This year's Charlotte Bobcats are a sub-.500 team clinging to a low playoff seed in one of the weakest Eastern Conference races ever. And you know what? That's a hell of an achievement.
Two years removed from setting an NBA futility record with a 7-59 mark, the Bobcats are relevant again. What's more, their accomplishments this season might distinguish the current version of the Kitties as the best in franchise history.
Granted, Charlotte's past is a short one, but as it nears the end of the final year before assuming the colors and insignia of the Hornets, it's worth examining how this campaign stacks up against the others in team history.
First, though, we have to discuss the reasons behind the Bobcats' resurgence.
Keeping it Simple
There's nothing complicated about Charlotte's return to respectability.
First-year head coach Steve Clifford is a practical, hard-nosed leader. Forged in the Van Gundy crucible, he stresses defense, emphasizes accountability and understands the importance of building around high-character personnel.
He focuses on diligent work and has the Bobcats convinced that the details matter.
"The one thing that I learned from Jeff and Stan — that I felt was important — is that practice is a big deal. Shootaround is a big deal. Film session is a big deal. We talked about that," Clifford told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.
Clifford went on to tell Zillgitt how he put the onus of leadership on Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson right away, getting the former to join the team—but not play—in Summer League and the latter to report to training camp early.
Through an emphasis on basic defensive principles he pulled together from conversations with Tom Thibodeau and both Van Gundy brothers, Clifford has Charlotte's "D" playing extremely well. At present, it ranks sixth in the league.
That stopping power was evident in a March 14 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, as the 'Cats held Kevin Love without a point in the second half.
Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer recounted the feat:
And then the Charlotte Bobcats placed the Minnesota Timberwolves superstar in a deep freeze. Love went scoreless in the second half, missing his seven shots from the field, as the Bobcats extended their home winning streak to eight, 105-93.
Both Walker and Jefferson have bought into their new coach's overall philosophy. As a result, they're having terrific seasons. In fact, Jefferson got some special recognition recently:
Overall, Charlotte still has more losses than wins on the season, but it's been darn good since the All-Star break.
Plus, the Bobcats have already surpassed the combined win total of the previous two seasons. After needing two years to win 28 games, everybody's impressed by 33 victories with a month left to play.
The Bobcats have achieved a lot this year, but it might be too early to say they've earned the distinction as the best team in franchise history.
A Blast from the Recent Past
Charlotte's epic futility in recent seasons makes the concept of success seem like ancient history. However, it was just four years ago that Larry Brown led the Bobcats to the organization's only playoff berth.
Those 2009-10 'Cats relied on Brown's dictatorial style and the reckless abandon of both Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace to amass 44 wins.
That club's defense was even better than the one we've seen this year, ranking first in the entire league by allowing just 100.2 points per 100 possessions. In addition, the group led by Jackson and Wallace got all-around support from Boris Diaw, the vigor of a younger Raymond Felton and the defensive tenacity of Raja Bell.
As a result, that bunch is still the only team in franchise history to post a positive net rating (plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions). For reference, this year's Bobcats sit at minus-1.2.
In the end, Brown's Bobcats suffered a thorough 4-0 beating at the hands of Stan Van Gundy's Orlando Magic in the first round. The quick exit is probably why nobody remembers that team. It's important to note, though, that those 'Cats could have been even better.
Tyson Chandler played just 27 games while battling injuries that year. Imagine how stout the defense could have been with a healthy stud at center.
Ultimately, that team was a juggernaut on defense. Built around a veteran core and led by a still-engaged Hall of Fame coach, the Bobcats were legitimately good. The 2013-14 Bobcats would have to finish the season 11-3 to match the overall record the 2009-10 team achieved.
That's certainly possible, but not likely.
Just to be thorough, you can see from the chart below that no other team in the organization's history is worthy of being involved in this discussion.
|The Brief, Underwhelming History of the Charlotte Bobcats|
|Record||Winning Percentage||Net Rating|
This is a two-horse race, and one thing could wind up determining a winner.
It's not exactly fair, but we tend to value the tiny sample of a playoff series over the long haul of the regular season.
As I mentioned, that 2009-10 team was unceremoniously swept out of the postseason. So if this year's Bobcats could conduct themselves a bit better in April, they might earn the distinction as being Charlotte's best group ever.
Right now, the 'Cats are staring at a less-than-promising first-round matchup with the Miami Heat. That's not a successful proposition for anyone, but the Bobcats have been uniquely vulnerable against the defending champs.
They've lost all four meetings between the two squads this year.
There's hope, though. Charlotte is still within striking distance of the No. 6 seed, which would mean a matchup with the Toronto Raptors—assuming the current standings otherwise hold up. That's where things could get interesting.
Toronto isn't nearly as dangerous as Miami. Plus, the Bobcats have gone 3-0 against the Raps this season. A playoff upset would definitely be in the cards if Charlotte could move up to the No. 6 position in the East.
It it manages to win the first playoff series in franchise history, it'll be fair to call the final edition of the Bobcats the best.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of NBA.com.