On Tuesday, Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson became the first player in franchise history to win Eastern Conference Player of the Month, this after a spectacular March in which he averaged 24.7 points and 10.6 rebounds in helping secure his team’s second playoff berth in 10 seasons.
Welcome though the honor certainly was, Jefferson’s impact on the Bobcats franchise goes well beyond mere PR glitz.
Indeed, given a few more years of hindsight, we may well look back on Charlotte’s 2013-14 as the season its fortunes shifted for good—and for the better—thanks in large part to the man in the middle.
Playing lead actor in this basketball comedy of errors: none other than arguably the greatest to ever lace up a pair of Nikes, Michael Jordan, who in 2010 became the first former NBA player to become majority owner of an NBA franchise.
While it’s impossible—considering it’s attempting to crack .500 for just the second time in its history this season, there have been plenty—to pin Charlotte’s problems on any one factor, the team’s lackluster performance in the draft, where they’ve routinely been in the top 10, can’t be ignored.
Granted, some of the Bobcats’ more recent picks—Gerald Henderson, Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller in particular—have shown considerable promise and potential staying power.
But as Bleacher Report's Josh Martin recently pointed out, Charlotte's latest crop of prospects must make a huge leap if the team has any hope of contending as currently constructed:
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.
Indeed, to have so many pitches down the pipe with nary a short-porch home run to show for it—at a certain point it’s worth wondering whether management really knows what its doing.
Apparently, Jordan got the message. Or claims he has, anyway. In a story published in ESPN The Magazine before the start of the 2012-13 season, Ryan McGee illuminates how the ultra-competitive Jordan has lately taken a backseat to his basketball brain trust, led since 2011 by respected analytics advocate Rich Cho.
In order to win basketball games, Michael Jordan has removed himself from the equation. He's promised his front office staff that he'll let them do their jobs without his shadow looming over their war-room marker boards. More unlikely still, he's handed over the reins of the Bobcats to a next-generation GM, armed with high-level metrics, to do for Charlotte what he helped do for Oklahoma City -- and in doing so, salvage Jordan's flagging basketball reputation.
Cho, with a sterling front office background that included stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers, may have gotten the rock rolling on Charlotte’s transformation. But it might well be Jefferson we eventually credit for throwing it into higher gears.
While few at the time outright lambasted the Jefferson signing (three years, $41 million being eminently reasonable—even if it was the biggest payday he was offered) you couldn’t help but wonder whether the Bobcats were merely making a splash for the sake of, well, making a splash.
Grantland's Zach Lowe broke down Charlotte's often weirdly winding road map for franchise improvement, exploring how—having narrowly missed out on the pick that eventually became insta-superstar Anthony Davis—the Bobcats erred instead on the side of, well, refusing to be terrible.
So, Charlotte entered last summer with a choice: stink again and play for the 2014 draft, allegedly the richest in a decade, or accelerate the process by signing a quality free agent. Al Jefferson was the Bobcats’ target, and the choice his signing would represent inspired serious debate. The discussion wasn’t just about basketball. The Bobcats weren’t sure if they could afford to be terrible again.
That's not to say the signing was a slam dunk, however. For all of his offensive gifts—deft feet, decisive moves, with an all-around game that harkened to skilled centers of yore—Jefferson’s defensive shortcomings made him seem an awkward fit for the D-first philosophy heralded by first-year head coach Steve Clifford.
But owing to the influence of Clifford and longtime assistant Patrick Ewing, Jefferson has turned in his best defensive season to date, having registered a defensive rating of 101 as of this writing, per Basketball-Reference.com.
The rest of the Bobcats, it seems, have taken comparable note: After finishing dead last in overall defensive efficiency a season ago, Charlotte has trended in the top 10 in that department for most of this season, ranking eighth in the league as of April 1, per ESPN.com.
Might it be that Jefferson knew exactly what he was signing up for? Judging by a recent article by CBS Charlotte’s Steve Reed, in which both Clifford and Jefferson lend some insight into the Cats’ feel-good turnaround, the latter wasn’t interested in merely padding his bank account:
I thought this could happen for us if we worked for it. I couldn’t tell you when I signed that we were going to be here in a playoff run, but I knew that if we locked into what coach (Clifford) wanted us to do and committed and dedicated ourselves to this team, that we were going to have a chance.
Attributing Charlotte’s change in culture to any one individual would, at this point, almost cheapen the team’s accomplishments.
Indeed, amid all of the ethical hand-wringing over the issue of tanking, the Bobcats—backed as they are only by a 2014 first-round pick belonging to the similarly playoff-bound Blazers—have done what we expect of our fledgling franchises: lift up the bootstraps and improve.
Accepting the NBA landscape for what it is, it might take years before we start talking about Charlotte in the same breath as Oklahoma City or Indiana—two similarly small-market teams that have managed to manipulate the nuances of the NBA’s financial structure to succeed in an increasingly star-driven league.
But if Jefferson and Clifford’s influence point to anything, it’s that these Cats might finally be ready to graduate from bad punchline to potent conference upstart.