as opposed to bailing out for steals.
It is pleasant to see a Michael Jordan draft pick actually developing before our eyes like he planned. Walker is only going to continue to get better and is just the type of guy to excel in the postseason. We already saw what kind of magic he can have in college when he led a surprising UConn team to a national championship.
Don't go planning the parade just yet, but just understand that Charlotte is in good hands with Kemba running the show.