Who's laughing now?
The Charlotte Bobcats.
Well, not really laughing. Not on the outside. That's not their style.
We're not laughing now. Not at them. Not me, not you, not anyone. That's what matters. That's all that matters.
That, and their most recent triumph.
Let that sink in. Munch on it for a second. Really devour it. Then digest it.
This is the same walking punchline that's been reflexively dismissed—even this season—for basically its entire existence. But look at them now. They have future outside losing, a semblance of hope to move forward with.
Everything has changed.
You have to start somewhere, and the Bobcats started with Al Jefferson.
When Big Al first signed in Charlotte, some of us laughed. Those who weren't fans of expensive lateral moves probably even cried. Paying Jefferson $40.5 million over three years wouldn't mean anything.
Turns out it's meant everything.
In a vacuum, Jefferson has done everything you would expect him to do. He's averaging 21.7 points and 10.6 rebounds on 50.5 percent shooting. No surprises there. Jefferson immediately became the Bobcats' best player upon signing with them. His per-game numbers were always going to balloon into something resembling what they were during his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Unlike the Jefferson-led Timberwolves, the Jefferson-powered Bobcats are headed for the playoffs.
Signing Jefferson has been great for this team. He's given them a post presence and No. 1 scoring option not named Kemba Walker. He's given them name recognition they didn't have before.
As Bleacher Report's Dylan Murphy explains, he's also given them workable defense:
With Jefferson this far into his career, it doesn't seem like he will suddenly morph into a great defender. But in limited situations he can be more than serviceable, and it's on the Bobcats coaching staff to bring that out.
Thus far this season, we've seen that happen. His deficiencies have been hidden, his strengths accentuated and a Bobcats team that should be nowhere near the playoffs will put up a decent fight against the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs.
Like Murphy notes, Jefferson will never develop into an elite defender. It's just not in his DNA. But when you add stellar post defense to an expansive offensive repertoire, you're going to get results—playoff results.
The Bobcats are by no means a dangerous offensive team. They rank 23rd in offensive efficiency and 25th in effective field-goal percentage, per NBA.com (subscription required). Yet, that's kind of the point.
Last year, it was the same story...only worse. The 'Cats ranked 28th and 30th in offensive efficiency and effective field-goal percentage, respectively. Jefferson has strengthened their attack, even if only slightly, acting as a nice complement to Walker while allowing Gerald Henderson to become the more Gerald Henderson-friendly third option.
At the risk of over-simplifying things, all good teams start with a star. The Bobcats didn't have a star. Not an established one.
Now they do.
And look what's happened.
Defense and Steve Clifford Go Together
There's defensive transformation, and then there's what the Bobcats have undergone.
Credit rookie head coach Steve Clifford with completely overhauling Charlotte's prevention methods, turning a matador defense into a—can't believe I'm actually about to say this—functioning means of protection.
One year ago, the Bobcats ranked dead last in defensive efficiency and 27th in opponent field-goal percentage. They were a mess. This season, it's been different. Really different.
The Bobcats rank sixth in defensive efficiency.
Ahem: Sixth. That's a 24-spot swing. It's also insane. They rank sixth in opponent field-goal percentage as well.
It's no coincidence their departure from laughingstock status has coincided with their defensive mutation. Ill-equipped offensive teams can survive in the Eastern Conference so long as they play defense (see: Indiana Pacers). This heavy reliance on one side of the ball isn't ideal, but it's not a joke either.
How is this possible?
This reliance wouldn't be able to exist without him, without what he's done.
Think about it. He wasn't given the ideal personnel. The Bobcats still aren't the ideal team. Their top-three scorers—Walker, Jefferson and Henderson—aren't lockdown defenders. This goes beyond individual talent and delves into the intricacies and effectiveness of Clifford's system. He's implemented something players believe in.
That belief is something CBS Sports' Matt Moore touched upon in February:
But there's more going on here than wins and losses. It takes more than that to rebuild a franchise like this. Consider that last season, with nearly the exact same roster, the Bobcats finished dead last in points allowed per possession. This season, with their only major addition being on the offensive side in Al Jefferson, the Cats are sixth in points allowed per possession.
The offense is a long ways off. But watching the Bobcats, you see something you haven't seen before. Discipline. Effort. A consistent commitment to what they want to do. Clifford says that's all part of building the culture.
The Bobcats' defense, their ceiling has changed because, quite simply, the culture has changed.
Forging an Identity
No one thing is responsible for the Bobcats' swift ascension.
No one player, no one signing, no one adjustment. Their uptick in potential is a combination of everything, the results of which are invaluable.
Securing a playoff berth only prolongs the inevitable, setting up a first-round matchup with the Heat or Pacers, both of whom are opponents the Bobcats will likely fall to. Best-of-seven series leave little room for upsets. The better team traditionally prevails.
But that doesn't matter. This season isn't about winning championships. It's about changing things. And they've changed everything.
Plus, the Bobcats aren't going to be an easy out. Not like before. They're no longer pushovers, they no longer represent guaranteed victories for opposing teams. They've finally forged an identity, finally escaped their lottery-finishing, cellar-dwelling nightmare.
What is the Bobcats' playoff ceiling for this year?
That identity, that defensive integrity will make for some competitive postseason basketball, be it against the Heat or Pacers. There may not be a series for the Bobcats to win or an opponent to for them to upset, but there could be a win here, a win there, each victory, however small or inconsequential, leading them further and further away from the dismal franchise they used to be.
"You're not going to change things overnight," Clifford told Moore. "But we've developed a culture of work, of rebounding, of toughness and playing smart. That's what I feel good about right now."
Work still needs to be done, but the Bobcats have every right to feel good.
On the backs of Jefferson, Clifford, defense and oft-overlooked diligence, they've finally made it back to the playoffs. They're finally relevant. Finally fielding something they can build on.
Finally in a place where hope isn't false and the immediate future isn't grim.
Who's laughing now?
Not even the Bobcats.
There's nothing funny, nothing insincere about what they're doing.