Can the Charlotte Bobcats Ever Be Elite?

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Can the Charlotte Bobcats Ever Be Elite?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

By now, with just over two weeks left in the 2013-14 NBA regular season, we have a pretty good idea of what the Charlotte Bobcats are. They're a solid playoff team in a weak Eastern Conference, one built around the superb scoring talents of third-tier MVP candidate Al Jefferson and a smart defense, crafted by new head coach Steve Clifford, that ranks among the league's 10 stingiest on a per-possession scoring basis (per NBA.com).

We can also assume (rather safely) that Charlotte's step-forward-of-a-season won't net it much more than a couple of home playoff games at Time Warner Cable Arena (a.k.a. the Cable Box) and a quick first-round ouster at the hands of either the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat; the 'Cats lost two of three to Indy and were swept in four meetings with Miami this season.

But that's still a massive leap for a team that's qualified for the postseason just once in its lone decade of existence. Two years ago, the 'Cats went 7-59 during the lockout-shortened season, setting a new NBA record for worst single-season winning percentage. Last year, they jumped to 21 wins...which was "good" enough for the second-worst record in the league. Fast forward to today, and you'll find a team that's won 35 games, with nine still to go.

That trend would seem to put the 'Cats on the up-and-up, just in time for next year's long-awaited return of the Hornets nickname to the Queen City.

Assuming, of course, that things don't turn out like they did the last time Charlotte made the playoffs, when the front office was all but forced to scrap an old, expensive squad and start over from scratch.

But to what point in the NBA's ever-shifting hierarchy might the 'Cats' current path lead them? Could Michael Jordan eventually contend for a title as an owner with anything resembling the core of players, coaches and organizational assets that he has in place?

 

Where Are They Now?

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The road to the top taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder would appear to be out of the question for the Bobcats. They've already done more than their fair share of bottoming out, and have thus far been "rewarded" with a slew of draft-day projects, for whom the future is far less certain than it once was for the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the earliest taken of any of Charlotte's draftees since its last playoff appearance. His jumper still has more hitches in it than a trailer park, even after months spent working with 'Cats assistant and noted shooting specialist Mark Price.

As Price recently told Grantland's Zach Lowe, whatever progress Kidd-Gilchrist made on his jumper was essentially washed away by a broken bone in his left hand earlier this season. "Once he got his left hand back, he reverted right back to what he’s used to doing," Price said. "That left hand causes all the problems. It’s going to take concentrated time and effort this summer to get rid of those bad habits."

Indeed, MKG has a lot of work ahead if he's to polish himself into something resembling a competent NBA offensive player. That doesn't mean, though, that the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft is yet a bust or that he will be later on. He's still about six months shy of his 21st birthday.

More importantly, Kidd-Gilchrist brings plenty of value to aspects of the game other than shooting. He's a rangy rebounder who can get to the rim and the free throw line, be it off the bounce or on a cut. On the other end, he might already be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, with the freakish length, quickness and overall athleticism to pester most wings into submission.

Admittedly, "most" is the operative word here. He was on the wrong end of Carmelo Anthony's 62 and LeBron James' 61 this season. A few extra pounds of muscle here and there would surely help Kidd-Gilchrist against bigger, brawnier forwards in the future.

Warts and all, Kidd-Gilchrist might anyway pan out to be the best of Charlotte's recent picks, which says as much about MKG as it does with those whom he's grouped.

Jeff Taylor had the makings of a rotation-caliber swingman as a rookie, but his shooting tailed off precipitously in year two before an Achilles injury put him out of commission back in December. Such a setback bodes particularly poorly for Taylor, for whose style of play athleticism served as the backbone.

Kemba Walker has emerged as a solid point guard, albeit one with shoot-first proclivities whose size (6'1", 172 pounds) leaves him vulnerable on the defensive end. He's a tough kid, though, and he's not afraid to take contested shots late in the game if needed. 

Walker's certainly more valuable to the 'Cats than his 2011 draft mate, Bismack Biyombo. The Congolese big man is exceedingly young himself—he turns 22 in August—but his game has shown little progress through his first three years as a pro, particularly on the offensive end. He may develop into a more useful player in time, but for now, his place on the fringes of Clifford's rotation is apropos.

Cody Zeller's about five weeks younger than Biyombo, but is already light years ahead of him on the offensive end. Of course, Zeller's scoring average (5.6 points) and field-goal percentage (.410) would suggest otherwise. Even so, there's hope that the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft will be better equipped to show off the full range of his abilities after his rookie season, at which point he'll be more familiar with the speed and feel of the NBA game along with its myriad challenges and demands.

For now, Charlotte's ceiling will only go as high as MKG, Walker, Biyombo and Zeller are able to push it. Big Al appears to have topped out as a 20-10 guy. That's great for him and has been a tremendous boost for this club, but it hardly qualifies him for the role of go-to guy on a future championship contender.

Gerald Henderson appears to have topped out as a reliable role player. The same goes for Josh McRoberts, for whom that seemingly modest label qualifies as a surprise, given his previous bench adventures in Portland, Indiana, L.A. and Orlando.

As decent a team as general manager Rich Cho has put together in Charlotte, it's not one that has anything close to a clear route to the title. None of the Hornbobnetcats' home-grown prospects project as All-Stars, much less the franchise cornerstones around whom most championship foundations are constructed.

Simply put: the NBA is a superstar-driven league, and unless you have at least one top-10-to-15 player on your squad or caught lightning in a bottle like the Detroit Pistons did in the early-to-mid-2000s, you're not going to so much as sniff the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

 

Better Bobcat Blueprints

Bob Leverone

The good news for folks in the Carolinas is that none of this dooms the 'Cats to perennial middle-of-the-pack status, a la the Atlanta Hawks since 2008.

(Though, in light of all the incentives, fiscal and otherwise, that attend even run-of-the-mill playoff qualification, topping out in Hawks territory might not be so bad, especially for a once-and-in-some-ways-still-fledgling franchise like Charlotte.)

The 'Cats need only look to the upper-echelon successes of small-market teams in Indiana and Tennessee for a way off the "treadmill of mediocrity" without striking it rich in the draft, Beverly Hillbillies-style, as OKC did.

The Memphis Grizzlies managed to sneak their way into last year's Western Conference Finals and are currently within spitting distance of their fourth straight playoff berth, despite having suffered quite a bit of misfortune on draft day over the years. 

In 2008, they took Kevin Love at No. 4 before swapping his rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for those of O.J. Mayo at No. 5. The following year, the Grizz selected Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2, ahead of James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry, to name a few. In 2010, they added Xavier Henry at No. 12, when Larry Sanders and Eric Bledsoe were among those still available.

Draft-day flubs are tough for any team to overcome, even more so for those in smaller, less free-agent-friendly markets like Memphis and Charlotte. The Grizzlies' biggest signing in the last five years? Tony Allen.

Even the 'Cats have the Grizz beat in that regard, thanks to Big Al's contributions this season. It may help that Charlotte is the nation's 25th-biggest TV market, whereas Memphis ranks 50th on that same list, per Nielsen.

Without good draft picks and much in the way of major free-agent additions, the Grizzlies have come to rely on trades to upgrade their roster—and even some of those have failed.

The Love-Mayo swap aside, the Grizz got rid of a young Kyle Lowry in a deal that brought back Adonal Foyle, Mike Wilks and the pick that became DeMarre Carroll. Last season, Memphis dumped much of its bench (i.e. Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and Marreese Speights) on the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a first-round pick tossed in as sweetener, in exchange for Jon Leuer and salary savings that would come with the subsequent Rudy Gay trade.

Of course, the deal that sent Gay to the Toronto Raptors was one of several that worked out in Memphis' favor. They all but stole Zach Randolph from the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009, sending only Quentin Richardson back to California. This season, the Grizzlies snagged starting 2-guard Courtney Lee from the Boston Celtics for Jerryd Bayless and a pair of second-round picks.

Even the much-maligned swap that saw Pau Gasol join the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2008 netted Marc Gasol in return.

And it's not as though the Grizzlies have struck out on every plum pick they've had. They made Mike Conley the No. 4 pick in 2007, and have since seen him develop into one of the better two-way point guards in the NBA.

The moral of the story? You don't have to be perfect to become a contender. You don't have to nail every pick, win every trade or make all of the smart free-agent signings. Nearly any team can blossom into a veritable postseason threat, so long as some of its moves pan out at the right time.

 

Feeling a Draft

Kent Smith/Getty Images
From left to right: GM Rich Cho, Cody Zeller and president of basketball operations Rod Higgins

The 'Cats don't have the All-Star bigs that the Grizzlies boast. Nor can Charlotte's current club lean on the collective experience that's carried Memphis through tough times in 2013-14.

What the future Hornets do have, though, is room for improvement. They'll have a modicum of cap space with which to flesh out the roster and/or facilitate trades this summer. 

Of greater interest, though, are Charlotte's upcoming draft considerations. Their own 2014 first-rounder will belong to the Chicago Bulls by way of the Tyrus Thomas trade from February of 2010.

That doesn't mean the 'Cats won't have their chances to scratch in a draft that's expected to be as deep and talented as any in years. Barring a collapse in Rip City, the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round pick will belong to Charlotte as penance for taking Gerald Wallace off the 'Cats' hands in 2011. Portland's pick figures to fall within the last six-to-10 spots of the first round, depending on how the Blazers finish up.

Historically speaking, the 'Cats can't expect to get much more out of that pick than a solid role player, per 82games.com

Not that there aren't exceptions. Look no further than the Indiana Pacers, who nabbed Lance Stephenson with the 40th overall pick in 2010 and Miles Plumlee with the 26th pick in 2012. Stephenson's now a key cog on a title contender, while Plumlee's the starting center on a surprising Phoenix Suns squad that's currently ticketed for the playoffs.

Expand the window ever so slightly, and you'll see that Indy's done well at No. 17; Danny Granger (2005) and Roy Hibbert (2008) both emerged as All-Stars from that slot, though Hibbert arrived in the Circle City after a draft-day trade with the Toronto Raptors.

This year's incoming crop could feature any number of intriguing talents among the final 10 slots of the first round. Portland's pick may well put Charlotte in position to add, say, T.J. Warren, a 6'8" scorer who took home ACC Player of the Year and second-team All-American honors at N.C. State, Adreian Payne, a versatile big man out of Michigan State with a sturdy frame and a polished inside-out game or Kyle Anderson, a 6'9" point-forward out of UCLA who can do a little bit of everything on the offensive end.

That pick might not even be the best one that Charlotte has coming its way. The Detroit Pistons owe the Bobcats a first-round selection for taking on Ben Gordon's contract in June of 2012.

(The salary savings accrued by the Pistons therein were spent on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings last summer. Hooray for Joe Dumars!)

At present, the Pistons pick looks likely to land in the mid-to-late lottery. In this year's draft, that spot could net any number of tantalizing prospects—from Indiana's Noah Vonleh and Arizona's Aaron Gordon to Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein—depending on who declares and how the order shakes out.

The Pacers made similar hay in that territory four years ago, when they took a wiry kid by the name of Paul George out of Fresno State with the 10th pick. All he's done is develop into Indy's best player and one of the top two-way competitors in the NBA, behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

The 'Cats shouldn't get too cozy with that pick, though. It came with top-eight protections in 2014, and if the season ended today, the Pistons would keep it by the hair on their chinny chin chins.

In that case, the pick would roll over to 2015, wherein it would belong to Detroit only if it was the very first. Charlotte, then, can all but count on getting that pick from the Pistons next year.

Which might be to the soon-to-be-Hornets' benefit. After all, the Pistons are facing an offseason of shakeups. They'll be in the market for a new head coach after firing Maurice Cheeks in February. Given how poorly the team has performed for the better part of a decade, Joe Dumars' job could be on the chopping block as well. Throw in Rodney Stuckey's unrestricted free agency and Greg Monroe's foray into restricted territory, and the Pistons could be in for a chaotic couple of months. 

Such drastic changes don't usually portend immediate improvement, either. Just ask the Denver Nuggets, who went from 57 wins in 2012-13 to out of the playoffs this season after losing their GM, their head coach and their best player last summer.

For Charlotte, this could all result in prime draft real estate in 2015, when the talent pool may be plenty rich in its own right. 

 

Crown Town Chronicles

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Who knows? Maybe the Pistons will stink to Charlotte's delight. Maybe Detroit's pick will yield a young star. Or maybe the Hornbobnetcats will flip that pick for a proven commodity before June of 2015.

And let's not forget about the people put in charge of orchestrating the players as they see fit. If Steve Clifford could engineer a Coach of the Year-worthy turnaround on fundamentals alone, imagine how much better the 'Cats might be once he's introduced more wrinkles to the team's schemes on both ends, with a roster that's had more time to gel.

The point is, the Bobcats have plenty of options at their disposal for upgrading the team beyond the cosmetics of a name change, however well received. They have young talent in house right now and the potent combination of picks and cap space with which to add more in the years to come.

Whether that all pans out for Charlotte will depend on the same balance between smart management and dumb luck to which all 30 NBA teams are subject, regardless of market size or brand prestige. The fortunes of the Grizzlies and the Pacers are far from typical, but they do serve as somewhat realistic anecdotes for Charlotte to study.

We may know who the Bobcats are at this very moment, but the possibilities for who the Hornets could become are at once mysterious, intriguing and, for those long-suffering fans in the Tar Heel State, downright exciting.

 

Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina...or on Twitter.

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